Saturday, April 28, 2018

Deep Water - How a 1959 recording of a Traditional Spiritual Song Inspired the #1 Single of 1970

The Swan Silvertones

Have you ever heard of a song called, Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep? I hadn’t. Despite being noted as “one of the most important of negro spirituals” by music critic and author Dave Marsh, and the fact that it regained prominence during the Civil Rights Movement, this pre-Civil War song is not as widely-known today as the song it inspired.

Even though this song might seem obscure to many of us, Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep caught the attention of a very successful singer-songwriter. He listened often to a 1959 version of the song as recorded by the Swan Silvertones. The lyrics of the song center around the death and resurrection of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus. In addition, it also introduces other Biblical references along the way. 

As a “slave song,” Mary Don’t You Weep also contained messages and references to freedom and hope for those longing for liberation from enslavement. Forty years ago, a certain New York born, Jewish singer-songwriter played this song often and was inspired to weave its simple message of hope into an all-new pop music hymn. Musically, the 1959 tune and #1 hit of 1970 which it inspired, bare no resemblance to each other. However, there is one striking similarity between the two. Buried at the end of the song (and if you don't listen closely, you might just miss it) Oh Mary contains a line which will likely sound familiar to you — “I'll be a bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.”

That one line inspired Paul Simon to write a simple, two-verse “hymn” called, Bridge over Troubled Water. As he wrote it, he knew he had something special. He took the song into the studio. When his partner, Art Garfunkel and producer Roy Halee worked on arrangements for the song, they came back to Simon and convinced him that the song needed to be bigger and that he must write a third verse that would set the song off into a crescendo. Uncharacteristically, Simon quickly wrote the third and final verse of the song right there in the studio. When they all felt that they had achieved what they wanted, they planned to include the song as a cut on their next album release.

But, when Columbia Records president, Clive Davis heard the song, he not only insisted that it be moved up as the title track of the album, he also made sure that even despite its five-minute run time, that it be released as a single. At that time, only a very few songs that long had ever been released as singles. These included Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan, and Hey Jude by the Beatles. A year later, Don McLean would release his eight-minute single, American Pie — likely because of Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Bridge Over Troubled Water received immediate, positive reaction, even before its release. Art Garfunkel and others have reflected upon the fact that in the studio, people stopped what they were doing and became mesmerized by the song. In addition, Simon and Garfunkel performed it live on a handful of occasions before its 1970 release. Despite having never heard the song before, crowd reactions were unusually enthusiastic.

Today and in addition to selling over six million copies and ranking #48 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, BOTW has proved itself as a source of hope for people the world over. Although not intentionally or overtly a “Christian” song, Bridge dutifully and creatively applied the theme of hope which it borrowed from the song which inspired it. Upon hearing the song, one might just begin to believe the promise which first inspired Paul Simon to write it — “I'll be a bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.”

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This post was written from multiple sources, with some details having been stuck in my memory for years. It was fun to compile it all together into one complete theme. I first published this story in April of 2018. So imagine my delight to discover that I got the story right! 

This excerpt from Paul Simon's new, authorized biography covers the same ground as my post, but includes a few other details as well. Feel free to take a look.

Listen to: Oh Mary, Don't You Weep

Sunday, April 8, 2018

A Local Pastor’s Sacrifice Lead to a Book Which Has Never Been Out-of-Print

A Tale to Remember

Can God take one man's spiritual journey, his defeats and triumphs and affect history? Can one man’s rejection by his own spiritual tribe inspire someone else to reach multiple generations? The answer is yes!

Samuel K. Horshour was a Lutheran pastor and educator in the Hagerstown, Maryland area. Eventually becoming president of North Western Christian University (Butler University), he met a few bumps and influenced a few people between here and there. His personal triumphs and the seeds which grew from them would not have happened if he had not made some hard choices right here in Hagerstown, Maryland. His story starts here, but his influence has in one sense gone around the world.

Smithsburg and Hagerstown 

“In the spring of 1828, I received a call to a Lutheran pastorate at Smithsburg, Washington County, Md., which I accepted.…In 1831, I removed from that pastorate, to Hagerstown, the county seat of Washington County, Md.”

Horshour became a respected theologian, giving lectures on the New Testament and so was tagged to counter the arguments of another local minister who espoused what was then thought by some to be unorthodox teaching — that of full immersion water baptism.

Disciples of Christ at Beavercreek

“About six miles south of Hagerstown in a settlement called Beaver Creek…At that time [1834] a "proclaimer of the ancient Gospel" made his appearance in the community; not a scholarly man, but who understood the New Testament pretty well… The "Campbellite proclaimer" produced quite a stir in the communities around…he was in the habit of challenging the "sectarian" preachers to contradict his positions--was ready for a public debate at any time. But no preacher heeded him.”

Although no one felt called to debate him personally, one of his hearers convinced Horshour to take up the challenge.

The Challenge

"'You are the man that can do it, for I heard you once preach on baptism, and I thought you made it very clear that sprinkling or pouring is valid baptism; do authorize me to say to Webb when he throws out his next challenge, that there is a preacher that will meet him…' I therefore resolved to prepare myself well, re-survey the whole subject of "water-baptism," and give the disturber a signal defeat.”

