Whenever I write about the history of a hymn, I’m usually fascinated by the back story. There is often some twist or coincidence that is very interesting. Today’s hymn is no exception, and if you like history, I think you will agree.
I’ve taught children how to sing a lot of hymns in my various music positions, and I’ve always thought Come Christians Join to Sing is the perfect traditional hymn for children. Although it is over 100 years old, the words are easy to explain and learn. There is the repeated Alleluia Amen they can sing if they forget the rest of the words. And the melody, spanning only a 7th and fun to sing, is a wonderful melody for children!
So I had an “ah ha” moment when I read that the words were originally Come Children Join to Sing. So, yes, the text was written as a children’s song from the very beginning! At some point in the early twentieth century, the words were changed. I assume it is just too good a hymn to relegate only to children. At this time also, Hallelujah was changed to Alleluia.
Then, there is the author of the lyrics, the man who gets all the credit in the hymn books. Yes, he wrote the words, but it turns out there was another hymn with very similar words and the same melody written before Henry Bateman (1813-1899) wrote his text. According to my research, and I admit I’m no expert, Henry Bateman sort of “borrowed” the music and poem structure from William Edward Hickson (1803-1870) when he wrote the words for his children’s hymn, which, with the minor changes I mentioned, we still use today.
William Hickson’s text starts out:
Join now in praise, and sing
This is not to say that Henry Bateman’s poem is not worthy, because the words are very beloved and have been for over 100 years.
There is also the matter of the tune, and here is where it gets more interesting. The hymn tune “Madrid” is said to be a Spanish traditional melody, but I wanted to know more, so I kept searching. What I found was that the tune is indeed a very old Spanish folk melody but I was not able to find any Spanish words.
I did read, however, that a man named Benjamin Carr (1786-1831) heard the Spanish melody and arranged it for piano. Evidently that made the melody popular outside of Spain. A good melody will get around!
Does the name Benjamin Carr ring a bell? You might have seen one of his student pieces in classical music anthologies for children. In fact, he was a piano teacher who wrote music for his students. He was from England, but he came to the US and became very influential in the emerging music community here. We were kind of a musical backwater back then. He started a music publishing company and also performed, composed, and published music of many genres including songs and instrumental music by many composers. He was one of the first music educators here and even published one of the first piano method books in the United States! He seems to be the man who gets credit for popularizing this folk melody.
If that wasn’t enough, there is also this interesting fact about Benjamin Carr. Although he did not compose it himself, he was the first music publisher to copyright a piece of sheet music in the newly formed United States of America, a song called The Kentucky Volunteer.
I arranged this hymn in the key of C to make it easy for beginning piano. If you would like your students to sing it, transpose to another key, such as F. The beautiful art is an ancient English church that dates from the 11th century and was painted by the English artist Steven Underhill.