History of Hymns: "Pass It On"
By C. Michael Hawn
"Pass It On"
by Kurt Kaiser
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 572
It only takes a spark to get a fire going,
and soon all those around can warm up in its glowing.
That's how it is with God's love once you've experienced it;
you spread his love to everyone;
you want to pass it on.*
If you are a baby boomer, raised in the church, and born in the late 1940s or 1950s, you probably grew up singing Kurt Kaiser's "Pass It On" around a campfire or at youth group meetings.
Kurt Frederic Kaiser (1934-2018) was born in Chicago. He received his musical education from the American Conservatory of Music and Northwestern University (B.M., 1958; M.M., 1959). According to his website, www.kurtkaiser.com, Mr. Kaiser "joined Word, Inc., in 1959 as director of artists and repertoire, and later became vice president and director of music for Word. Mr. Kaiser has arranged and produced albums for many gifted artists, among them Kathleen Battle, Diane Bish, Ernie Ford, Hale & Wilder, Larnelle Harris, Jerome Hines, Burl Ives, Ken Medema, Stephen Nielson, Christopher Parkening, George Beverly Shea, Joni Eareckson Tada, Ethel Waters and Anne Martindale Williams." Mr. Kaiser maintained his relationship with Word, Inc. until 1989.
Kurt Kaiser received many honors, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) for his contributions to the Christian music industry (1992); an honorary Doctor of Sacred Music degree from Trinity College in Illinois; and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Baylor University. In 1993 his album Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs was recognized with a Dove Award. In 2001 he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and was placed in the Hall of Honor by the Christian Booksellers Association. The Faithfulness in Service Award was presented to him in 2003. In 2011 he received the Hines Sims Award, named for the editor of the Baptist Hymnal (1956), one of the most successful hymnals in the history of the denomination.
He resided with his wife, Pat, in Waco, Texas. They had four grown children and ten grandchildren. Kurt Kaiser was an active churchman, serving as a founding member of DaySpring Baptist Church in Waco, offering an alternative vision for Baptist communities.
While known primarily for his youth musicals, Mr. Kaiser is an accomplished pianist and has written music for a variety of performing media in varied styles. He has composed more than sixty hymn texts and tunes, the most famous of which are “O how he loves you and me” (1975), and “Pass It On.”
In correspondence with the author, Mr. Kaiser provided the background to "Pass It On," one of his most famous songs: "In 1969, Ralph Carmichael and I collaborated on a musical, Tell It Like It Is. It was written to get young people involved in the Church. After reviewing what we had written, we decided there needed to be a closer, a modern 'Just As I Am' [a hymn by Charlotte Elliott written in 1835, and a favorite of Evangelicals for altar calls].
"On a Sunday night I was sitting in our den by the fireplace where there were remnants of a fire, and it occurred to me that it only takes a spark to get a fire going . . . and the rest came very quickly. My wife suggested that I should say something about shouting it from mountain tops, and that ended up in the third verse. It only took about 20 minutes to write the lyrics. Afterwards my wife and I went for a walk, letting the song ruminate in our minds."
This YouTube site offers the opportunity to hear Kurt Kaiser play "Pass It On" in a Joy of Music program hosted by organist Diane Bish. His presentation begins at 4 minutes into the recording. It reflects the artistry of his classical training as well as his improvisational skills. Following the song, the composer offers a witness to his faith. A second YouTube site presents an informal reflection by the composer at Laity Lodge in the Texas Hill Country.
This song reflects the power of a simple idea set to a singable tune. Such songs take on a life that the composer never considered. Mr. Kaiser notes, "I am always amazed how the Lord can take a little song and use it to reach so many people. It has been sung at countless weddings and funerals, at ordination services, by the Sea of Galilee, in Rhodesia, on the aircraft carrier Enterprise, and lots of camps."
The late 1960s and 1970s were the heyday of the Christian youth musical. The highly successful Purpose (1968) by J. Phillip Landgrave, and Tell It Like It Is (1969) are often considered to be the first youth musicals to have a major impact on the church youth culture, defining the genre. Celebrate Life (1972) by Buryl Red and Regan Courtney followed on the heals of Tell It Like It Is. Two musicals with Christian themes opened on Broadway in 1971, Godspell by Stephen Schwartz, and the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.
“Pass It On” gained traction in broader congregational circles when it appeared in Hymns for the Living Church (1974), edited by Donald P. Hustad, and Hymns for the Family of God (1976), edited by Fred Bock and Bryan Jeffery Leech. Since then, the song has appeared in at least nine other hymnals in the United States, England, and Canada.
While this song has received theological criticism by some, Kurt Kaiser joined a number of other composers in the late 1960s, 1970s, well into the 1980s who sought to offer an alternative to, in the words of Dr. Young, “the lifestyle of drug and sexual permissiveness of the youth counterculture, embodied in the Haight-Asbury flower children.” One cannot separate the text from its folk guitar-based music. Many lifelong faith commitments to Christ were made by post-World War II baby boomers around campfires singing this song. Few songs from this era have reached the iconic status of “Pass It On,” which, though informal in its jargon, might be seen as an extension of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20.