Thinking Out Loud

May 8, 2018

The Hymns We Sing Meant Something Different to American Slaves

Filed under: Christianity, music — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:23 am

Saturday night we attended the first in what is hoped to become an annual concert series, The Hymns to Freedom Project. The venue was the beautiful Toronto Centre for the Arts; although it was built in the late 1990s, we were seeing it for the first time. The tickets were purchased by our son who wanted to see the concert and invited us to join him.

He became aware of the event after attending a previous concert by the Toronto Mass Choir (TMC). The connecting link is Corey Butler who is Musical Director and who conceived this program, composing and arranging the selections, and conducting a 38-piece orchestra.

The music was often bright and lively, and this stood in contrast to the subject matter: Slavery in the United States. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. were played, including the famous “I have a dream” speech, with the film footage synchronized with the live orchestra.

Four of the selections involved Canadian soloist Jackie Richardson who combined readings with singing. The song “Elijah Rock” had the audience clapping and singing.

But the more sobering theme of the night was never far removed. There was a reference to the gospel song, “How I Got Over” and an explanation of its reference to fugitive slaves escaping to northern states by crossing the Ohio River; but also a reminder that it’s a metaphor for the wider emancipation of black Americans as whole, with the added caveat that this process is incomplete. The accompanying slide show included an images of Trayvon Martin and the more recent image of the black men removed from a Starbucks location just last month.

We were reminded that the “band of angels coming after me” in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was actually a reference to friends on the northern banks of the Ohio (identified as the Jordan River) often signalling when would not be safe to cross and then helping them when it was.

The concert was also the launch project for Zamar Music Productions, a new “not-for-profit organization committed to excellence in music art and performance” in three specific areas: Education, Entertainment and Production utilizing a variety of music styles. (Learn more at

My only regret is that the entire program was quite short. We were told ahead of time that the running time would be 72 minutes.  It should also be noted that from where we were sitting, it looked like almost a quarter of the audience arrived late; strange considering the ticket prices. Also, there were two competing elements here; the songs featuring Ms. Richardson belonging to an entirely different genre than the more classical-styled, instrumental-only songs featuring the full orchestra. That may have been an attempt to appease a more diverse audience.

The next Hymns to Freedom Project concert is scheduled for February in Brampton, Ontario.


  • My wife and I got to sing with the Toronto Mass Choir in a yearly event they do called Power Up and we continue to attend their concerts yearly. I’ve had several conversations with Corey Butler, including a front row seat in Newcastle where I could almost reach out and touch the piano. (You can read my story here.)
  • In another lifetime (for both of us) Jackie Richardson sang with a dance band that did Jewish weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs, for which I was a roadie. Thanks to that experience, I’ve been inside almost every Synagogue in Toronto.
  • The Toronto Centre for the Arts is located in Toronto just steps away from where the April 23rd van attack took place. At the end of the event, Corey Butler dedicated the concert to the memory of those who lost their lives and to their families, and those who were injured. We went for a walk to the memorial after the concert and you can read that reflection here.

December 19, 2013

Simeon: “Now I’ve Seen Everything”

Filed under: Christmas, music — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:58 am

Life is like a box of Christmas ornaments. You never know what you’re gonna get.

I was wondering if I would have time to post anything today, when last night an old friend asked if I would post a particular song on our store’s YouTube channel. The song was the title song on a vintage Canadian Christian album called Simeon by a band called Simeon. So yes, the album, the song and the band all have the same name. The band was the house band at The Master’s Workshop in Toronto, Canada and did studio work for clients during the week and did weekend ministry at Christian concerts.

I was just thinking about Simeon — the one in Luke 2, not the band — just the other day. His speech in Luke 2 is the ultimate, “Now I’ve seen everything.” Eugene Peterson tells the story this way:

In Jerusalem at the time, there was a man, Simeon by name, a good man, a man who lived in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel. And the Holy Spirit was on him. The Holy Spirit had shown him that he would see the Messiah of God before he died. Led by the Spirit, he entered the Temple. As the parents of the child Jesus brought him in to carry out the rituals of the Law, Simeon took him into his arms and blessed God:

God, you can now release your servant;
release me in peace as you promised.
With my own eyes I’ve seen your salvation;
it’s now out in the open for everyone to see:
A God-revealing light to the non-Jewish nations,
and of glory for your people Israel.

So enjoy this song from the early 1980s.

February 11, 2009

Readers Want to Know More about Music Artists: Steve Fee and Steve Bell

Two musical artists mentioned in this blog continue to draw hits to the two posts, even though in one case, I have yet to hear the entire album.    Here’s an encore of both October 2008 posts, beginning with the longer review for Canadian folkie Steve Bell, and followed by the mention of Steve Fee whose “We Shine” song remains, months later, an edgy worship song I think more people need to experience, even though my comment was more a lesson in split screen YouTube viewing, which is probably a disappointment to all those tag surfers who end up reading it.

