The Internet or store-shelf browser faces several obstacles upon encountering this disc. One would be sheer skepticism as to whether members of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, a group dedicated to the cultivation of an art form that came to America from foreign shores, could connect with the pure American hymns contained on the disc. Skepticism may deepen on looking at the back cover blurb, which contains the absurd statement that "it seems that this music might slip into oblivion" -- if anyone had bothered to venture beyond the five boroughs, it would soon have become clear that the music is very much alive in churches like the white-clapboard country edifice pictured on the front. Elvis Presley, for Jah's sake, recorded several of these pieces. The good news is that the performances are straightforward and musical, and anyone who owns the Elvis Hymns album will enjoy this one, too.
The album's "rediscovering old American hymns" subtitle isn't very helpful (or accurate). The distinctive feature of the collection, and one of its chief virtues, is that it focuses on music that, familiar though it may be, has rarely been tackled by professional choirs from the classical sphere, who tend to look farther back in the past to the New England repertory and its Southern shape-note offshoots, or to the African-American spiritual. The music here dates mostly from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it is representative of the strain of white evangelical Protestantism that was neatly summed up by country singer Tom T. Hall in one of his songs: "Me and Jesus got a good thing goin' -- we don't need anybody to tell us what it's all about." The texts are all about absolute confidence in the benefits of direct communication with Jesus and God, and anyone who thinks that this music "might slip into oblivion" should consider how thoroughly such lines as "We are a chosen race/Our God is drawing near" (from "I Want That Kind of Blessing," track 1) have been internalized by figures at the highest levels of American government. The music tends toward 4/4 settings with a characteristic dotted-quarter lilt, but there are a surprising number of triple-meter hymns, perhaps following the pattern of "Amazing Grace," an earlier piece (nicely sung here by soloists) that moved into this repertory. They are, as the cover blurb notes, great fun to sing, and their homespun metaphors for religious experience are often very beautiful (try "Supper Time", track 10, as a sample -- it is one of the most famous of these pieces). The names of the composers represented -- Ira F. Stanphill, P.P. Bliss, C. Austin Miles, and many others -- are not really familiar except to those who scan the credits of country, gospel, and bluegrass albums, but it was their music that filled the big tabernacles of American cities 100 years ago, and their influence is incalculable.
Even if this octet of singers from the Metropolitan Opera Chorus did not grow up with this music, they do it justice. There's a trick to performing the music of ordinary people in a fashion shaped by professional training -- the buyer doesn't want something that sounds like the local church choir, but also won't respond to performances that take the music too far from its roots. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus members get it just right, with a vigorous approach that neither patronizes the music nor lets it drift off into ethereal realms as early music groups may when they tackle American hymnody. Recommended not only to anyone familiar with the numerous iterations of these hymns on country and gospel recordings but also to non-Americans who wish to understand the perfervid variety of Protestantism that has had such a durable presence in American social and political life.