One of my favorite Mormon albums of the past few decades from a little-known LDS musician who lived in New York City for a while, Charlotte Smurthwaite. Her mid-90s album, “Lift me,” featured LDS hymns sung in jazz arrangements and her treatments of “Come, Come Ye Saints” and “If You Could Hie to Kolob” are fantastic and are still played regularly in our family. Since then, it seems like new arrangements of LDS hymns in different styles have become an important part of current Mormon music. I hear the Sabre Rattlers’ version of “Come, Come Ye Saints” introducing each Mormon Stories podcast. I believe I’ve even seen such versions on the latest music CDs even from Deseret Book.
I’ve been very pleased to see the rise of such music. And I hope to hear more. As I understand it, when similar versions of hymns first started appearing many Mormons objected, saying that such versions were sacrilegious. Fortunately, I think most of those objections have dissipated, or at least I’m tone deaf to them. But in thinking about these songs, a couple of questions occur to me. First, I wonder why so little of this kind of experimentation has appeared in Mormon literature. And second, I wonder what other kinds of experimentation are possible that we have simply not yet heard or read.
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Recently in a over at the AML blog, William Morris (someone I greatly respect and often agree with) talked about being frustrated by his first drafts because “the language seems so mundane.” Which resulted in one of those sinking feelings on my part — you know, like the one you get when the speaker in sacrament meeting talks about how bad things were when they missed their daily family scripture study, just when you were feeling good about reading scriptures together once last week. Or maybe like how you feel — at least, the way I feel — when I turn on the radio to one of those money management programs that keeps talking about how much I should already have saved for my retirement. But that’s another (though not entirely unrelated) topic.
The point is that I don’t really feel like much of a stylist. Sure, I revise — but it’s not to achieve any kind of lyrical prose effects. Really, I have only 2 main goals: to make my writing quick, clear, and easy to read, and achieve some kind of consistency in my characters’ voices. Those are hard enough.
The more I read of Elder Orson F. Whitney, the more convinced I am that he was the most literary of our modern Apostles. A literary viewpoint influenced much of what he wrote about the gospel in a variety of settings. And his discussion of literary concepts and issues is not only frequent, but covers many of the major concepts that might be considered in a text covering the philosophy of literature.
Today’s quotation is no exception. Here, in a defense of the Pearl of Great Price, he covers two significant issues in literary criticism. First, he weighs in on how to judge literary work, coming up with an answer that is probably not acceptable to most literary theorists today. Second, he emphasizes the individuality of each author’s style (and, perhaps by extension, the necessity of that individuality).