Through much study on Luther and other Lutheran writings, Hoshour discovered that he could not dispute the validity of full-immersion baptism, especially since the word itself means to submerge, immerse, or dip under. Perhaps it is hard for us today to realize the extent of Hoshour’s inner turmoil. That was a different time. Despite the fact that his denomination would not approve of his beliefs, he could not deny his conscience. Instead of entering into debate, he decided to submit himself to full immersion baptism.

The Pricetag

“The report that "Hoshour had been dunked" ran rapidly through Hagerstown…When on Monday morning "I went down town" none of my old Lutheran friends deigned to recognize me…In a short time I received a brief letter from the secretary of the Synod to which I belonged, in these words: ‘Mr. S. K. Hoshour, it is understood that you teach and practice contrary to the doctrine and usages of the Lutheran Church, and that therefore it is hoped that you will peacefully withdraw from the Synod to which you hitherto belonged. J. G. M.’ My reply was: ‘How can two walk together except they be agreed.’”

As his life as a Lutheran came to an end, he returned to New Market, VA for a time and by 1835, ventured West to Indiana. By this time, his wife who had been devastated by the scandal and uprooting of the family, found agreement with Samuel’s decision and she too was water baptized.

A Good Life

By 1836, Horshour became Principal Supervisor of the Wayne County Seminary in Centreville, Indiana. He and his wife ran a bookstore and he led what is now known as a Disciples of Christ congregation.

It was during this time that Hoshour had influence over the children of many of the elite in Indiana. Here is the testimony of one of his students, 40 years later:

“His doctrines were opposed by the other religious denominations, and his usefulness and popularity as a teacher somewhat impaired. But the purity of his life, his ability, and proficiency as a teacher, finally overcame existing objections, and backed up and heartily sustained by the less sectarian sentiment of the people, and by the friends his ability brought him, he became the most popular teacher the old Seminary ever had, either before or since his time.” ~Judge J. B. Julian - Richmond Palladium, 1879

Not only did Samuel inherit a new life in Indiana, his autobiography recounts that he returned to Hagerstown 30 years after he left and was warmly met by members of his old congregation. All this seems a happy ending for him, but there is still more to the story.

Young Lewis and The Rest of the Tale

One student influenced by Hoshour distinguished himself in a way that can hardly go unnoticed even now — nearly 180 years later. As a 13 year-old boy, Lewis was sent to the Wayne County Seminary “because of Professor Samuel K. Hoshour’s great reputation as an educator.” 

Lewis also wrote:

“I can see the professor standing in his door, lamp in hand and bareheaded, dismissing me for the night, with exactly the same civilities he would have sped an official the most important in the state. Ah, the kindly cunning of the shrewd old gentleman! He had dropped a light into my understanding and caught me. So, step by step, the professor led me into and out of depths I had never dreamed of, and through tangles of subtlety and appreciations which proved his mind as thoroughly as they tried mine. Before the year was out he had, as it were, taken my hand in his and introduced me to Byron, Shakespeare, and old Isaiah. The year was a turning-point of my life, and out of my age and across his grave I send him, Gentle master, hail, and all sweet rest.”

Samuel Hoshour had an impact on many of his students, but without his decision amid a great crisis of heart, he may have never gone to Indiana at all. It seems like a scene from It's a Wonderful Life, but in many ways, Hoshour's life was wonderful. The death he experienced brought him a new life and that life touched many others, including the life of Lewis Wallace, otherwise known as General Lew Wallace — the author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

A Novel Approach

Samuel Hoshour began tutoring Wallace in Algebra but quickly realized he simply had no aptitude in Mathematics. Instead, Hoshour encouraged Wallace’s interest in literature.

“He was the first to observe a glimmer of writing capacity in me. He gave me volumes of lectures on rules of composition, English, and style.” This included the writings of John Quincy Adams as well as a copy of the New Testament.

“‘There, read that! It is the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.’ This was entirely new to me and I recall the impression made by the small part given to the three wise men. Little did I dream then what those few verses were to bring me—that out of them Ben-Hur, was one day to be evoked.”

Samuel Hoshour was a catalyst to a story which has never been out of print and has spawned 5 major movie adaptations. Until Gone With the Wind, it was the top selling book in the nation, behind the Bible. It was also the first, but not the last, to wrap a Biblical story within a fictional tale. In a span of 21 years, the stage version of the story was seen by over 20 million. It was written in 1880 and is still relevant today and managed to appear on my television screen just an hour and a half ago. Yet, this monumental book may never have happened if it weren’t for a local Lutheran pastor who dared to follow what he felt God had called him to do.

A Tale to Remember

Many left Hagerstown and the surrounding area for the MidWest in the early to mid 1800s. Many of their stories left and died with them. Some, like this one, are slowly coming back to the surface. The circumstances of Hoshour’s time in Hagerstown may not seem to put our spiritual heritage in the kindest of light, but it is exactly those stories of how individuals persevered and overcame that we should reflect and take stock of what we believe. Today, the controversy of how one is baptized is not the dividing point that it used to be, but we can still draw from the life of Samuel Hoshour today and follow his example of discovering what we really do believe from Scripture, making it count for us like it did for him. We just might end up doing something big, or like Hoshour, inspiring others to rise to greatness.

A Personal Note

I live a block and a half from where Samuel Hoshour lived while pastor in Smithsburg. Knowing his story, being friends with the current pastor of the Lutheran Church, it brings this story ever-closer. The religious tensions of Hoshour's day are gone, but the call to represent this area is not. Samuel Hoshour inspired one of America's greatest authors, but he also inspires me. That's what a tale is supposed to do.