Sheep Music

by Kate Bluett

Recently, my husband and I wound up hanging out with some Charismatics.  (Yes, there are Charismatic Catholics.  Yes, they claim to speak in tongues.  No, I’d rather you didn’t ask.)  Part of this meeting (I swear, it was supposed to be a "seminar") involved the singing of "praise and worship" songs.  These are not hymns, per se, since everyone knows that hymns are old and boring ("everyone" being a rather relative term).  These are, for the most part, Christian-themed top-forty-type tunes (I once heard this referred to as the "Jesus is my boyfriend" genre).  You know, soulful young men strumming guitars and singing about Things That Matter A Lot. (A Whole Lot.  Reeeeaaaalllly A Lot.  My Lord.)

Unfortunately, it seems that the singing of "praise and worship songs" brings out the worst in me.  Oh, the suppression of giggles.  Oh, the comments that must not be spoken aloud.  Oh, the snarkiness.  (Moi?  Snarky?  Never.)  There was one song, though, that was so giggle-inducing that I had to stop singing and just clamp my mouth shut.  This song committed the Handel mistake.

There’s a chorus in Handel’s Messiah in which everyone shouts, "All we LIKE SHEEP… All we LIKE SHEEP… All we LIKE SHEEP had gone a astraaaaaayyyyyyyy…."  You have to hear it (or, better yet, sing it) to believe it.  It’s hilarious.  And it’s an example of the egregious prosody that makes me loathe Handel.  But Handel has an excuse: He was not a native English speaker.  He can be forgiven for not mastering the subtleties and nuances of commas.  The line of course, sans music, reads, "All we, like sheep, had gone astray."

The praise and worship writers have no excuse, though.  So when they write a song that combines the Handel mistake with an unfortunate pause, I have to clamp a hand over my mouth to keep from shrieking with laughter.  I’m sorry, guys, but my imagination is way too active.  So when you give me a pause after the line, "When we like sheep," I just want to know, "What happens when we like sheep?"

When we like sheep…

…sheep like us?

…we get out the mint jelly?

…PETA has a snit?

…had gone astray?

Oh.  Right.  That would be the answer.

Come on, guys.  English prosody.  The art and science of writing verse that isn’t wholly ridiculous.  If such talentless hacks as John Keats and Percy Shelley could master it, you can, too.

9 thoughts on “Sheep Music

  1. As a lover of both hymns and high energy praise and worship I have had a few chuckles as well as groans myself. However, I wonder why you choose not to put the specific composer on the spot. As written, your call to attention lacks teeth. – Thanks for writing!

  2. Honestly, it’s just that I don’t remember who wrote this one (it wasn’t a name I recognized) and this group collects their song booklets each night, so I can’t bring one home for future reference.

  3. Ah, another “the music I like is better than yours.”
    Some praise and worship music is bland and worthless, but there are some hymns that fall into that category as well.
    The Body of Christ is a diverse organism. Sadly, many folks want everyone to be alike.

  4. Anastasia–
    Keats was a two-note poet (the notes being art and death) who did not have a great ear for the rhythm of his words. I get very tired of him very quickly, and reading something as long as “Ode to a Grecian Urn” or “Eve of St. Agnes” drives me batty.
    Shelley simply didn’t have an ear for words themselves (“Bird thou never wert?” Come on, Percy!), besides the fact that he was rather an ass to everyone he ever met. When it comes to the Romantics, give me Byron any day. Heck, I’ll even take Coleridge over Shelley and Keats. I even prefer Wordsworth!!!!

  5. Barry–
    I’m sure there’s good praise and worship music out there. However, I keep coming up againt the “Jesus is my boyfriend” tyoe. And since Jesus isn’t my boyfriend, that music doesn’t go down so well with me. Care to make any recommendations?
    You’ll notice, too, that I knocked what is considered one of the greatest Christian masterpieces–Handel’s Messiah. Frankly, I dislike Handel as much as I dislike Keats and Shelley. So don’t get the impression that I’m trying to make everyone listen to my staid, boring, old hymns. I’m not. I just prefer decent poetry in my music, something neither Handel nor the p&w I’ve heard has much of. Again, I’d welcome recommendations if you’ve got them.

  6. Kate,
    I’m sorry you can’t see it, but Handel definitely knew what he was about in the Messiah chorus that so amuses you. I doubt it would be an easy matter to set “all we, like sheep, have gone astray” to music in such a way as to communicate the commas to the listener without entirely sacrificing subtlety.
    But the subtlety elsewhere in the chorus is the real point. Handel uses the music to “paint” the words: e.g. when the choir sings “astray,” the music modulates recklessly (as it were); on “turned” (as in “we have turned every one to his own way), the singers execute melismas also called “turns”, etc.
    Above and beyond all this, however, is the setting of the text as a whole. “All we, like sheep, have gone astray,” is deliberately set to music that is carefree and joyous, and the listener is drawn into this mood–as though he needed reminding that “enjoying the pleasures of sin for a season” can seem great fun. The climax of this section, with the chorus declaiming together, “We have turned every one to his own way,” is really almost defiant and has one in mind of the only-too-prevalent postmodern doctrine of radical autonomy. But immediately after this pronouncement, the key changes to minor, the volume drops to pianissimo, and the chorus laments (first in canon, then homophonically): “and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” The vision of the Passion crashes in on the happy-go-lucky “autonomous” sinners of the moment before, and they realize the (pardon the pun) grave consequences of their attitudes and actions.
    The effect on the sympathetic listener is absolutely devastating.

  7. Darren–
    I don’t doubt those effects. However, the composer needs both words and music to make his point. Handel did pretty well for a non-native speaker, but he didn’t quite have English rhythms figured out, and his music suffers for it.
    Or maybe it’s just that I’ve never managed to listen to Handel sympathetically (with the exception of the Water Music). His vocal works leave me cold.

  8. I don’t think Handel spoke English at all. The lyrics were given to him to write music to them. You can hear a lot of accents on the wrong syllables in the Messiah.

Leave a Reply