April 25, 2008

Old Songs….(Sketch #8)

Category: News — Ira @ 6:36 pm


“Sing again, with your dear voice revealing
A tone of some world far from ours…..”

—Percy Bysshe Shelley

I hear them sometimes still, in my dreams. The beautiful haunting lilt of their soprano voices, echoing through the old farmhouse in the slanting deep-orange rays of the setting summer sun.

The lyrics are clear in my mind. “Come home, come home, it’s suppertime.” “Hold fast to the right.” “I’ll wade right in, to the River of Jordan….” And many, many others.

My sisters singing. They sang always. They sang openly, joyfully. For any reason or none. While cooking meals, doing dishes or doing the laundry. While milking in the barn or raking the yard or working in the garden.

They sang from the heart. To lift their spirits, I suppose. And ours.

In Aylmer, singing in four-part harmony was strictly verboten. Melody only. Because people might become proud and puffed up at how beautiful their voices sounded. That would be a sin. Couldn’t chance it. Wait to get to heaven to hear perfect singing. Meanwhile, bear the cross below without complaint. And stifle your natural voice to conform to the “no harmony singing” rule.

All singing was a cappella. No instruments. So it had always been. The forefathers had rejected musical instruments. What they proclaimed and decreed was gospel, about equal with the real one. Seemed to me that whatever the current leaders didn’t like and wanted to forbid was always conveniently blamed on the poor forefathers, who of course were never present or able to defend themselves. If all I ever heard about them is true, they must have been a dour humorless lot.

But I digress. Back to the musical instruments. Anyone caught with even so much as a harmonica was in serious trouble. No musical protégés have ever emerged from the Aylmer community (with the possible exception of some of the Marner boys, and they moved away at a fairly young age).

Even so, songs and singing were an important part of life. Early on, when very young, we were taught short simple German hymns. We belted them out in our childish voices with gusto:

“Ich bin klein.
Mein Hertz macht rein.
Sol niemand drin vohnin
Als Jesus allein.”

My father, too, sang in his rich mellow baritone. Of an evening, when the smaller chil-dren were tired and drooping, he swept them onto his lap, and rocked them to sleep on the old hickory rocker on the living room floor. His deep, quivering controlled voice boomed the tender crooning verses of “Sweet and Low” as the children drifted off.

He told me once that he had lulled all his children to sleep when they were young, singing “Sweet and Low.” Not a single child ever stayed awake on his lap through the final stanza.

But the most memorable songs, as anyone raised Amish will attest, are the songs sung in church. Mournful, slow, pondering, mellow, beautiful, melancholy, swelling and eter-nally long. And stiflingly boring to the youth.

Kind of like Gregorian chants, but unique in flavor and tone. It takes real skill to lead one.

Most Amish churches use the “Ausbund,” a collection of German hymns in continuous use now for longer than any in the world.

The tradition of long, slow chanting songs began centuries ago, before the Amish church even existed. We listened wide-eyed to the tales. From the time when our Anabaptist forefathers were burned at the stake by the evil Catholics. Guess they had reason to be dour.

They sang hymns as they were led to the public square and later as the fire crackled at their feet. As they sang, the story goes, the wicked worldly bystanders danced to the faster upbeat hymns. Stopping only after the flames and heat extinguished the song. To combat such blasphemy, our plucky forefathers developed the much slower tunes. So slow that dancing would be impossible.

I have never been able to verify that such dancing actually occurred. But it made for fascinating legends. I believed them for years.

Leading a song in church is an honor. All men are asked to lead at some time or other. The gifted lead perhaps a bit more frequently. If a man lacks ability, he is excused.

One Sunday many years ago, when I was very small, a young married man had some serious problems while leading a song. He kept getting stuck, his chant drifting up when it should have dropped down, and stopping abruptly in mid-syllable. The other men all pitched in to help him out. It sounded like the great roaring of bulls. Around the second verse, the young man simply gave it up. His voice faded hesitantly into silence. The house was deathly quiet. He coughed and cleared his throat.

“Maybe someone else can take it on,” he quavered, hanging his head in shame.

Someone else did. It was the only time in my memory that such a thing happened.

For years after that, when my siblings Rhoda and Nathan and I played “church,” the song leader among us would stop suddenly, wavering, and coughing and whooping dramatically.

“Maybe someone else can take it on,” he would gasp, clearing his throat and looking stricken.

One of the two remaining members of our little “congregation” always chimed in, taking the lead. And on we’d go, singing gibberish in loud tuneless voices. Children playing what they had seen and heard.

