Hymns and anthems don’t generally make for great poetry of the kind we are accustomed to from poetically inclined songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Cole Porter, et al. (When you’re done here, click on this for a fun discussion on NPR of “10 Nobel-Worthy Lyricists Who Aren’t Bob Dylan.”)
The churchy and/or patriotically laden lyrics of hymns and anthems usually get too flabby with arcane devotional language and banal nature references stripped of any surprise imagery, intriguing word combinations or fresh metaphors that make good poetry shine.
So I will begin the 35th rendition of this “Brilliant Songs” series with the caveat that “Hawai’i Aloha” is not per se a brilliant set of lyrics worthy of a place in some Songwriters Hall of Fame, which I didn’t know existed until I looked it up just now. (It’s in Nashville. According to Wikipedia, there are at least 362 known halls of fame—I just counted—most of them dedicated to far less prominent endeavors in this world. The “International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame,” anyone?)
Given such tender choral treatment, the song reaches its apotheosis, transporting any attentive listener into a world stripped of everything but its almost unbearable beauty…
But lyrics do not in and of themselves make for a brilliant song, and sometimes, the notes that make up music’s baseline language marry up with an interpreter to make a song soar to such heights that the words themselves could be from the New York City phone book or a newspaper ad for car batteries and it would not detract from our experience as listeners.
And so it is with “Hawai’i Aloha,” which was birthed as a Christian hymn, “I Left It All With Jesus,” music by James McGranahan, lyrics by Ellen H. Willis, written sometime in the latter half of the 19th century, precise date unknown.
McGranahan was a trained opera tenor and composer who was on the cusp of pursuing a secular operatic career when a devout “gospel soloist” friend wrote him a letter urging him to “Stop whetting the scythe and strike into the grain to reap for the Master!”
One week later, the friend died in a train wreck and McGranahan decided to fill his role and “strike into the grain” of exclusive devotion to religious music. “I Left It All With Jesus” was one of those efforts.
A lyrical snippet here, reflective of the genre, thick with its focus on devotion:
Oh, I leave it all with Jesus, day by day;
Faith can firmly trust Him, come what may;
Hope has dropped for aye her anchor, found her rest
In the calm, sure haven of His breast.
Just a few years later, exact date also lost to history, a Christian missionary to Hawai’i named Lorenzo Lyons (1807-1886) turned McGranahan’s music into an anthem and reworked Willis’s lyrics to extol the beauties of his adopted state, though with a still decidedly religious (but not overtly Christian) veneer.
Lyrics in both Hawai’ian and English are below, and of course the Hawai’ian looks and sounds much more exotic and tender to English language ears.
That exoticism and tenderness became all the more profound and rapturous in 2007 when the song morphed yet again into the sacred choral music of The Rose Ensemble, a Minnesota-based group with a stated mission “to unite virtuosic vocal artistry with scholarly research, resulting in musical performances and educational programs that connect audiences to compelling stories of human history, culture, and spirituality from around the world.”
I came across its take on “Hawai’i Aloha” unexpectedly the other night when finally catching up to the HBO TV series, “The White Lotus.” The second episode of Season 1 ends with a sullen teenage boy addicted to his smartphone’s video games and porn sites unwillingly dragging his blanket down to the beach to escape an even more sullen (and cynical) older sister who has browbeaten him into retreat. (The kids are on a supposedly fun vacation with their hopelessly clueless, to them, parents.)
Once beachside, the kid looks up just long enough to behold a whale leaping across the horizon, and he is, for the moment at least, Sullen Boy No More. He is instead rendered breathless and open-mouthed in one of those unbidden transcendent experiences that can set one’s life ablaze and get stored in a Memory Bank of Bliss Forevermore.
Heaped upon the majesty of the scene is the perfect, soul-stirring accompaniment of The Rose Ensemble’s Hawai’i Aloha,” its soaring harmonies matching the whale breach for breach.
Given such tender choral treatment, the song reaches its apotheosis, transporting any attentive listener into a world stripped of everything but its almost unbearable beauty—solemn, sacred, and, if the word is to mean anything in this life, “spiritual” to its very core.
Let’s give it a listen now along with the attendant lyrics, our work on this Sunday morning done, its inherent beauty spoken for in a language only music can speak, even as it converses fluently and deeply with every language in the world.
E Hawaiʻi e kuʻu one hānau e O Hawaiʻi, O sands of my birth
Kuʻu home kulaīwi nei My native home
ʻOli nō au i nā pono lani ou I rejoice in the blessings of heaven
E Hawaiʻi, aloha ē O Hawaiʻi, aloha.
E hauʻoli e nā ʻōpio o Hawaiʻi nei Happy youth of Hawaiʻi
ʻOli ē! ʻOli ē! Rejoice! Rejoice!
Mai nā aheahe makani e pā mai nei Gentle breezes blow
Mau ke aloha, no Hawaiʻi Love always for Hawaiʻi.
E haʻi mai kou mau kini lani e May your divine throngs speak
Kou mau kupa aloha, e Hawaiʻi Your loving people, O Hawaiʻi
Nā mea ʻōlino kamahaʻo no luna mai The holy light from above
E Hawaiʻi aloha ē O Hawaiʻi, aloha.
Nā ke Akua e mālama mai iā ʻoe God protects you
Kou mau kualono aloha nei Your beloved ridges
Kou mau kahawai ʻōlinolino mau Your ever glistening streams
Kou mau māla pua nani ē Your beautiful flower gardens.
And as a parting note, a tribute to Jeff Beck, master guitarist seemingly born to play music, and play it he did, with uncommon verve, all his days, whose train pulled into the station unexpectedly last week and left with him on board. Joined here by Rod Stewart, Beck genuinely surprised and moved by his old friend dropping by to pay his respects.
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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Beaching whale from the public domain
Hawai’i beach by Ganapathy Kumar, Alburquerque, New Mexico https://unsplash.com/@gkumar2175
As I read your comments on Hawai’I Aloha”, three things immediately came to mind. First, how often does writing suffer through translations? Always? Ezra Pound is considered by many to be one of the most prominent translators of ancient Chinese poetry. However, his “Cathay”, a volume of twenty or so poems he translated from ancient China into English, must suffer immensely from not only his limited knowledge of Chinese itself but also through the vast differences in cadence and sound between the two languages. No doubt that is why you wrote “the Hawai’ian looks and sounds much more exotic and tender to English language ears.” Second, how many “brilliant” songs never originally contained lyrics? Too many to count. “Misty” is a classic example. Errol Garner composed it strictly as a song for his immense talent as jazz pianist. Johnny Burke added the lyrics later, and another Johnny (Mathis) turned it into a mega-hit on the pop charts shortly thereafter. As side notes, personally I prefer Sarah Vaughan’s recording, and unfortunately few have ever heard Garner’s version. Third, how many songs borrowed heavily from another musical genre? Again, a multitude. The chorus in Billy Joel’s “Night” is a cool reworking of an opening section in Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata. Anyway, again thanks for introducing me to another unheard of before “brilliant” song.