More Tales From The Early Vernacular

From the CNS blog, check out this informative piece on Peter Scholtes and his song “They’ll Know We Are Christians.” The story of FEL versus the Chicago archdiocese is well known, but here’s a personal twist from Scholtes’ son:

“They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” was not only in hymnals published by FEL (short for Friends of the English Liturgy), it was also part and parcel of most homemade hymnals made by parishes, a practice utterly in vogue at the time. FEL, headquartered in Chicago, didn’t cotton to that, saying that its recording artists were being denied their rightful royalties because of the unpermitted copying.

FEL sued the Archdiocese of Chicago for unpaid royalties from its parishes’ unauthorized copying. Cardinal John Cody of Chicago then forbade parishes from using FEL music in any way, shape or form, leading to another FEL lawsuit, this time claiming restraint of trade.

That led to a bizarre and unhappy situation that Scholtes’ (son Pete) confirmed for me: Because of Cardinal Cody’s ban, “They’ll Know We Are Christians” could not be played at his grandfather’s funeral Mass.” “I was young at the time, but that’s what Dad told me,” he said.

A friend in grad school said (in 1984) he thought this song was one of the hallmarks of early vernacular hymnody and it was still useful and important for Catholic worship. I haven’t used it much at all, I admit. The simplicity of the text and harmony isn’t really a turn-off. It’s one of those songs lots of people like but I’ve never felt I’ve been able to give it a good tempo.

I heard a metal thrash version of it in Iowa once. It was … interesting.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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5 Responses to More Tales From The Early Vernacular

  1. Liam says:

    What this interesting story illustrates for me is how modern copyright laws with industrial publishers don’t mesh well with traditional practice, and that it will mean the gradual death of most copywritten music except materials of the highest quality.

    Traditionally, hymn tunes and texts were freely adopted and adapted in Christian worship. Don’t think Charles Wesley or John Newton or that tune writers were going around monitoring copyrights at every church. That is how tunes and texts really got deeply popularized at the roots level. The industrial model is “fairer” at one level to artists, but at the greater risk of preventing their work from having a longer life.

  2. For our parochial school’s Spring Sing Concert during Open House I’d chosen the theme of “Our Catholic Music Treasure Chest.”
    So, amidst the 8th grade Bell Choir’s ADORO TE/PANIS ANGELICUS medley, 7th’s BENEDICTUS anthem, 3-6th choir ADORAMUS TE CHRISTE (in 3 parts!) we included a Landry Communion ditty for the 2nds, Haas “Ena Lima Hana” for the 1sts and, ta dah….” the Scholtes’ “They’ll know…” for Kindergarten. What made it really work is that I sequenced their accompaniment to a fairly cool Marley-esque reggae back beat. And my kids throughout all grades “hold pitch” noticeably well, including the wee ones. It was a total hoot and success, especially the Kinders. I remember asking how many parents and grandparents if they grew up singing this gem? Nearly all hands went up in a overflowing audience in the parish hall. Smiles were in abundance. The K’s teacher asked me if I would mind including it in their year end Prayer Service in the church; I said “why not?”
    As Sgt. Schulz vood zay “Hmmmm, very een-tuh-res-teeng.”
    Vapid banality to some; stripped down, elegant classic to others.

  3. Deacon Eric says:

    Am I the only one who sees irony in Christians suing each other over a song whose refrain is “They’ll know we are Christians by our love”?

  4. Deacon Eric: No, you’re not.

  5. Pingback: Angels and Christians « Catholic Sensibility

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