While lifting weights, or balancing on one foot, or twisting to touch my lifted knees to opposite elbows in exercise classes at the gym, I never noticed Leonard Cohen’s lyrics to “Hallelujah”, a CD our instructor occasionally played. When I heard it in church recently, the words sung were clear and beautiful. I noticed that the writers included a female name. Until then, I just knew it was an intoxicatingly beautiful melody and included the word “Hallelujah” over and over. Apparently Kelley Mooney’s parish priest in Prince Edward Island, Canada was similarly intrigued and misled. He asked Kelley, a great singer, if she would perform it at Mass. After all, how can you go wrong with the Hebrew word for “Praise Ye the Lord” over and over? Kelley said she’d consider it. When she looked up the lyrics, however, she realized that Cohen’s lyrics were definitely inappropriate for Mass. Kelley, born in Boston, but raised in Canada, is a talented singer/songwriter in the country style by night and a Canadian government worker by day. So in her spare time, she worked up new lyrics covering the story of Christ’s passion and resurrection while retaining the repeated “hallelujah” refrain. It was her version, not Cohen’s, that I heard in church. It took two years for her to get permission from Cohen to perform her alteration of the lyrics to a more religious message. But finally in 2008 she got the rights. When she performed her version with a choir in 2010, her cousin put it up on YouTube. The performance can put chills down the spine. The recording went viral and was posted on GodTube just before Easter weekend. Kelley has her own website, www.kelleymooney.com, and the website hosting company’s server crashed from all the traffic to see and hear the video. In 2011, she released her CD, “Tomorrow”. The CD was mainly country, but she did include a couple of inspirational works, including “Hallelujah”. After that release, she won the 2012 Music PEI Country Recording of the Year. Sometimes it takes several years to become an overnight success. By spring of 2014, “Hallelujah” was number 3 on Billboard’s digital downloads chart. Kelley hopes one day to be able to be a full time musician. Meanwhile, she lives with her husband and step daughter in Charlottetown P.E.I. and keeps on making music part time.
I have often skipped over women in hymnbooks because I could not tell their gender by the name. This is especially true of Asian women. My friend, Miyoung Kwon, has helped me in trying to identify the Korean names. Of all those names, the most intriguing person is Kim Hwal-Lan, often known by her adopted American name, Helen Kim. She was born in 1899 to family of small vendors in Incheon, Gyeonggi Province. When she was a small child, her mother was converted to Christianity. Eventually the mother persuaded the father to be baptized and they held a ceremony to burn all the objects belonging to the “pagan cults” that were in the house. Christian families were more likely to educate daughters, thus Kim attended Ewha Girls’ School in Seoul. She completed her formal studies in the U.S. where she received a B.A. from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1924, an M.A. from Boston University in 1925 and a doctoral degree in education in 1931 from Columbia University, the first Korean woman to earn a doctorate. Between degrees, she taught at Ewha Womans College and promoted the Korean women’s modernization and nationalist movement in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Her tireless worldwide travels made her an informal ambassador for Korean women and Korean Protestantism. In 1939, she became president of her alma mater. She co-founded the Korean YWCA in 1922. After retiring from the presidency of Ewha, she devoted her life to Christian and social reform, and was awarded 5 honorary doctorates. In 1948, she was appointed as the UN General Assembly delegate from Korea. However, her legacy has been tainted by her pro-Japanese writings and lectures. She encouraged the militarization of students and changed her name to a Japanese one in 1941. But she justified her actions in order to keep Ewha open under harsh Japanese policies. Her actions were consistent with the Methodist church missionary policy to avoid conflict with colonial occupiers. Recently, students at Ewha Womans University have called for the removal of Kim’s statue on the campus.
Kim wrote on many topics, and this included poetry. In 1927 she wrote “Lonely The Boat”, lovely hymn I found in the Methodist and Presbyterian hymnals. This speaks of a sailor alone in a tempest tossed sea seeking help from God. He begs that even a sinner can receive calm just as Christ calmed those in the Galilee Sea. She may have been inspired by her probable sense of isolation and challenge while studying in the U.S., but it seems prescient regarding the tightrope she had to walk during the Japanese occupation.
Maybe Clara Ward was the Gospel equivalent of the Supremes, but the Roberta Martin Singers could rival Clara’s group using both male and female voices. Roberta was born in 1907 in Helena Arkansas, one of six children. She apparently took eagerly to the piano as a child. By 1933, she had become acquainted with gospel music and assembled six young men to form her group, the Martin and Frye Singers. Over time, women were added. In 1936, the group became the Roberta Martin Singers (RMS). In their unique style, each group member sang the song as if they were soloist rather than harmonizing. Thus, each voice could be picked out by the listener. They sang loudly and with drama, making this sound different from the repetitive quartets of the era. Beginning in 1946, they recorded several albums and singles. The one that appealed to me is “He Knows How Much We Can Bear” a hit in 1949. Although Roberta wrote many gospel songs, she was the arranger, producer and copyright holder to this song by Phyllis Hall, of whom I can find no information. Well, after all, Roberta was the star and in fact, had composed over 100 gospel songs under her own name or her pseudonym, Fay Brown. She didn’t restrict her repertoire, and included other writers. Like so much African-American music throughout our history, this gospel song comes out of hardship. I was struck by a recurring theme in this genre. It doesn’t ask for release from difficulties, but instead, seeks help in bearing them, and often invokes God’s Holy Spirit. Just like Mahalia Jackson asked “Lord, Don’t Move the Mountain”, Margaret Douroux asked “Give Me a Clean Heart”, and Magnolia Lewis-Butts asked “Let It Breathe on Me”, RMS asked for strength to “Keep on toiling tho’ the teardrops fall . . . He knows just how much we can bear.” RMS last recorded on 1968, and shortly after that, Roberta Martin died of cancer in January 1969, no doubt bearing up strong to the end.
As Mothers’ Day approaches, I have been thinking of how God is portrayed in women’s hymnody. In ages past, God had the traditional image of father and man. Of course that is so limiting for a being beyond time and space that created all that is. And a father image is only comforting to those who experienced a loving father here on earth. Does the father image speak to those who were abused, abandoned, or neglected by a father or father figure? Recently, some women have written from a mother point of view. Shirley Erena Murray, born in 1931, wrote of God as mother in “Loving Spirit”. She wrote of sharing in bearing and birthing in “Of Women, and of Women’s Hopes We Sing”. But I see the biggest champion of portraying God as mother in the works of Ruth Duck, born in 1947. She has contended with God metaphors in many ways, and for Mother’s Day, let’s look at examples of her mother imagery. “Womb of Life, and Source of Being” almost speaks for itself. We are children gathered into the arms of the source of being. With God, we have a second birth. In “Wash, O God, Your Sons and Daughters” she writes of us as newborn creatures of “your womb”. We are nurtured by God’s milk. All this may help, but somehow, any human imagery of God comes short. A birthing womb is so . . . human. It’s messy and uncomfortable. Maybe that’s not a bad image after all. Still, we seek to find the perfect way to name God, and never succeed, even if we remove the vowels. And “it” is too inanimate for the greatest and only fully animate being. As humans, we keep trying, though.