Monday, June 6, 2011

Just As I Am: The Hymns of Ira Sankey - The Hymn Makers

Sankey’s light shines through these hymns

Just As I Am: The Hymns of Ira Sankey
Artist: The Sheffield Celebration Choir, conducted by Jackie Williams
Label: Kingsway
Length: 14 tracks/49:17 minutes

In the firmament of song leaders, Ira Sankey is one of the brightest stars. What Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea were to Billy Graham, Ira Sankey was to the great evangelist Dwight L. Moody. This selection comes from the 1,200 published in Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos, which is still in use today. If these are indicative of his relationship to God, Sankey is to be admired for his affinity with so many classics that include “Trust and Obey,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “It Is Well.”

With so many beloved lyrics, the focus is rightly on the words and singing. The music is understated throughout, most often carried by piano and embellished with strings, and occasional marching drums and trumpet calls. The acoustic orchestration gives this a timeless feel. The arrangements are traditional but imbued with subtle creativity.

I enjoy modern interpretations of hymns, but I like these simple and straightforward renderings, which are one of four CDs released by the label at the same time.

It’s rare to find songs that cover such a wide variety of theology in just a few stanzas. You don’t often hear the triumphant note sounded in “Marching to Zion,” “O Happy Day” and “Stand Up for Jesus.”

“Just as I Am” sounds just like the moving version that ended so many Billy Graham meetings. One of the most fun songs, partly for its childlikeness, and for the way men and women alternate on ascending and descending scales is “Count Your Blessings.”

“Have You Been to Jesus” searches the heart and is evangelistic. You may know it by the common refrain, “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?”

“Shall we Gather at the River,” strongly affirms the future hope for every Christian. Most of the verses are sung by a soloist, which makes the chorus all the more powerful as the choir sings it forcefully.

There is also the dignity and majesty of “Rock of Ages,” here sung acappella, and the comfort of “It is Well.”

Concentrate on the words to these songs, though occasionally they are hard to make out, if you are not familiar with this style of singing. Give yourself a chance to acclimate to what might be a foreign environment to your ears. It can take time to appreciate something different, but the potential rewards are here. If nothing else, you get inspiration and thought that is unique to our contemporary context.
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