"Let All Things Now Living"
When I was a little boy, the team of Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass was about to go on a roll, producing Christmas specials, most of them pleasant enough things about Santa Claus: “Lookie what he can do!” cries Yukon Cornelius, as the no longer abominable Snow Monster of the North sets the star atop the Christmas tree.
But one of those specials, in 1968, The Little Drummer Boy, was set at the birth of Jesus, and I had always thought that the song, sung by the Vienna Boys’ Choir, was made up for the show. Just the reverse: a prolific composer of songs and hymns, Katherine Kennicott Davis, wrote it for her own children’s choir in 1941. And it was the same Miss Davis who wrote the now well-loved Thanksgiving hymn, “Let All Things Now Living,” to be sung to the Welsh folk melody called Ash Grove, or, if you want it in Welsh, Llwyn Onn. So, no, my readers, I haven’t really committed the sin of celebrating Christmas before Thanksgiving!
”Ash Grove” — Llwyn Onn — is a sad love song, about how a lad met a girl named Gwen one day while he was roving the hillsides, and he fell in love, but little did he know how soon they would part, forever. If you would like to hear it sung by a Welsh male choir, listen to the second video below. But the melody need not be sad. It can be sung in a lilting and sprightly tempo, and I think that Miss Davis heard it that way, and wrote for a hymn of triumphant thanksgiving. She used the image of the pillar of fire that led the children of Israel in their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, and says that the same light shines forth on our way now, as the light of God in time leads us onward into the light that never fades. The hills, the streams, the mountains, the sun, the stars above all obey his law; they do what God has ordained them to do. Then it is a small step from those things of nature to man, who was made to be the viceroy of the world; we ask too that God, who will not force his will upon us, may guide us and protect us as we go forth toward our end, which is not a tomb, but a song of thanksgiving: “To God in the highest, Hosanna and praise!”
Let all things now living A song of thanksgiving To God the creator triumphantly raise, Who fashioned and made us, Protected and stayed us, Who still guides us on to the end of our days. His banners are o'er us, His light goes before us, A pillar of fire shining forth in the night, Till shadows have vanished And darkness is banished As forward we travel from light into light. His law he enforces, The stars in their courses And sun in its orbit obediently shine; The hills and the mountains, The rivers and fountains, The deeps of the ocean proclaim him divine. We too should be voicing Our love and rejoicing; With glad adoration a song let us raise Till all things now living Unite in thanksgiving: "To God in the highest, Hosanna and praise!"
The meter of “Let All Things Now Living” is what we call anapestic: two unstressed syllables, followed by a stress: da-da-DUM. Often, though, a line in such meter will begin with a simpler da-DUM, as Davis does here. In English, the effect of such a meter is to speed you up, and that means that it’s good for swift and cheerful and light-hearted songs. Sing this one out, and feel that meter hurrying you along!
By the way, in case you’re wondering how to pronounce that Welsh LL, put your tongue in position to make an ordinary L, but don’t let your vocal cords vibrate. Instead, blow a steady stream of air out of your mouth. There! That’s not too hard, is it? And then say WYN as if it were OIN, but with OO instead of O. Now put them together: LLWYN. ONN is easy after that: OHN.
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