Because I really, really like words, I enjoy reading about what inspired a speech, a novel, a work of art, or a hymn. An overheard conversation, a sighting, a “chance” meeting, one moment in time – within all lie numerous possibilities when an artist grips them and works more volume into the inspiration.
Here’s how a beloved old hymn was borne of a casual remark, in fact it ushered from an old cliché. Joseph Philbrick Webster, an accomplished musician, enjoyed composing music for the general population. Born in 1819, he grew up in the east, where he was a member of the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, Massachusetts (a musical society founded in 1815. Sill in existence, its original creation was to perform old and new music).
As many young men in his day, he migrated until he settled in Elkhart, Wisconsin. There, he met up with a Doctor Bennett, whose hobby was writing verse. For years, they partnered in writing songs for the general public, Dr. Bennett wrote the lyrics and Mr. Webster wrote the music. Because his medical practice kept him busy, Doctor Bennett didn’t produce any much verse as Mr. Webster would have liked, and the lack of lyrics often left the composer Webster without employment and personal gratification.
At these times, Webster tended to get melancholic with short bouts of quiet and sadness until he paired his tunes to more of the doctor’s lyrics. Many such days found him arriving at the doctor’s office, hanging his violin and hat on a peg and warming self by the potbellied stove in hopes that the doctor had produced more verse.
On an autumn day in 1867, Webster walked into Bennett’s office. Out of habit he hung his hat and violin on the peg. Seating himself, he said nothing. The doctor immediately recognized from his friend’s gloomy disposition that he was depressed again, “What’s the trouble now?”
“Oh nothing,” Webster answered dismally, “Everything will be all right by and by.”
Dr. Bennett went to his desk where he wrote prescriptions and said aloud, “By and by. That sweet by and by.”
The two friends looked at each other with that knowing look that says we may have something here. Dr. Bennett picked up his pencil and paper and began to write. While he wrote, two other men from the town dropped in to chat and joined Webster around the potbellied stove. Within half an hour, Dr. Bennett had written three stanzas and the chorus of a hymn.
Webster plucked his violin from the peg and in less time than it took the good doctor to write the inspired words, Webster had his tune. The four men formed a quartet and sang the new hymn, and within an hour of Webster uttering the casual cliché “by and by,” a hymn was born. Webster’s melancholy fled as the lyrics fed his soul and his composer-work restored his purpose in life.
Here’s a stanza, “There’s a land that is fairer than day, and by faith we can see it afar; For the Father waits over the way to prepare us a dwelling place there.” I wonder how many times Webster’s casual remark has been sung over the years? How many times has it brought comfort (strength)? “In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore; In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.”
Working with likable people. When music lifts up your soul. The comfort of a friend. As we approach the Thanksgiving Holiday, watch for those times when acts of charity come your way in singles, duet, trio, or even quartet. The apostle Paul encouraged his readers to give “thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Especially take the time to give thanks when conditions arrange something better than you expected -- when the cliché becomes music.
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