My wife once went to a folk festival in Canada where a French-Canadian singer talked about a folk song she’d recently discovered that she wanted to sing for the audience. She then launched into “The Water is Wide“, doing a lovely rendition of a song that the vast majority of the anglophone folk fans in that audience already knew well.
Music lovers who get together from different backgrounds often have similar experiences. I grew up singing Catholic hymns in the US, while my wife grew up singing in a Protestant church in Canada. Often, when attending services with our families, we’d encounter hymns that were an old favorites that everyone in the local congregation knew but that were completely new to the visiting spouse. In some cases the hymns expressed a theology that was more compatible with one church’s doctrines than the other’s. More often than not, though, the songs could have been sung in either church without compunction, but they simply had arisen in one community and not crossed over to the other one.
I was reminded of this the other day when looking for hymns from 1923 that will be joining the public domain shortly. Searching online, I came across lots of references to “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, a hymn taking its title from a verse in the Book of Lamentations, with words by Thomas Chisholm and music by William Runyan. Popularized by the Moody Bible Institute, and spread internationally through its use in Billy Graham’s crusades, the song has been printed in dozens of hymnals, was featured on The Voice, made the Billboard charts as recently as 2015, and has multiple Youtube performance videos that have over a million views.
I hadn’t heard of it before this month (though my wife had). Having heard it now and looked over the music, I find it a lovely song that could be sung just as easily in a Catholic church as in a Protestant one. Indeed, Lead Me, Guide Me, a Catholic hymnal emphasizing African American musical traditions, includes it in its second edition. But that’s the only Catholic hymnal I recognize on Hymnary’s list for this song, and I don’t often see that hymnal in the whiter Catholic churches I’ve been to.
Nine days from now, this hymn will join the US public domain, along with thousands of other songs with renewed 1923 copyrights. At that point, it will become much easier for it to spread across communities, when everyone in the US can freely copy the sheet music, sing it in public and on records without a license, and arrange and adapt it for their own communities as they see fit.
Maybe you’ll introduce this or other new public domain arrivals to new people. If you do, even if it’s something familiar to most other people you know, I hope you’ll treat the new audience as members of what Randall Munroe calls the “lucky 10,000″. Don’t let yourself or your audience miss out on the fun.
2019 update: Link to sheet music of “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, now in the US public domain, as published in the collection Church Service Hymns (1948). Scanned copy courtesy of hymnary.org.