I’ve been working through some of the mid-nineteenth century tunes in The Sacred Harp, and a couple of weeks ago came across no. 334, “O Come Away.” Temperance songs were a small but important category of mid-nineteenth century hymns, and the words to “O Come Away” are typical of the category:
We welcome you!
Ye who with taste perverted
Have seized the cup and drank it up —
We welcome you here!
Come join us in our holy aim,
The poor besotted to reclaim,
The broken heart to cheer again,
O come, sign the pledge!
Personally, I have a fondness for temperance songs, partly because earlier generations of both sides of my family were temperance people, and partly because in my work I’ve seen the ugly side of alcoholism. But I know I’m a minority — most of the people I sing with haven’t much interest in these hymns, nor in the tunes that accompany them.
Tonight, a man walked into All Saints Chapel while we were singing, and started talking loudly. He wasn’t the usual crazy street person you see in Berzerkely; he was clean and well-shaven. But he was obviously wasted — a strong smell of alcohol on his breath, and by the look of him, probably some other intoxicants in his bloodstream — he was pretty much out of his head. He had locked himself out of his apartment building nearby, and we managed to get him home. Not long after he had gone, my turn came to lead a song, and I chose no. 334, which I led as a sort of prayer for that man — in hopes that he could find a way to live his life that wouldn’t involve that level of intoxication ever again.
When the singing was over, and I was walking to my car, I had to walk past the building where he lived. There was an ambulance and a firetruck out front, their red lights flashing in the night. I hoped that they weren’t there to pick up that man — but he was so wasted that I can’t help but wonder if he was why there were in front of that particular building.