Of Curious Workmanship
by Edgar G. Snow, Jr.
“With Vigor and Vim”
[p.5] One evening we were listening to one of the Primary Songs CDs on our car stereo to put the kids to sleep when I heard the lyrics “Sing out with vigor and phlegm,” causing me to wonder if these words had been translated from the old German songbook Die Kinder Singen I knew from my Swiss mission days. My wife politely suggested the word was “vim,” whatever that meant, causing her to wonder if I needed a healing aid. No doubt it gave her a Father’s Day gift idea.
At home I searched for a definition of “vim” in that great repository of information every Mormon in the 1970s looked to before giving a talk—not Mormon Doctrine, but Webster’s Dictionary. Do you remember the days when orthodoxy could be measured by whether the opening line of your “two-and-a-half-minute talk” was either (a) a Mormon joke (“The Pope, Billy Graham, and President Kimball were fishing one day when … ”) [p.6] or (b) the definition of your theme pulled out of the dictionary, followed by (c) an unattributed theft from Golden Nuggets of Thought?
Anyway, my Webster’s defined “vim” to mean “robust energy and enthusiasm.” Applying what little Alanis Morrisette Algebra I remember from a couple of years ago, I concluded: (a) the Primary Songs CD contains children’s hymns that, although beautifully sung and professionally produced, are often sung without much vigor or vim + (b) a song on the CD directs its listeners to sing Primary songs with vigor and vim = (c) irony. Now I must disclaim any intent to criticize the church in making my point about this particular CD, and I categorically denounce with all the vehemence I can muster any future anti-Mormon pamphlets that may use this point in a lengthy diatribe against Mormonism. What I really suspect happened is that the committee in charge of producing these recordings must have been looking for earnest children with untrained, yet on-key voices to produce standard versions of the songs. Spontaneity and cheeriness were not necessarily desired. But based upon how our ward’s Primary performs musical numbers, I think that committee members were also looking for kids who had just been tranquilized.
In fact, it seemed to me that several of the songs [p.7] sound like dirges, which is okay with me, since I’m a big dirge fan. You think I’m just trying to be funny? Listen to this, for instance: some people don’t like the tune to Marion D. Hanks’s “That Easter Mom” because it sounds so mournful, but it’s actually one of my favorites. I’m really serious about this. You want additional proof? I also like Ecclesiastes, and I have a print of Albrecht Durer’s “Melencolia” hanging in my office. I guess I like melancholic songs, art, and scriptures for the simple reason that we are rarely as happy or unhappy as we think we are (borrowing a line from La Rouchefoucauld), and we need to be reminded of that from time to time. Okay, I’m willing to admit that they also make my puny attempts at humor funnier by comparison. But, still, I really don’t care much for melancholy children’s songs. Which dad among you wants to hear an Eyore and Droopy duet on Father’s Day of ‘‘I’m So Glad When Daddy Comes Home?”
This reminds me of Elder Jarvis, one of my missionary companions in Basel, Switzerland, during the week before he went home. Did he ever understand the meaning of “vim!” After a hearty day’s worth of tracting and contacting, we would ride our bikes home, Elder Jarvis leading the way, riding without hands, and singing arias in a magnificent baritone from Handel’s Messiah that echoed like thunder off the walls of buildings. [p.8] As I recall, he even directed music with his hands as if the bystanders were invited to join in. I believe Elder Jarvis learned to sing with such vigor from listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s classic recording of the Messiah featuring William Warfield singing baritone. Warfield, of “Old Man River” fame, sang with such energy on this recording that another companion and I used to listen to his rendition of “Why Do the Nations Rage?” to embolden us to leap up high-rise apartment steps tracting all day against overwhelming odds. In fact, if you put a boombox set on full blast in a cemetery, playing Warfield’s version of “The Trumpet Shall Sound (and the Dead Shall Be Raised),” you’d better move out of the way because he’d make Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video look like, well, um … a bunch of dead people.
Perhaps the Primary Songs CDs should have been recorded by little Swiss and German Latter-day Saintchens since they are all born with a vigor and vim chromosome. Really, it’s a nature versus nurture phenomenon since it’s a rare German hymn that can be sung without gusto. Don’t let “A Mighty Fortress” fool you either. Martin Luther’s classic was written to the tune of a beerhall song, just slowed down a bit; even so, it was quite vigorous by Reformation standards. And remember that German import to the 1985 English LDS [p.9] Hymnbook (President Benson’s favorite) entitled “Hark All Ye Nations”? The next time you sing it, swing your arm in front of you as if you were pounding a hefty Bierstein on a table. I can guarantee one thing: you wouldn’t need a hearing aid to listen to any hymn sung by a Swiss or German congregation, even if you were standing in the parking lot.