Of all the old slow church songs, the Lob (pronounced Lobe, which means praise) Song is the unquestioned king. It is always the second song sung at every Amish church service everywhere, in all communities. A good honest rendering of the Lob Song will take up to twenty minutes. In some of the more conservative communities, probably longer. For four verses of seven lines each.

“O, Gott Vater, vir loben Dich.”
“Oh, Lord, Father, we praise thy Name..”

The first syllable, “OOOoooOOOooo,” is stretched into a long wailing fluctuating chant by the leader. The congregation joins in after the first syllable of each line.

We always looked with keen interest when a stranger attended church, because he would be asked to lead the Lob Song. It was established protocol. We judged the man, as we judged company at home on ability to lead in prayer, on his ability to stretch out the first syllables of the Lob Song. And on the tone and quality of his voice.

Years ago, before my time, in Aylmer, a stranger attended church one Sunday. At Nicky Stoltzfus, the preacher’s place. The stranger was from a very conservative, backwards community (probably had a mustache, even). No name was ever attached to the tale, so he remains anonymous. As was customary, he was asked to lead the Lob Song. He agreed, quite humbly, I’m sure, and promptly launched into a long, slow drawn-out “OOooOOoo.”

One of the youth suddenly had to “go” out to the barn. He got up, walked out, did his business and returned to his seat on the backless bench where his peers sat, gaping. The stranger was just finishing the first syllable of the first line. He’d stretched it out for the several minutes the youth was outside.

The stranger’s name was not legend, but the story was. I wasn’t there, or was too young to remember, so I can’t testify to the actual truth of the tale. The details may have been exaggerated just a bit. But I’d guess the Lob Song took about forty minutes to sing that morning.

I’ve led it. In church. At least a dozen times. I remember the first time. The elder, David Yutzy, announced the page number, 770. He swiveled on his bench to peer sharply at all the youth seated on the back benches. I knew my time was coming at some point soon. I scrunched over and looked at the floor. David scanned and scan-ned. He knew who he was looking for. His gaze settled on me.

“Ira,” he said in a low voice, but loud enough for all the room to hear.

The time had come. I could refuse. No one would say anything. Or think badly of me. But I could do it, I knew. I’d sung the Lob Song hundreds of times while doing chores in the barn or working in the fields when no one was listening.

I chose to do what most did the first time they were asked to lead.

“Start it,” I mouthed in a whisper.

Not much of a singer himself, David got someone else, either my father or Old Gideon, his dad, to start it. I sweated. If it was too high, I wouldn’t be able to stay on track. I’d “get stuck.”

Whoever started the song got it right. The right tone, the right pitch. Not too high, not too low. Everyone roared lustily through the first line. We reached the end. A split second of silence. My throat was dry, my hands clammy. And then I heard my own voice, strange and a bit shaky, rise and fall and soar again, leading the next line. Stretched out long, but not too long. I’d gotten it right. I didn’t get stuck. I could do it.

And so I did. All four verses. For the next fifteen minutes.

By the second verse, my tremors subsided. By the third, my shaky voice firmed, booming out boldly and confidently. By the fourth, I was an old, experienced hand, adding the occasional ornamental twist and flourish. Could’a done it all day long.

The old church tunes are integral to Amish heritage, history and identity. I don’t miss them, or much of anything else from that lifestyle. But I think of them sometimes. And even hum a line or two.

It’s all part of who I was. But not who I am.

If plans hold, I will once again hear the old church songs this coming Friday, May 2nd, at the wedding of my niece, Luann Yutzy and Larry Yoder. It will be good to hear the old wedding tunes. And the Lob Song.

It will be good to sing along. To enjoy the melody and the ornamentation. I may even get to hear my father lead.



  1. As far as I know at least most of your sisters still sing…Some of my most treasured childhood memories include my mom’s singing–

    Even tho I am not able to hear them in the same way, I still hear the sweet notes in my dreams and whenever I have the privilage of a visit.

    She used to teach us bits and pieces of her old German favorites so we could sing them for Doddy and Mommy when we made the long trek to Iowa.

    I also remember the very first time I brought my guitar into an Amish home (at the insistance of aunt Rachel) :) I really kept thinking someone was going to come in and “catch” me.

    Comment by Dorothy — April 25, 2008 @ 7:21 pm

  2. Ira,

    After not writing for awhile, I am thinking of a few things that I have been mulling over recently.

    I do enjoy your observation on church singing. I have been in enough OOA church services to have heard the Lob Lied many times. Our church, OORB, sings a cappella, but a little quicker. Our songbook does have the Lob Lied, all four stanzas, in English. When someone has asked for that song, we can finish it in about four minutes.

