During the 1950s, as a young boy, I would spend a few weeks each summer in the quiet pine-forested town of Wadley, Georgia at my grandparents’ home. Big Mama and Papa Daddy lived in timeless and poised decorum in a brick cottage bedded in luscious azaleas and centipede grass.
Within site of the front porch swing was the white framed Methodist Church, and every Wednesday night we strolled over there for prayer meeting. As a young fellow I had weathered a domestic storm or two, and I craved a serenity and peace which I found in that Wednesday night hour. The memory has stuck with me for a lifetime.
Prayer meeting began with four or five songs led by layman, Mr. Parker. He took requests. Eventually, someone would ask for “number 55 in the blue book,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” There were other favorites, of course: “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “What a Friend,” “Softly and Tenderly,” “Sweet By and By,” ” Love Lifted Me,” “In the Garden.”
But number 55 in the blue book sort of stayed with me like a mantra. Decades later, under the stress of daily living, and in a Freudian stupor, I would be grinding my teeth and subconsciously humming “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” not realizing I was doing either, till at a stop light I would suddenly become aware of it. In later life, my demythologized religious rhetoric could still wrap itself around almost every word of that song and find comfort and meaning.
With the realization that I was humming my mantra, I would be transported back to those Wednesday nights and hear Mr. Parker’s short words of wisdom followed by his call to prayer. He would begin with a few sentences, then the faithful would follow with a sentence or two of their own, including reminders of those who were ill or in distress. After a brief silence, Mrs. Stevenson would begin the finale, the prayer that made the earth move.
On those hot summer nights (no air-conditioning) Mrs. Stevenson, bathed, perfumed, light airy cloth on her bountiful frame, handkerchief in one hand, and paper fan in the other would begin softly and soulfully in what would build to a gradual cadenza toward something I could only imagine was her face to face meeting with the Great I Am. Within five minutes, I was in awe as her cheeks were flowing with tears, and her voice quivering with melodic supplication. She always ended the prayer; no one would have dared follow her.
With such profound reminiscence, by the time the light turned green, I would quit grinding my teeth, but I would still be humming “leaning, leaning… safe and secure from all alarms.” I assumed it was all reminiscence, that I could never really experience that Wednesday night feeling again. Too much real life had happened; I was certain the melody, the words, and the rock solid assurance it brought would forever be only a memory.
That is, until last week on a cold night, some 50-plus years later, I was sitting in a movie theater in Durham, North Carolina with my son Alex and his mom watching True Grit. A few minutes into the film I kept hearing three or four notes woven into the musical score that started tugging at my heart and my memory. By God, I was hearing number 55 in the blue book. I thought, this can’t be, but it was, and the song was the musical motif for the entire movie. I was back there, Wednesday nights in Wadley.
I came home and searched my shelves and found it, the blue book. Somewhere in the 70s, immersed in the counter-culture revolution, ironically, I had determined I needed it, and somehow found a copy. I thumbed through it and found number 55. It was written by A. J. Showalter, trained in the shaped note tradition, who had founded a gospel music publishing house in 1884 in Dalton, Georgia, later the carpet manufacturing capital of the world.
So how could composer Carter Burwell, a New York native, Harvard graduate, software programmer, and alumnus of some band called “Thick Pigeon” have possibly decided to choose “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” as the musical theme of True Grit? I’ll wager he’s never been to a prayer meeting in Georgia, or anywhere else. And, I’ll wager I was the only one in that theater who knew in the first ten minutes what we were listening to.
Just yesterday, I downloaded the True Grit soundtrack from iTunes and have played it on my iPod while driving around at work. It got me safely through several stop lights, my psyche intact, and my teeth free from gnashing, and my connection with long ago Wednesday nights in Georgia alive and well.
Listening to the soundtrack apart from the movie is a complete experience in itself. It becomes a symphonic suite of Americana worthy of Charles Ives or Aaron Copland. Of course, the soundtrack for every western movie ever made owes a debt to a certain Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak, whose symphony From the New World set the standard for all American landscape compositions that followed. Everyone would be the better if Burwell’s composition were to become a standard for outdoor summer orchestral concerts as well.