Behind the Song: Olney Hymnal #92

For most of my time in Nashville, I've been a part of a church that's closely connected to a music collective/movement called Indelible Grace, which focuses on setting old hymns to new music to re-accessible-ize the texts and their theology and depth and beauty.  Also, the church I've been a part of has historically had a lot of musicians in it (go figure), and they sometimes sing songs for worship that have been written from within the congregation.

A few years ago, some folks at my church had a workshop day for anyone who wanted to come over and work on re-writing hymns together.  We gathered and talked a bit and then broke out into pairs and groups to spend a bit of time being creative together, no strings attached.  Old hymn books weren't necessarily printed with music--they were just texts in meter and rhyme that lent themselves well to musical settings.  One of those collections is called the Olney Hymnal, which contains hymns by John Newton ("Amazing Grace") and William Cowper.

My friend Neal Carpenter found a hymn (#92) that was a telling of the story in Mark 5 about the man called Legion.  I've never seen a hymn quite like it--a narrative hymn with each verse telling the next part of the story.  Neal came up with the melody.  (I might have made a comment here and there, but honestly, as a "co-write," I was really just in the room at the same time.)  Later on, I tweaked a couple words and inverted constructions for consistency (you can see the original text here).  It might not necessarily lend itself to congregational singing, but I think it could still fit in a worship service setting in the right context.

As for the music, with the fairly static chord structure and laid back tempo, I envisioned some sort of drum loop element, which Chris Payne skillfully put together (I think goat toenails were involved?).  I also heard a specific melody line in the turns between verses--to be sung as well as played on a baritone guitar that I borrowed from a friend (hinting at a bit of a western twang).  And of course, Neal had to sing BGVs for this one.

The long outro of the song is one of my favorite parts of the whole record.  I asked Zach Vinson (piano) to channel some Over the Rhine for that section, and I envisioned it as something of a duet with the electric guitar (Ben Gortmaker, tasteful throughout, as always).

I love the way the story comes to life in this hymn.  A full narrative arc.  Different characters addressing each other.  Insights into human nature (and my own heart) along the way.  There's an immediacy to the memory, and an urgency for him to share the story:  "Come here, a little closer.  Let me tell you about something amazing that happened to me.  Legion was my name by nature..."