History of Hymns: “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry”
I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry
by John Ylvisaker
The Faith We Sing No. 2051
“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.”*
© 1985 John Ylvisaker. Used with permission.
“Borning Cry” has grown increasingly important in the hymn singing of the church, especially on special occasions, such as baptisms, confirmation, and memorial services. The hymn has also been adapted for choirs and handbells by several different arrangers.
Instead of the much more common perspective of person/people to God or about God, the text uniquely speaks to God’s people from God’s perspective. Few hymns offer this perspective. It represents the dialectic opposites of God’s transcendence and immanence at the same moment. The transcendent God begins the hymn text and throughout each stanza, most especially at the end, the words also reflect the immanent God, who is there at every phase of our lives.
In an age that appears to present more opportunity for music and text to be directed towards specific times and stages of people’s lives, this hymn transcends any specific generational attachment. Also, in an age that continues the ongoing, often arbitrary categorization of songs into “traditional” or “contemporary” genres, this hymn captures the best of both worlds, just as it captures the transcendent/immanent God.
The text offers something for everyone as it represents God’s unchanging presence, even as our lives never cease to change. It beautifully represents each generation and its special season. Stanza 3 proclaims at the beginning that God is there during childhood and then, as suddenly as it seems to happen in life, abruptly shifts to the questing adolescent and young adult stage. The stanzas continue through the stages of life, making way for and blessing possible covenantal relationships while not making the assumption that everyone will do so. In the text, God reveals God’s self to us through our middle age, finally arriving at the winter of our lives. God’s lovingly expressed words to us even as, in old age, we tire and prepare to receive the mystery of what lies ahead in eternity is portrayed as a “surprise.” Rather than a concrete description, the text offers no specifics as to what awaits us as we end this life on earth and begin our life eternal – just a gentle promise. In this promise of a “surprise” is also an acknowledgment that during our lives there come many surprises, through which God has guided us.
The melody itself reflects God’s presence. It begins on the third tone of the scale and seems to have already been in progress, perfectly illustrating the presence of God which existed prior to the persons who are being addressed. The beauty of the melody is in its simplicity and its ability to be easily learned and used in corporate singing. The “circle of life” is represented as well by the repetition of the first stanza text as the last stanza text. Simple flute or violin obbligato lines are also a beautiful addition to this melody, and the countermelody by the instrument can be woven in and out of the main melodic line, representing the ever-present Lord of our lives.
The author and composer is John Carl Ylvisaker (b. 1937), a native of Moorhead, Minnesota, and a graduate of Concordia College in the same town. His website states,
He is renowned for his paraphrase of biblical text and theological astuteness, as well as his ability to recognize or write tunes people in the pew can readily sing. John has inspired audiences with his live performances and worship leadership at the many assemblies, conferences, and gatherings where he has appeared. Currently he is involved in producing recordings of his work.1
Although “Borning Cry” is Ylvisaker’s most famous work, his website also states that his repertoire is quite large, including more than 1,000 songs.
The composition of “Borning Cry” began in 1985, with a different, faster tune. Having been asked to adapt the song with a more gentle tempo, he later used the first version of “Borning Cry” for what would become another of his songs, “I Will Dance With Jesus.” In this ability to adapt, Ylvisaker shows an example of what he states is important in the use of folk tunes as a basis for hymns—flexibility.
Ylvisaker is the editor of a book of songs by the same title: Borning Cry. The collection provides more than 900 biblical texts, anthems, solos, liturgical songs and 120 of his original compositions. In the preface to the second edition of Borning Cry, Ylvisaker writes:
St. Paul’s references to “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” suggests that two new elements were added, “hymns” (a style borrowed from the Greeks) and “spiritual songs,” which was a new category probably resulting from the intimate sort of God the Christians worshiped. Jesus was a God who not only became human, but also had friends and siblings, and a mom and dad. The spiritual songs were probably love songs to Jesus and story songs about his remarkable life here on earth.2
Finally, Ylvisaker concludes the preface with this statement, which is exemplified in this hymn: “It’s only recently that we’ve been forced to decide between formal and informal, between orthodox and pietist, between contemporary and traditional. I don’t think it’s ever been a legitimate demand on the worshiper. I, for one, can be nurtured by both streams. I need to have my mind stimulated by the performance tradition and I need to have my heart touched by full participation in the song tradition of the church” (from the preface to Borning Cry – Worship for a New Generation in 1994).
In this hymn, we find stimulation of the mind by the images represented in the text, and hearts are touched by the assurance found in the words, “I was there…”
About this week’s guest writer:
Catherine Nance is Director of Music Ministries at St. John’s United Methodist Church, Aiken, S.C. and is currently enrolled in the Doctor of Worship Ministries degree program at the Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies.
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts. For more information about The Fellowship, visit UMFellowship.org/Hymns.