Home History of Hymns: "I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry"

History of Hymns: "I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry"

"I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry"
John Ylvisaker
The Faith We Sing, No. 2051

John Ylvisaker

“I was there to hear your borning cry,
I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized,
to see your life unfold.”*
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“Borning Cry” is one of the most popular songs in recent hymnals. The ballad style of the music lends itself to a feeling of a love song. A love song it is—between God and the singer.

Many hymns address God from the human perspective, but few address humanity from God’s point of view. The spirit of “Borning Cry” is one of a God who loved us from the beginning of time and continues to love us throughout the seasons of our life.

The author and composer is John Carl Ylvisaker (b. 1937), a native of Fargo, N.D. He studied at Concordia College in Minnesota, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1959.

Following further studies at Luther Northwestern Seminary (now Luther Seminary) in St. Paul, the University of Minnesota and St. Cloud State College, he worked as a voice teacher from 1971-75 in Buffalo, Minn. From 1973-86, Mr. Ylvisaker served as the music director for the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in St. Louis Park, Minn.

During this time the composer also worked in the communications division of the American Lutheran Church (ALC), the predecessor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Since 1988, Mr. Ylvisaker has been president of New Generation Publishers, a platform from which his compositions have appeared in hundreds of worship resources.

An early work of note was his Mass for a Secular City (1967) followed by 11 recordings of his work between 1967 and 1998. Much of his original music has been composed for the Lutheran Vespers radio broadcasts and videos for the ELCA.

He also produced SCAN, a weekly radio broadcast for the ELCA, and has received five Gabriel Awards for his broadcasting endeavors. Mr. Ylvisaker’s copyright covers more than 1,000 songs, and he is in high demand for performances and as a worship leader.

The composition of “Borning Cry” began in 1985, when Mr. Ylvisaker was asked to prepare a series on baptism called “Reflections” for the ALC. His Web site states: “John began work on the song before any footage for the video had been shot. When the media team met to put the music with the video for the first time, it became obvious that the dance-like beat and fast rhythm of the music did not match the gentle scenes being depicted on the screen. The lyrics were on target, but not the music. As he left the studio that day, John received the suggestion to ‘take it home and personalize it.’”

As a result, the composer adapted a completed work into a new form—the result of which was one of the most popular hymns written in the late 20th century.

The ballad style of “Borning Cry” reflects the composer’s interest in folk song. In his book What Song Shall We Sing? (2005), he speaks of “fusion” of traditional folk songs with hymnody.

After noting several well-known hymns that use music from traditional folk sources, he poses the question: “What is it that makes traditional [folk] tunes so appealing? It is their strength and durability, certainly, but ultimately it comes down to one word: flexibility.”

Folk songs can be adapted rhythmically, melodically and harmonically. They can be accompanied on a wide variety of instruments.

The use of folk sources is embedded in Mr. Ylvisaker’s Lutheran heritage of the chorales, many of which had folk influences and provided the basis for the congregational song heritage of the Lutheran Reformation.

In addition to the lyrical melody and text that allows God to sing a love song to humanity, “Borning Cry” gives us a sense of the timelessness of God. The final stanza of the seven-stanza hymn is the same as the first stanza.

While we think of ourselves as finite beings, God re-creates us and gives us new life in the baptismal waters, a spiritual regeneration that lasts for eternity.

*© 1985 John Ylvisaker. Used by permission.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.