The greatest songwriter you never heard of

by johnmccreery

His name was James McGranahan. Curiously enough, Song of the Soldier, one of the numerous hymns for which he wrote the music has become a standard in the Japanese choral repertoire, frequently sung as the encore to choral concerts. I will be part of the male chorus singing it and several similar numbers at the start of the Tokyo Marathon on February 28th.

The song begins with words originally written in German by Justus Falckner (1672-1723)

Rise ye children of salvation,
All who cleave to Christ, the Head;
Wake, arise, O mighty nation,
Ere the foe on Zion tread.

and ends with a refrain composed by 19th century American evangelist Daniel Whittle, with whom McGranahan traveled as songwriter and singer for many years.

Pour it forth a mighty anthem
Like the thunders of the sea.
Thro the blood of christ our ransom
more than conquerous are we.

These words were translated into Japanese that winds up sounding more nationalistic than religious, i.e., in my rough rendering

Stand up you who are going into battle
Follow our precious flag
Courageously advance
Do not wait upon the enemy

Singing, we advance
Singing, voices together
Like a mighty tide
The righteous god(s) is (are) our protection
[the Japanese is ambiguous when it comes to singular and plural]

This original version is further modified in the Marathon variation

Stand up, athletes.
Follow the flag
Courageously continue
Push on to the goal….

Interesting example of cultural transmission and adaption.

Any thoughts?


9 Comments to “The greatest songwriter you never heard of”

  1. My senses are not tuned to the translation. I see little things like “mighty tide” vs. “thunders of the sea”, but I have no idea what that difference might mean. I’d be interested to hear your take on the cultural translation.

  2. The most intriguing thing to me is that the references to Christ, in both the original German and the refrain added by Whittle, make the English version, perhaps we could call it “blatantly” Christian. Despite the fact that the Japanese translation was done by a Japanese Christian, there is no reference to Christ. The original Japanese for “the righteous god (s)” is seigi no mikami, in which the mi is a prefix expressing elevated rank and kami, the usual word for god or gods. What’s left is something that feels to me like a big-10 fight song, “On, Wisconsin,” for example.

  3. that’s one of my faves. the guy i hang out with is a Badger (and, in fact, I will be watching Pucky play hockey tomorrow night), so I have seen this before.

  4. My daughter showed me that video about a week ago. I liked the theory that they’re really saying “magic mushroom”. Hidden drug messages.

  5. John – For some reason, I had just totally blanked Christ out when I looked over the English version. I guess Christ has become the equivalent of a banner ad to me.

  6. I don’t believe there are any hidden messages in the badger video meme. It’s just the over active imagination of 18 year old drug users who see a mushroom and immediately think “Drugs, Yeah!”. If there is anything to it, it’s the repetition and the frenetic activity that creates a feeling of pressure (the incessant demands of superego do that). Some of us use the badger meme to satirize the right wing. They’re kinda like that.

    Is choral music big in Japan? The whole idea of standing on bleachers and singing in chorus is pretty western isn’t it? Also, I get a vaguely uneasy feeling whenever the Japanese sing militaristic songs in large groups.

    You may be interested to know that Philip Brunelle is the choir director of my church which is right across the street from me.

  7. Is choral music big in Japan?

    Hard to say. Music of all sorts is big in Japan. This admittedly somewhat sketchy Wikipedia page will give you a quick overview. I do know that, from this and other sources, Western choral music got started in Japan after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Another of the “militaristic songs” that our chorus sings is U Boj. The Wikipedia entry includes the following,

    >U boj, u boj (Croatian: “To the battle, to the battle”) is a Croatian patriotic song. It was written and composed by Ivan Zajc in 1866, who later incorporated it as an aria into his opera Nikola Šubić Zrinski (1876) where it is sung by a male choir.
    The choir version of the song, composed by Franjo Marković, enjoys a wide popularity in Japan, where for a long time it was thought to be a Czech folk song. After the end of World War I, an American ship Hefron, evacuating Czech and Slovak soldiers from Siberia, perhaps with a few Croats onboard, was damaged by a storm and was forced to settle in the Kobe harbour for 2 months for repair. During that period, the soldiers transmitted the tune to the members of the oldest and the most renowned Japanese male choir of the Kwansei Gakuin University, established in 1899. Their repertoire hosts the song to this day, ending with it each of their public performances.

    Aono Yoshiko, one of our two Japanese associates at The Word Works, sings in a chorus founded in 1928 that went underground during WWII, when foreign music was forbidden.

    A Google search for “Youtube Japanese chorus” produces 477,000 hits. A search for “Youtube American chorus” produces 1,500,000 hits.

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