Our Little Flock

by Matthew Cameron

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Lisette Palmer
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Lisette Palmer Thank you Matthew, I have not listened to all the tracks yet but know I will enjoy them all.
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"The book is commended to Him who alone can give songs in the night, trusting that a hymn book, already the best known to the Editor, may be still more useful to brethren; sure that the Spirit, who alone can indite a genuine hymn, can alone enable it to be sung aright."

—John Nelson Darby, preface to Hymns for the Little Flock (1881)

This is the first volume in what I intend to be an ongoing experiment in autobiographical ethnomusicology. "Our Little Flock" is a selection of some of my favorite melodies from the 1881 edition of the "Hymns for the Little Flock," the definitive hymnal of the Plymouth Brethren as I have known them. It is an exercise not in belief, but in sincere love and appreciation.

The "Little Flock" was painstakingly compiled and curated by Brethren leading light John Nelson Darby, who also contributed the characteristically elegant preface excerpted above. Darby was a serious man of careful intent, who valued rigid adherence to scriptural doctrine far above mere aesthetic virtue.

"The best affections," Darby wrote, "are connected with unscriptural thoughts, and this is a very real injury to the soul." The 1881 edition of the Little Flock was published nearly twenty years after the first great schism divided the Brethren into the "Exclusive" and "Open" factions which still quietly meet in homes and halls around the world today and, while it is very much a product of its time and place, it remains the canonical hymnal of the Exclusive Brethren.

These melodies are not "worship music" or "praise songs," but proper *hymns* to be sung, unaccompanied and unadorned, in a collective voice wherever likeminded believers gather: in the friendly warmth of homes, the chill of gospel halls, the drowsy afternoon humidity of summer camp meetings. I love them for their modesty, their precision, and their dutiful sense of meditative purpose.

There is a reassuring and undeniably peaceful continuity throughout the melodies of the "Little Flock." The music for the earliest of my selections ("Old Hundredth," likely familiar to most mainline Christians as the Doxology) was penned in 1551, the latest ("Sweet Bye and Bye") in 1868. Most of them would have been readily familiar to a broad population of 19th-century American Protestants (and likely a majority of the American public), although very few would now be recognized in an era in which the simplicity of a capella collective worship has been superseded by well-organized "praise teams" and gimmicky "U2charists." This reliance on professionals to do the musical heavy lifting almost certainly makes for an objectively better outcome, but also removes congregational expression onto a performative pedestal which I even today have difficulty recognizing as "worship" in the sense that I have known it.

Melodies are identified within the Little Flock only by the names traditionally assigned to them, and rarely in connection with any specific hymn. I was surprised and a little disconcerted to find that the melody I knew as "Blest Be the Tie That Binds" (sung at my parents' wedding) is traditionally known as "Dennis" (#174), and that "Praise the Savior" (#256)(sung, per her request, at my great-grandmother's graveside) is simply labelled "Acclaim." I have arranged my chosen selections strictly in numerical order, from #1 directly through to #85 in the Appendix.

"Hymns to be used at the Lord's Supper and at Holy Baptism are found in some numbers. Hymns teaching the dreariness of this world and all belonging to it, the full assurance of faith, and the completeness of the Christian in Christ, are strongly represented," a contemporary scholar wrote in his summary of the Little Flock. As the name suggests, the Little Flock is designed for collective use. "Many most sweet hymns," Darby cautions, "are too individual, too experimental, for an assembly." (Texts which Darby deemed less mindful of the assembly were relegated to the Appendix, several selections from which I have included here.)

Most Brethren know the Little Flock as a pocket-sized book of serially-numbered poetry with no written melodies. Since the Brethren eschew instrumental accompaniment, it is left up to a brave soul in the assembly (often, but not always, the same person who has called the hymn) to lead the tune once a number has been called. Given that nearly every Little Flock selection may be sung to more than one melody, singers unsure as to whether a desired tune might work with their selection may consult a helpful metrical index in the back before venturing forth. (It is my experience that your musical mileage may vary in this respect.)

The hymns of the Little Flock do not aspire to the melodic heights achieved by more recently familiar Western liturgical music, and the texts can sometimes ring tinny or excessively florid to the postmodern ear. (For his part, Darby was quick to note that although hymns "should be in some sense elevated, so as not to be mere prose," they were also not poetry—but merely "in the spirit of poetry, though not poetry itself, which is objectionable, as merely the spirit and imagination of man...") But they accomplish exactly what they are designed for, and with an elegance and quiet assurance that is all too rare in 21st century hymnody.

This is, to my knowledge, the first recording of its kind available to the general public. I have done my best to arrange and perform these hymns with a sincere respect for their history and provenance, as well as their unique place within my own life. I hope the listener will sense, and possibly even share, even a small portion of the peace and comfort these melodies have brought me in a lifetime of hearing and playing them.

This modest offering is dedicated with love to my family—immediate, extended, and chosen—and most especially my grandmother Carol Cameron.

Jan. 25th, 2014
East Boston, Mass.

Then we shall be where we would be
then we shall be what we should be
things that are not now nor could be
Soon shall be our own.

—Thomas Kelly (1806) (Little Flock #256 [Acclaim])


released January 25, 2014




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