Sometimes, you get stuck playing stuff that you’re not a fan of. It’s not necessarily bad, per se, but it’s the sort of stuff that, for one reason or another, you try to avoid. (Of course, because I’m a professional, I play whatever I’m asked to play, because that’s my job. So you won’t hear me complaining about these when I’m on duty.) I don’t zing songs for theological lyrical issues, generally (I’m not a theologian, so I can’t really tell for sure if something’s bad), but if the words are bad, that’s another story. Here’s a running list of hymns that if I were picking the music (though I generally don’t), I would try not to do:
A Mighty Fortress (Martin Luther): Look, it’s not that he broke off from the Catholic Church, though I had one pastor that wondered why any Catholic would play it (answer: there’s nothing in the lyrics, as far as I can tell, that actually contradicts Catholic teaching). It’s more that the first verse of the hymn almost sounds like he’s praising the Devil (“on Earth is not his equal”).
Abba! Father (Carey Landry): Carey Landry wrote for kids. This is a children’s song. I am an adult. I am not playing this children’s song, which sounds too carnival-ridey to me.
All Are Welcome (Marty Haugen): I don’t have an issue with the lyrics, but the song is agonizingly too long for me and too hard to sing. And the four measures between verses are two measures too many.
All I Ask of You (Gregory Norbet): Can anyone translate this first verse into English? “Deep the joy of being together in one heart/and for me that’s just where it is.”
Alleluia No. 1 (Donald Fishel): If Jesus has risen, shouldn’t we sound happier about it?
Angels, from the Realms of Glory (James Montgomery): I have a feeling I’ll be picking on British hymns a few times, with all love to my dear coworker and friend from across the pond. This one’s the worst Christmas hymn I’ve ever played.
At the Name of Jesus (Christopher Walker): Semi-gospel, semi-country, but a total mess that’s difficult to play. To me, this sounds way too secular-y to work.
At the Table of the World (Carl Johengen): “Hurricane and breath”? Rule: tornadoes, monsoons, hurricanes, gales, and blizzards should be kept out of hymns.
Attende, Domine (Traditional): It’s a song about asking mercy from God because we’re rotten sinners. Why does it sound so happy?
Bread of Life (Bernadette Farrell): Bernadette! I love your work, amiga. And this time, the refrain’s fine. But the verses are jumpy and cram too much into, so I had to shoot this one down when the choir considered doing it.
Come, Holy Spirit (John Angotti): Go listen to “Come, Holy Ghost.” Then listen to this. Which one better illustrates the Holy Spirit’s job? Bingo.
Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life (Ralph Vaughan Williams): Bizarre sounding. Another strike against the Brits.
Common Ground (John Angotti): I feel bad for the dude. This was my first experience of his music, and it’s forever colored me to dislike whatever he does. It’s not even really a hymn (and it’s kind of theologically iffy, as it lurches dangerously near indifferentism), but it showed up in Voices as One for reasons I’m unclear on. As for the melody and rhythm, think Jason Mraz or Jack Johnson, then get lazier.
Gather Us In (Marty Haugen): I’m sorry, Marty. You have good stuff out there. But I hate the accompaniment to this piece, and it’s been done, and done, and done, and done.
Go Make a Difference (Steve Angrisano, Tom Tomaszek): This is the actual refrain: “Go make a difference/We can make a difference/Go make a difference in the world.” It’s sung twice. It shouldn’t be sung even once, because it’s so terribly insipid that it’s virtually meaningless. And what if you don’t want to make a good difference? Stick to Psalm 117, instead.
Go, Tell It on the Mountain (Traditional): Actually, this might be the worst Christmas hymn I do, especially with the 6.5-note jump at the end of the verse. But the kids love it, so I’ll have them do it.
God, Beyond All Names (Bernadette Farrell): No chance to breathe, and a weirdly bad melody. Bernadette, I promise, I love your stuff. Most of the other stuff. Not this one.
Hail Thee, Festival Day (Ralph Vaughan Williams): Awful melody. Awful accompaniment. Unnecessary use of triplets that aren’t good anyway. Awful hymn. Sorry, Ralph.
Here I Am (Tom Booth): I know the imagery of Song of Songs, but nonetheless, I think it’s a bad idea to have God saying, “Here I am, waiting like a lover.”
Hosanna to the Son of David (Dan Schutte): Dan can’t bat 1.000 the whole time. This one might be OK on the piano, but Palm Sunday DEMANDS! the organ starting out. It’s an awful toughie to sing, too. “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” it is for Palm Sunday.
I Send You Out (John Angotti): Too slow and boring for a recessional song. Words are too conversational. Total mess from beginning to end.
In the Day of the Lord (M.D. Ridge): Why are we switching from 4/4 to 6/8 to 4/4 in both the refrain and verse? Why? It makes it a nightmare to try to play.
In These Days of Lenten Journey (Ricky Manalo): Misses the whole point of Lent and is a wholly unplayable, unsingable mess.
Jerusalem, My Destiny (Rory Cooney): OK melody, but the refrain and the song as a whole are way, way, way, way too long. The recorded version skips at least three verses and is still six minutes long. (Note: I know that he intended one verse to be sung each week of Lent, but even then, it’s still too long.)
Lord, I Lift Your Name on High (Rick Founds): Absolutely no content whatsoever to this song. And lyrics like “I’m so glad you’re in my life” are lazy, lazy, lazy. (The version OCP has on its site is Caribbean-themed. Dear heavens.)
Nada Es Imposible para Ti (Sister Glenda): OK as a solo. But not as a congregation piece, because it stuffs way too much tongue-twisty stuff into too little space. As comparison for what happens when you stuff way too many words into too little space, may I offer the Spanish version of “Bein’ Green.” Poor Spanish Kermit.
Pan de Vida (Bob Hurd and Pia Moriarty): Actually, the español solo version is really good. But the bilingual version is a mess. Rule: if you have a song that switches between English and Spanish in the same refrain, neither the English nor the Spanish will sing it.
Shine, Jesus, Shine (Graham Kendrick): I shouldn’t like the refrain, but I do. I shouldn’t like the verses, and I don’t, because they’re too low and not intuitive — the natural feel of that hymn would lead us to a different melody, but instead, you have to train yourself to sing those verses.
Take the Word of God with You (Christopher Walker and James Harrison): It’s a closing song, but it doesn’t sound like one.
We Are Companions on the Journey (Carey Landry): Agonizingly long. Agonizingly weird. Just agonizingly bad, even for kids’ song standards.
We Are Marching (Traditional): Now, this hymn is originally from Africa, and so it has African rhythms, and so it is just fine in Africa. But in the U.S., it just comes across as inadvertently terrible self-parody in the attempt to serve cultural awareness.
Were You There (Traditional): No, I wasn’t.
What Is This Place (Traditional): Never ask a question you can’t answer in one verse. This one takes at least two, perhaps three, depending on how you interpret it. And yes, it’s hard to sing as well.
Your Grace Is Enough (Matt Maher): Uses “yeah.” Fine for concerts. Not for Mass.