Like many of you, I listen to music while I am exercising. With a good pair of audio phones, I am able to pick up on lyrics that were once unintelligible.
Which is a short explanation for what I am about to write about: a prevalent euphemism in music for death or, more precisely, what happens after we die.
Death has been sadly present in my life these past months. Bill, my oldest brother, died in March. A well-regarded teacher at my daughter’s high school was run down by a drunk driver while bicycling in February. Our beloved golden retriever, Captain, had to be put down in June. Robin Williams, a wonder comic and actor, died at his own hand just now.
In the wake of these sad events, and perhaps because my own mortality is more in sight on the horizon, I found myself pondering the “what’s next” question. What happens after death?
There are myriad answers, of course, but nothing reliable and no eyewitness accounts. Death is essentially the absence of life, the ending of mortal existence. Standing over my mother’s deathbed, as she breathed her last and came to a complete and utter stop, I was put in mind of the laws of thermodynamics of Sir Isaac Newton: a body in motion tends to stay in motion; a body at rest tends to stay at rest.
So because we don’t know what lies beyond death, people tend to either laugh it off as a needless worry, or try to find comfort in words or music (or both) typically as an expression of a religious faith, but not always. Alfred, Lord Tennyson clearly had the shore in mind when he wrote his last poem, “Crossing the Bar,” with these elegiac words:
“For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.”
It was while thinking about these matters that an answer came to me in listening to my iTunes playlists.
There is, I found, a musical euphemism or expression for the aftermath of death. It is the shore — the shore of a river, or the distant shore of an ocean; safe ground, in other words. This idea appeals to me fundamentally for I find no place as relaxing and calming as the ocean shore. Perhaps this is typical of Midwesterners, because I first stuck my toes in the ocean as a teenager, and ever since, I am drawn to the sea as if I had flippers.
In the sense that the shore is expressed as a refuge from pain or loss (of life itself, perhaps), it can also be interpreted as another way to express the concept of heaven, or Canaan, as heaven is sometimes called. Here are some lyrics from my iTunes that equate death and beyond with reaching shore:
In a hymn entitled “Model Church,” an old man has come to a church as if in a dream. He sits with the congregation and enjoys the soaring choir, after which he says:
“I tell you wife it did me good
To sing those hymns once more
I felt just like some wrecked marine
Who gets a glimpse of shore
It made want to lay aside
This weather beaten form
And anchor in that blessed port
Forever from the storm.”
Are we, on life’s journey, a wrecked marine? There’s no telling where the inspiration for these lines came from. They may have come from the dramatic account of a harrowing open ocean voyage. In Acts, 27 about the Apostle Paul in the Mediterranean Sea. Paul and all on board encountered a fierce storm and most everyone panicked. But Paul urged them to stay calm and ride out the bad weather, saying (in verse 24) “not a hair of the head of anyone on this boat will be lost.” The ship eventually crashed on rocks on Malta and all were saved, an outcome biblical scholars believe was a metaphor for the unshakability of faith. The narrative was incidentally written by Luke, who was an experienced seafarer. Like the Odyssey, Paul’s adventure has beccome an often repeated theme of the epic life and death struggle depicted in books, movies and song ever since.
Another song, “If We Never Meet This Side of Heavan,” draws the distinction even clearer. The aftermath of death, to the believer, is reunion and rest, and final escape from pain and heartache:
“Once I was lost,
On the breakers tossed
And far away from the shore.
My drifting bark,
All in the dark,
No beacon light before.
I was sinking fast, when the lifeboat passed
And the captain (and he) took me in.
Now the storm is o’er, and I fear no more
I have perfect peace within.”
This spiritual was written by Alfred Bromley, one of America’s most prolific song writers and lyricists, who also penned these words in a bluegrass gospel song called “Rank Stranger to Me”:
“They’ve all moved away,” said the voice of a stranger
“To a beautiful land by the bright crystal sea”
Some beautiful day I’ll meet ‘em in heaven
Where no one will be a stranger to me.”
So death, or more properly salvation, is associated with reaching safe harbor, as in Paul’s heroic tale. Yet I was curious to know how this particular metaphor became such a common expression in gospel music. Turns out that one source that may have had lasting impact was the well-known “John Brown’s Body,” A Civil War-era song sang by Union soldiers, and the source for the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And that, in turn, bubbled up from a much older song, entitled “Say Brothers,” first included in a hymnal from around 1800.
The gist of that story is that “Say Brothers” arose as a Negro spiritual sung by slaves, in which Canaan served as a metaphor both for freedom and also a place of refuge and release for the departed. Because “Say Brothers” was a folk song, its origin unknown, it was readily passed along and spread among disparate audiences, where it became a standard in religious camp meetings — mostly in the South — in the decades prior to the Civil War. The key lyrics, repeated no matter what version was being used, were these:
“O Christians will you meet me, O Christians will you meet me, O Christians will you meet me, on Canaan’s happy shore . . .”
Interestingly, various versions of “Say Brothers” were popular not just with enslaved blacks, but also their white owners, and Southern antebellum society in general, as well as among Northern congregations! Canaan ironically became for Southernors a word to describe their lives when slavery reigned supreme, while among northern preachers, it was meant both to mean the end of the war, but also the resting place for so many fallen soldiers.
What I am left with is the realization that my search for meaning of the word “shore,” was part of my desire to understand and come to grips with the deaths of loved ones, friends, and even an animal. What lies beyond is an ageless question, with no real answer. Yet it gives me some comfort to know that for many who have lived and died before me (like Bill), the happy shore in real life and perhaps after parting is universally thought of as place of refuge and reunion, for wrecked marines, and the rest of us.