Written by Patrick Jarenwattananon from National Public Radio
The band above is the new Dave Douglas Quintet, who we’re webcasting live Wednesday night as part of WBGO’s The Checkout: Live series. The quintet is actually six people: special guest Aoife O’Donovan, a folk and bluegrass singer, joins the band on stage and on the new album, Be Still. The rest of the band is Douglas on trumpet, Jon Irabagon on tenor saxophone, Matt Mitchell on piano, Linda Oh on bass and Rudy Royston on drums (Clarence Penn will play the gig). If you can join us, we’ll be live with video from 92Y Tribeca at 8 p.m. ET this Wednesday, Sept. 19; we’ll be recording if you miss it.
“Be Still My Soul,” above, is the leadoff track from the new album. Perhaps you’ve heard the song before? It’s a fairly popular Christian hymn: “Be still my soul, for God is on your side,” it begins. But it’s also quite likely that if you have heard this tune before, it had different lyrics — or even no lyrics at all.
The original melody comes from a small section of composer Jean Sibelius’ piece Finlandia, written in 1899. Since it was commissioned for a Finnish pride event when Finland was seeking independence from Russia, it has assumed a place in the Finnish national imagination. In 1941, there were words added to the “hymn” section, beginning, “Finland, behold, thy daylight now is dawning.” That hymn is now an unofficial national anthem in Finland, akin to “America, The Beautiful” in this country.
Obviously, those aren’t the only words which go with this melody. “This Is My Song” is another popular rendition, and curiously, the lyrics carry a message of overarching holy governance (above any nationalistic concerns such as, say, Finnish pride): “This is my song, O God of all the nations / A song of peace for lands afar and mine.” An NPR Music colleague says he used to sing this melody as “I Sought The Lord” as a kid in church. And if Wikipedia is to be believed, there are plenty of other lyrics — sectarian and secular — that go with the “Finlandia Hymn.”
“Be Still My Soul” is just one of those versions. The words originally come from a German woman named Katharina von Schlegel, who died in 1768. The English translation comes from a Scottish woman named Jane Borthwick, who died in 1897. Since Finlandia first appeared in 1899, that means the lyrics actually pre-date the melody!
In any event, “Be Still My Soul” was the version known to Dave Douglas’ mother, Emily Douglas. Before she died of ovarian cancer last year, she left her son with a collection of hymns and folk songs to play at her memorial service, this being one of them. Dave Douglas has found some inspiration in them, arranging and rearranging the music for a new band and a new collaborator in Aoife O’Donovan. In a newsletter, he writes, “Far from funereal (!), playing these tunes has become a true celebration for us, and the kind of party that Emily would have wanted.” Be Still the album collects these arrangements and adds a few originals too.
Jazz folks often breathe new life into old tunes. Of course, sometimes those old tunes have seen many lives before any jazz musicians get there in the first place.
As a bonus, here’s another song from the album:
This is “High On A Mountain,” by Ola Belle Reed, a pioneering folk and bluegrass musician from the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. It too has become standard repertoire, at least within the bluegrass community. Reed recorded the song for a 1976 album called My Epitaph, and she talked about the tune for the liner notes (link opens PDF):
I’ve been asked many times to describe my life in the mountains. There’s one point I’d specifically like to make and want to make is that I don’t believe there would be any way in the world that you could possibly describe it. … really and truly we were so close to the earth and the elements and the God’s creation. I think that’s the one thing that made them know. I think that the music and everything comes through communication with people. The people lived with the earth, they had to make their living. That’s why I’m saying that you can not separate your music from your lifestyle. You cannot separate your lifestyle, your religion, your politics from your music. It’s a part of life. And that’s what our music was in the mountains. It was a part of our life.