Sunday, November 22, 2009

We Gather Together: Take This Tune

The Thanksgiving hymn "We Gather Together", Dutch in origin, carries me, around this time each year, back forty years and more, to my days in what we called, back then, elementary school.

In those days, we’d never heard of an atheist named Madelyn Murray O’Hair down here in the red mud knobs, and we still sang songs in school that were from religious traditions, especially around Christmas. This, though, is the one I remember most—possibly because school was the only place I ever heard it sung! Most of the churches around were Baptist and were still using the old greenbacked Broadman hymnals—and this hymn, apparently, was not in that great collection.

Our music teacher was a lovely redhaired "old maid schoolteacher", as the older people still dismissively called those women in the profession who weren’t married and parents themselves—Miss Codella. If I remember right, around Thanksgiving of my second or third grade year, she began teaching us the words:

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing
He chastens and hastens His will to make known. . .

Of course, we had no idea what, exactly, the word "chastens" meant, although we had some vague idea that might be what would happen if you got sent to the principal’s office. And the rhyming word "hastens", we eventually figured out, meant "hurry hurry hurry!!!"

When I hear the lyrics, nowadays, I don’t hear it sung in powerful, unmistakably adult voices. I hear it as we sang it, long, long ago—children’s voices, some of them small but true in pitch, others wandering innocent of key but hearty and loud, with Miss Codella’s church-solemn piano for accompaniment, on the old stage in the elementary school auditorium, with its low stage and heavy, dusty blue velvet curtain.

I remember the stage decorations: lots of autumn leaves made of red and orange and yellow cloth, the brown turkeys in their incongruous Pilgrim hats, pumpkins stolid and plain, with no fancy Halloween carvings, and corn, Indian corn, as we called it, its brown and tan and orange and yellow kernels shining out of dry husks and dry stalks standing tall and straight.

I remember the first graders being seated in front of the stage on metal chairs, their feet dangling and their eyes wide, the second graders behind them, the third and fourth graders filing up the steps to the bleachers, then filing back down.

We always had our Thanksgiving program on Wednesday before getting out of school for the long holiday weekend, and turkey and stuffing for lunch that day, and our mouths watered as the program progressed because the lunchroom was just down the hall from the auditorium and we could smell the food being prepared—frankly, about the one time of year lunchroom food was edible.

This Thanksgiving, the old elementary school has been razed, with only a single annex built many years after I was a student there remaining, small and insignificant compared to the new "primary school" looming nearby to accommodate our large and growing population of kindergarteners through second-graders; third and fourth graders, once part of the elementary school, now attend the "intermediate school" a couple of miles away. (Some of them—Lord help us!--are the GRANDchildren of my schoolmates.) Miss Codella, who finally married and with her husband spent many happy years writing gospel songs, has long since passed away. And this morning I got word that a classmate whom I had known from first grade on—redhaired, easygoing Steve, who sang with us on that stage—has passed away of cancer.

I hear us, today, led by Miss Codella’s soprano, as if the years had not intervened.

The wicked oppressing cease now from distressing
Sing praises to His name, He forgets not His own.

This post is a contribution to Take This Tune, a weekly meme hosted by my friend and fellow music lover Jamie. If you would like to participate, please click on the Take This Tune link. Full instructions will be given there.


  1. Oh that brought back memories. I had forgotten about the Southern Baptist churches and Broadman hymnals. Each summer I would be sent, as in sentenced, to stay with some cousins family in Central California. At the time it was the equivalent of the deep south. Me being me just couldn't keep out of trouble. Standing in choir and throwing in the (in parentheses) "Oh Lawdy" in Deep and Wide. To this day, "We don't sing it THAT way" still rings in my ears.

    Nothing quite like being the city mouse among the country mouse relations.

  2. Katherine,

    I love the new graphic up top.

    I am thinking of the First Thanksgiving at Jamestown, Virginia. I will let you all know if it shakes something loose :)

    Some of my kin came into Jamestown early like William Cantrell/Cantrill. He came into Jamestown in 1607 on the supply ship the Phoenix. Capt John Smith named Cantrill Bay after him...I don't know if he was in Jamestown during the "Starving Time"

  3. LOL--Actually those Broadman hymnals stood me in good stead during my years in a Methodist church choir, though--a time or two we sang oldfashioned hymns that were more in the Baptist tradition than Methodist, and I was the only one in the choir who knew how to throw those little fillips in!

    Alas, the Broadman hymnals--at least in the Baptist churches I've been in of late years, which admittedly aren't many--are no longer in use. The newer ones are, like the latest editions of Methodist hymnals, full of "modern" music that simply doesn't WORK--at least for me, and for a goodly number of backwoods choirs; the songs are impossible to sing for choirs that aren't well-versed in contemporary Christian music, and in many cases the words and music are of poor quality.

    Guess I AM a snob. . .;)

  4. Hi Ree--I took a peek at the link you provided and that sounds like a fascinating topic. Hope something does "shake loose" on it!