This is part 11 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.
“I don’t like church music. It’s boring. There’s nothing to it. It has no life. It’s uninspired. It’s monotonous. There is no joy. There is no life.”
Many of us us who are parents have heard these words or something that is similar from our teenage children. As a pastor, not only did I hear it from my own kids, I have heard it from a lot of church kids too, sometimes even in relationship to contemporary music that really wasn’t contemporary enough (in their defense, many Christian songs sung in churches today are 30 years old or older, that isn’t very contemporary). I once heard a preacher friend say, “old contemporary is actually new traditional.”
I think it safe to say, The words of complaint I opened this post with are not anything uncommon. I doubt it would surprise any of us to hear them.
What would you say that these words didn’t come from a teenager, at least not a teenager of the 21st century. The person who said those words (actually I paraphrased them) was Isaac Watts, a late 17th early 18th century pastor, theologian and lyricist. He said those words, to who else? His father. Who responded with words to the effect of, “If you don’t like the music, do something about it.”
Those words from his father were challenge enough to get Watts to react in a constructive way. He started writing music. At the time, it wasn’t well received. Many people called him a heretic. Others said he was “a tool of the devil (some of us may have heard those words in relationship to some of the music we listened to at one time or another). Though not well received, during his lifetime, Watts wrote more than 600 hymns.
One of these 600 hymns was a song based on Psalm 98. It was to become Watts most popular and well known song. He was inspired by the words of the psalmist, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice and sing praise.” Focusing on this verse and the next five verses, Watts composed a four stanza poem he intended to be sung to the tune of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” he gave the title, “Joy to the World.” It would take awhile for the song to catch on. People in his native England were less than keen on what they saw as Watts rewriting the Psalms.
Fast forward some forty plus years and move across the Atlantic to a part-time church choir director, music teacher and full-time banker named Lowell Mason. Mason didn’t believe he could make a living in music so he worked as a banker but never lost interest in music. He continued to write both lyrics and music. “My Faith Looks Up to Thee” is among Mason’s credits.
In 1836 Mason composed a song he gave the name “Antioch.” He had no lyrics for the tune but three years later he discovered Watts’ poem “Joy to the World” fit his tune “Antioch” perfectly. On the American side of the Atlantic, people were listening and “Joy to the World” became a popular song.
One of the most interesting things about “Joy to the World” is that it is not really a Christmas song. Instead it is a song that could truly be sung at anytime of the year. With the exception of the words, “The Lord is come,” there is nothing about the Nativity in the song. It is unclear why American Christians made the song popular as a Christmas carol.
Another interesting thing about the Watts hymn, more than 2 centuries after Watts wrote the lyrics it inspired a country-western singer name Hoyt Axton to write a new song by the same title that was performed by the rock group “Three Dog Night.” The group released the song in February of 1971.
Several years ago, Cindy, the boys and I were traveling to our parents’ homes late on Christmas Eve after Christmas Eve Candlelight Service at the church I was serving at the time. We had the car radio playing. It was one of those radio stations that plays Christmas music all night on Christmas Eve. As we were listening the Isaac Watts carol with music written by Lowell Mason came on. Imagine our surprise, when in the middle of the song, the chorus of Hoyt Axton’s version was a part of the arrangement. “Joy to the world. All the boys and girls. Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, joy to you and me.”
We were surprised to hear that. I hadn’t really thought about it until just recently. I never knew who performed the song but when I was reminded of it as I was preparing to write this blog I thought I would see if I could find it. I don’t know if it is the same version or not, I really can’t remember and neither could Cindy, but I found a Mariah Carey version. If you would like you can listen to it on You Tube at, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFlxHzFpNUE.
Isaac Watts’ old poem, mixed with the chorus of a secular song. I can’t help but think this music rebel of his day would smile and perhaps nod his head in approval. After all, he was writing about joy.
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.