    I am sometimes amused by the Democrats (other times terrified that supposedly over educated people have about zero understanding of how a modern economy works. They have the same understanding that a physics ignorant person has when they jump off the Empire State Building and wonder if gravity still works. Yes it does, you can contemplate curved space-time until you stop at 42nd St.). They are a party united by “progressivism”, “care for the down trodden”, etc. They actually appear to be united by elitism (horrors, I thought their Politically Correct days in college attacked that, must have been the elitism of the Republicans), envy (look in the list in Exodus 20, covetousness (envy) is right there at the end) and identity politics. Look what happens when the woman meets the African-American man. Instead of “celebrating our differences”, they are tearing the Democratic Party apart with identity politics. It is interesting how the real intents of the heart immerge in the heat of the crisis, especially in the Clinton (Rodam, whatever). Bill Clinton had built up a reputation for the past seven years of being a SENIOR STATESMAN (think Jimmy Carter). This campaign has torn up that legacy (looks like the Nobel committee needs to wait another decent interval before giving Bill a life time achievement award in Stockholm). If it was not that possibly one of these two economically dangerous demagogues could actually be President of the United States on January 20, 2009, I would be rolling on the floor in a fit of laughter.

    Global warming just took a possibly ominous turn recently. We have been increasing atmospheric CO2 since the start of the first Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s. Whether that addition of previously sequestered CO2 to the carbon cycle is dangerous is still debated in the popular community although the science community has settled on that it is dangerous. This past week an astrophysics scientist from NASA (Australian born, naturalized American astronaut) pointed out what could be a really Inconvenient Truth. He said the obvious, the new sunspot cycle has not started yet and the sun is free of spots right now. I notice this when I have been on the air with my HF amateur radio; the long-range airwaves are dead (solar disturbances are needed to ionize the right layers in the ionosphere to refract the radio waves back towards earth). He stated that all of the global warming since the early 1930s was erased this past winter (namely the average earth temperature receded to the average temperature of the early 30s). As I thought of this story, I remembered another from about 20 years ago. Canada had built a neutrino detector in the deep granite of one of the western provinces. Neutrinos are sub atomic particles that come out of nuclear reactions. The scientists of that time were puzzled why the sun was not kicking out neutrinos. They thought that the experiment was flawed and that further study and refinement would correct the error. I never heard anything after that short story. The skin crawling reaction to this old piece of news is that the sun generates its heat from several thermonuclear reactions obtained at its core from the awesome heat and pressure found there (hot fusion, a hydrogen bomb operates the same way, slamming two heavy hydrogen nucleus together to yield helium and a lot of E=mc2 energy). Well, one sign of a healthy thermonuclear reaction is a lot of neutrinos. What happens if the reactors are off now? What if increased solar power output in the recent past (the real cause of global warming?) has expanded the sun enough to shut off the core thermonuclear reactions? Geology and historical climatology (a science that usually supports global warming) tells us that periodically, sudden ice ages sweep the globe. Usually sudden to a geologist is something that took 1,000 years to happen. However, this sudden is about ten years. There has been speculation that possibly these ice ages were caused by the sun going quiet, even the thermonuclear reactions shutting down. This would be a normal fluctuation in solar power, possibly dropping solar output 10 percent until the contracting sun (if it cools a little, its gravity pulls its surface towards its center) relights the reactors as core pressure increases. Ten percent does not seem like a lot but the sun is the 800-pound gorilla of life on earth. A ten percent excursion is probably an extinction level event. So, even a two or three percent reduction in solar power output is a BAD THING. So instead of immediately worrying about how your pickup and Al Gore’s house are going to bring the tropics to Calgary (that is a city in Canada), our prayers should be that some sunspots show up real quick and the neutrino factories inside the sun get busy.

    Ira said in his comments last week about government meddling to Be Afraid, Be Really Afraid. If the solar power output is sliding into a minimum, yes, be REALLY AFRAID. You can grow food in tropics that used to be the southern United States. You can’t grow food in the one-mile thick ice field that used to be Iowa.

    Next time I may write about happier topics such as how leveraged debt securities can unleverage and shutdown the US economy by making credit disappear or how a progressive credit collapse can rapidly step an economy into a deflationary depression.

    Comment by Mark Hersch — April 25, 2008 @ 9:49 pm

  3. Thanks Ira, for another interesting post that took me back in time to the days when I listened to those songs & sang them myself believing anything sung at a faster pace had the possibility of sin. Had not heard them in years until my Dad remarried, not sure what it is, but hearing them sung (chanted?) brings back a flood of memories and after a while had to check to make sure I wasn’t wearing gallusses!

