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Easter Music

Winter is possibly the most gloomy season of the year so we look forward to the more joyous springtime. In past years those who have been cooped up all winter are ready to hear happy songs and attend school concerts or special events like the Palm Sunday concert put on by local churches. If the concert was held this year, I missed it and hope in a future year the custom can be revived. We were cheered and inspired by the music produced at these events and often the column written for Easter highlighted some of those performances.

Last year we did not have local church services during much of Lent and Easter, and those of us who do not do Facebook (possibly more than most realize) missed out entirely on local musical events. I rode the bus until pandemic rules made that more difficult and practiced the hymns on the church piano even though no one else was there to sing along. Music has been a part of my life for so long I wanted to keep up as long as possible. This year there are transitions in pastors, but I believe all of our local churches will have an opportunity to sing the joyful songs on Easter.

Wanting to write about one or two of the special Lenten and Easter songs that have not been featured in recent years, I went back to two who, in a way, have a shared history. Both are listed as African American spirituals with no author, and both grew out of the experiences of Christians who were slaves living and working in the cotton fields of the south.

The first is titled “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” This song was known before slavery was abolished but did not appear in print until 1899 when a collection of slave songs was published as Old Plantation Hymns. Traditionally, they were sung by the workers in the fields and were composed in a repetitive style which made them easy to learn since few of the slaves had an opportunity to learn to read or write. In the original version it has four stanzas each asking a different question about the death of Christ. The question is repeated and then the refrain added: “Oh, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble, were you there when they crucified my Lord?” It can be sung anytime of the year but is often sung or played for Good Friday. In many hymnals it ends with the verse that asks “Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?” While the song was known and widely sung both in America and in other countries, hymns by black writers or from black traditions did not appear in hymnals until 1939. “Were You There” was the first spiritual to appear in hymnals of American churches. It has been followed by many others.

The second song I wanted to write about has a happy tune and is known as “He Rose”. It begins with the words “They crucified my Savior and nailed him to the tree….” The wording is thought to have grown out of the custom of lynching black slaves often without a trial by hanging them on a tree. However, the song was known in the south as early as 1850 but for some reason not considered a hymn at that time. The text follows the Passion story from the Bible going on to the angel who rolls the stone away, Sister Mary and Joseph who come to the empty tomb, and the joy of the resurrection. The chorus is an echo format “He rose (He rose) He rose up from the dead and the Lord will come to carry me home.” I don’t remember it being sung in our church, although it has been in the hymnal for years, but it is often played on Easter Sunday for a prelude or postlude. It is a song of joy and hope. A listing on the internet says the version used today was newly re-discovered around the year 2000 and is now considered appropriate for all Christian churches. I found that very interesting wording.

Three Friends:

After a couple of busy weeks with funerals, news came of three more deaths in the space of a few hours. Very likely the three did not know each other, but over the years I had a chance to know each of them so wanted to write a bit about them and extend sympathy to their families or friends who live in Cavalier County.

The first was Clarice Sperling Davis of Spokane. She was a 1954 graduate of Langdon High School and spent much of her adult life in Spokane, Wash. Clarice was the kind of lady who greeted strangers as friends she had not yet met and is fondly remembered by many. The last time I saw her in Langdon might have been the centennial or an all-school reunion, but because she worked at Evangel Bookstore in Spokane when visiting my brother and his family who lived 60 miles away in Idaho, I saw her each time we went to the bookstore. When working on mailing lists for local projects Clarice was a person who could answer many questions and will be missed.

The second was a friend named Madge Meisel. No, not a relative although we do pronounce our last names the same since in German names you say the second vowel. However, she felt we shared an aunt. Alice Cleary Wenzel was my aunt because she was married to my mother’s brother. Madge’s mother was originally named Katie Laraine Cleary but was known as Rainie Cleary to her cousins and after her marriage as Rainie Dubourt. She and my aunt were around the same age, played together as children, and both attended Walhalla High School although Alice went on to graduate from Cavalier. Later when they were both married and pregnant, they had the same doctor – Dr. Landry - and expected their new babies to be good friends growing up. Rainie’s baby was named Madge, possibly a nickname for a first name that slips my mind. Aunt Alice’s baby died at birth, but the next child born was named Karel Lorraine in honor of Rainie. While the mothers kept in touch, the children did not meet for many years - if ever.

All of this did not come up until many years later when Madge and her husband, George, a teacher in Williston, wanted to take her mother to Alaska, but Rainie could not get a passport until they obtained a birth certificate. In the pre-World War I era when babies were often born at home rather than in a hospital, their births were not registered so they would first be recorded on either a school census or a school enrollment. I got a call from Madge, who was not sure if her mother had started school in Sarles or Walhalla but would I find out? As it happened, Rainie began her schooling in Concrete, but with that brief contact we became friends because when Madge heard my name, she was sure we must be related on the Maisel/Meisel side. She was also anxious to know about her Cleary roots and to visit St. Ellen’s Cemetery near the PAR site. That cemetery is on land her great-grandfather, Mike Cleary, had homesteaded when the family came from Ireland in 1886 and has the graves of many relatives she had heard about but never met. Eventually we learned about computers while exchanging notes and jokes.

The third recent death also shares one of my names, and that is Rita Waslaski ,who I got to know through seeing her year after year making residents of Maple Manor beautiful through her work in the beauty and barber shop at that facility. Rita grew up in England and came to America when she married Ben Waslaski, who had been stationed in England when in service. Her story is a modern version of coming to America long after the original homesteaders and one her children and grandchildren will treasure in years to come.


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