I’m not sure when I first joined the ward choir, but it was before I graduated from Primary. I come from a musical family (true of many Mormon families and one of our best traits, I think), but my choir joining had more to do with pragmatism than talent or desire. I needed something to do during that extra hour tagged onto the three-hour block during which my grandfather, grandmother or my dad was trying to coax the huge alto section, shrill sopranos (always a few resolute souls who keep trying to hit the G above middle C), the small handful of basses (one completely tone deaf bishopric member, there to be supportive) and two tenors (one of them good) into a cohesive whole. I had already been in several plays and musicals, but I really came to really singing in the ward choir. I loved the anonymity, the group effort, people putting egos and insecurities aside to make a number work. There is something special about being part of group bravery and vulnerability.
It was in the ward choir that I had my first serious encounter with “Come, Come Ye Saints,” one of the best-known Mormon hymns. #30 in the current hymnal, the lyrics were written in 1846 by Mormon poet William Clayton. Clayton wrote the hymn “All is Well” on April 15, 1846, as his Mormon pioneer caravan rested at Locust Creek, Iowa, over 100 miles west of their origin city of Nauvoo, Illinois. Just prior to writing the lyrics, Clayton had received word that his wife Diantha had given birth to a healthy boy in Nauvoo.
“Come, Come Ye Saints” has always been one of my favorite hymns to sing, few hymns seem to capture the Mormon spirit so completely or at its best. The steady beginning building to the gorgeous swell of music and lyrics work together to convey the sense of joy and faith that Clayton wrote about, the beauty of life in spite of difficulties and hardship. In honor of Pioneer Week on D&S, some of the D&S writers have chosen their favorite covers of this hymn:
1. Mel’s Choice: Slender. Says Mel: “I love love love a little rock in my hymns – we always play the Slender’s version of CCYS when we approach Utah on our roadtrips .”
2. Erin’s Choice: Clayton and Brittany Pixton, arrangement by Clayton Pixton. Says Erin: “This version of “Come, Come Ye Saints” replaces a somber pace with driving piano rhythm and really infuses the hymn with urgency and movement. The upbeat tempo brings an exultancy that gives new meaning to the lyric ‘joy’ and ‘all is well.’
3. Claire’s Choice (and mine): David Johansen and Brian Koonin of the New York Dolls as a tribute to Arthur “Killer” Kane. Kane was an original member of the New York Dolls and subject of the fantastic documentaryNew York Doll. Kane joined the Mormon church in 1989. He reunited with the surviving Dolls in 2004, borrowing money from church members to buy his bass back from a pawn shop, sadly dying of cancer weeks after the reunion. Says Claire: “I love that it was a tribute from friends who tried to understand their friend’s choices. I can imagine all of our ancestors wished that those ‘left behind’ would try to understand and wish them well, just as I hope my friends and family do/will.”
4. Heather’s Choice: Gladys Knight and her Saints Unified Voices version. Says Heather: “I like so many of them, but if I have to choose one, I’ll choose the Gladys Knight arrangement. We saw them in Baton Rouge and it was awesome. Just awesome. People were clapping in a Mormon chapel!! Gladys Knight talked about how Mormons don’t usually clap during their worship services. Two African-American women sitting next to us looked at each other like they’d never heard anything so crazy. They hooted and hooted about that. Gladys Knight had to practically force all those white, conservative Mormons to clap and get into the music, but she did it. I also like her because she reminds us that we need to get out of our shells and get INto our music. So much of singing seems more appropriate for a funeral than a worship service. She also reminds us that not everyone in our church is a white, conservative American. Different cultures celebrate and worship in different ways. There’s a great quote in this article:
‘Creating this choir is also the realization of her dream of bringing a new level of passion and cultural awareness to traditionally reserved LDS hymns. “I do love the music in this Church, but I think some of it could use a little zip!” Gladys once told President Gordon B. Hinckley. “Our congregations are filled with a growing diversity of people from different races and cultures. I look forward to the day when we embrace their music without feeling uncomfortable.”’
Lastly, she created this version of CCYS to honor the African saints who joined the church despite not even being able to be full-fledged members (before the priesthood ban was lifted). Wow. That’s hard to imagine.”
5. Last, but not least: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The classic.