    Comment by John — April 25, 2008 @ 10:49 pm

  4. A couple of years ago I sneaked a tape recorder into the wedding of one of my nieces and recorded most of the singing/chanting and the first message preached which was done by my brother-in-law. Up until the present very few in the family know what I did, but one of these days or maybe years the timing will be right dig out and confess my “sin” without being marked as some Amish in Holmes County have tape players, etc.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — April 26, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

  5. Comment from your cousin:

    I was similarly enthralled and romanced by the Greyhound bus (Feb. 29th blog) as an Amish boy. Recently, I hoped to ignite a hint of this excitement in my 18 year old son. I encouraged him to take the Greyhound bus with his friends to Orlando. Didn’t work. To Alec and his friends there was no magic. Just a dull ride on a bus in the company of scary misfits about to decompensate.

    Comment by Amos Stoll — April 26, 2008 @ 11:00 pm

  6. To Mark:

    It was interesting to read your comments and am sure the the science was legit etc, etc,. Call me simplistic, but I wonder how such a scenario fits in with the promise of summer and winter, springtime and harvest until the end of time? I always enjoy your mini-lectures; keep them up.

    By the way, did you see the ad in the ‘Smithsonian’ magazine and a couple other places for a book called ‘Null Physics’? This guy claims to have discovered how quantum physics relates to relativity, and a whole host of other startling claims. Is he legitimate, and if so, could you kind of break it down for the rest of us?

    Comment by jason yutzy — April 28, 2008 @ 5:41 pm

  7. Jason,

    If we were to experience a solar minimum and the ice sheets did extend south, they would not reach to the equator. South of any ice sheets, we would still have the four seasons. Think now of the Artic and Antartic. Those regions only have winter now. If the ice sheets moved south, the line between winter only and four season climates would only move south from the North Pole and north from the South Pole. Earth may have lived through a solar minimum in the 17th and part of the 18th centuries. It was called the Little Ice Age. The story of Hans Brinker’s silver skates takes place during that time. The canals of the Netherlands froze solid and deep in winter. This does not happen today because the Gulf Stream keeps Western Europe warm.

    Comment by Mark Hersch — May 2, 2008 @ 10:37 pm

  8. Followed the link from ‘Amish America’ to your blog – your description of singing is entertaining. My parents left the OOA when I was quite young but we grew up going to Amish funerals and weddings. I love to hear the singing. Nothing else is all that appealing but the singing is haunting.

    And I love to quilt… nothing like a good old ‘gluckin’ to get caught up on anything that’s going around!

    Comment by Anita — November 24, 2008 @ 4:21 am

  9. Your story about “O Gott Vater” was very interesting! I recently sang this song with a Mennonite choir during our tour of Old Mennonite churches in Germany and Switzerland. here’s a link to the song, (we only did one verse!!)


    More old Mennonite music at http://mmchoir.hopto.org.

    Thanks again for the great story!
    – Jesse

    Comment by Jesse — February 17, 2009 @ 12:42 am

  10. I wish you wouldn’t mock old voice singing. It’s much easier for converts to learn than four part harmony, doesn’t require one to be able to read music etc. and has many other advantages including being better suited to contemplative singing. That has nothing to do with why Amish people sing that way, but it has a lot to do with why it should be continued. Here is a puzzle I don’t understand. Why is it always the first thing to go when churches get worldly? Why is it that ex-Amish are so embarassingly provincial about their culture of origin?


    Ira’s response: Dude. If you think I’m mocking “old voice” singing, then you should probably stop reading my blog. Nothing I can say will get to you. I have nothing but the deepest respect for that part of my heritage. Embarrassingly provincial? You and I exist on different planets. Thanks for reading my stuff, although in the future you might want to think long and hard before posting a comment. These comments don’t go away. They will be here as long as the blog is here.

    Comment by Earl — May 4, 2011 @ 10:32 pm

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    Comment by Alta — January 1, 2013 @ 7:08 pm

  12. I’ve heard bit and pieces of Amish song along the way. You’re right in saying it’s much like Gregorian chants. My sister gave me a CD years ago of Gregorian chants. I guess she got sick of it. I can only take it for about five minutes then it starts getting to me. Annoying me. Maybe it reminds me of my Catholic school days too much.

    These days Christian music is pretty much mainstream except for the lyrics. There are a few songs I enjoy-that touch my heart. Otherwise, I mainly listen to Moody Talk Radio. I still like my rock-n-roll station, though. Certain Blondie, Grace Slick, The Moody Blues, Super Tramp, and other such songs that slip my mind right now, provide enjoyment.

    Have a wonderful day.

    Comment by Francine — July 21, 2014 @ 11:33 am

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