Canada’s Steve Bell’s ‘Devotion’ – An Album Review

Steve Bell is one of Canada’s foremost Christian music artists, in a sub-genre that might be termed ‘Christian folk music.’   For my U.S. and U.K. readers, the closest comparison I can offer in Christian music is Michael Card.  Steve’s catalog on his own Signpost Music label includes a live album recorded with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, a tribute to the songs of Bruce Cockburn, and albums on which he shares the microphone with his daughter, or other artists on the label.   For my Canadian readers, Steve has played back and forth so many times in this country that he is simply no stranger to many of us.   So it was with anticipation that I looked forward to what was described as “Steve’s first ever worship album.”

The rest of this review is intended to qualify that statement.   This is a different Steve Bell album inasmuch as all the songs were penned by Gord Johnson, a songwriter from Steve’s home church, St. Benedict’s Table, described on its website as, “a worshiping community rooted in an ancient future.”   Gord takes some very simple and sometimes very familiar texts — such as the 4th century prayer which begins, “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open and from whom no secrets are hid” — and makes some very beautiful music out of them.   In the liner notes, Steve explains that they took about forty of Gord’s songs to producer Roy Salmond, with the result being this album, Devotion.   So in some respects, this is not a Steve Bell album, even though it is.

But I’m also not so sure that it’s a worship album in the sense that many reading this would expect.   Most of the songs do have a vertical lyrical orientation, but these are not the simplest songs to adapt and sing in your local church.   (Although, the inclusion of the guitar chords in the lyric book would certainly help facilitate that…)  On the one hand, the melodies and rhythms are not the usual, predictable stuff that passes for modern worship today.   That may be a good thing.   For most churches that I know, these might be more difficult songs to learn.   However, they do sing them at Steve’s church, which makes me think that trying a few of them might be a worthy and attainable goal.

One of our favorites was the second song, Everything We Need, a longer (seven minutes plus) song that is almost chant-like in its execution, and hints at, but never fully maximizes as a two-part song.   (The counterpoints are deliberately muted in the mix, though they are clearly there.)  We thought this song was reminiscent of songs we’ve heard done at Taizé services.  The song Embrace the Mystery is a single stanza of only 17 words, while Who Condemns You Now comprises only 18 words.    Praise The Father, Praise the Son is a  minor melody which bears a resemblance to the pop classic Scarborough Fair.   These are good songs; they are worshipful, but it’s not fair to call this a worship album when the term is usually applied to a ‘certain kind’ of music, and this album is so refreshingly different.

In the end, we started talking about the concept of ‘performance worship.’   There are some songs out there that we, the audience, shouldn’t feel the need to join in on.  We should be able to appreciate what is taking place at the front of the church as being offered as worship on behalf of all of us.   That’s how things were in era before the present modern worship era.   Singers did ’special music’ which often were songs of testimony and often were songs of proclamation of God’s goodness, grace and mercy.

Maybe an album like Devotion is simply the beginning of the next step, the next era in worship.  Perhaps there is a time to allow the better musicians to create something that is beyond the reach of the audience; that we can just sit and enjoy and then say “amen” to.   Or possibly we need to stretch the boundaries of what we sing on Sunday morning and take a cue from Steve Bell, Gord Johnson, and the people at St. Benedict’s Table.

Fee (Steve Fee Band) – We Shine

We shine, we shine, with the light of God
And when we speak, we speak with words of love
And when we dance, we may get a little wild
Cause we’re the people of God, yeah, the people of God

This has recently become one of my favorite worship songs.   Listened to it three times today while doing a couple of hours of driving.

Problem is, I’m the kind of guy who has to have a lyric sheet in my hands while I’m listening — one of the major benefits of the 12″ vinyl album era, but a big downside to YouTube viewing.

Unless you take your cue from ABC Sports and do a split screen.

First, open any web page featuring the song lyrics, such as this one.

Next restore the window and resize it to fit the RIGHT side of your monitor from top to bottom.

Now open another browser, and click on a YouTube, or Vimeo, or GodTube version of the song.   Since I think YouTube (or MetaCafé) opens faster, I chose this one.  (Second time around you could choose this one.)

With the video running on the LEFT side of your screen, click the button for the lyric page you opened which should still be only the RIGHT side of your screen.   Since it opened last, you can page down as the song progresses.   Just think, kids; not that long ago, split-screen was radically new technology.

By the way, it turns out this is a really bad example, because there are several YouTube versions of this song that have the lyrics already superimposed.

Comment added to the February 11 update: If your youth group does Hillsong United songs, you’ll find this one fits right in.   If your church does Hillsong United songs, tell us where you worship, sounds like a pretty rockin’ place.

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