The Music of Elizabeth Alexander

No Ordinary Song

A solo or congregational song for healing our wounded world

Words by Elizabeth Alexander

This powerful congregational hymn eschews unrealistic proclamantions of harmony and unity between people, instead acknowledging our need to heal our wounded world and “renew a covenant grown frail.”

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Composer Notes

Composer Notes

No Ordinary Song is a complete rewrite of As We Sing of Hope and Joy, which was published in the 1990s in hymnals in the United States and England, as well as being available separately as a small choral piece.

Despite its publication, I was never completely satisfied with the song, for reasons I couldn’t exactly understand. At first I thought the disconnect was that the music was too formal. After all, this song is about rolling up one’s sleeves and doing the hard work of restorative justice! So I sat down and wrote a new unison tune, abandoning the stolid chorale form with a brand new unison tune. My music geek readers will understand what I mean as I exclaim “What a difference a bridge makes!”

But I was soon dissatisfied again. Now I found myself longing for a more down-to-earth lyric as well, one that dug into what it really means to start healing a wounded world.

Never before have I put so many hours into writing such a small song. Every few years I pulled out As We Sing of Hope and Joy and banged on it for a couple of days, making small changes here and there. I replaced the overwrought line “Some have pain and misery to spare” with the simpler “Hearts are heavy with despair.” I dropped a Biblical reference that many people didn’t understand. Every rewrite brought me closer to the song I wanted to write, but I was still not there.

It took me until 2020 to finally grasp the lyric’s core problem. It was so painfully obvious that I actually felt embarrassed not to have realized it earlier. From the very first line, As We Sing of Hope and Joy was dividing the world into two parts: “As we sing of hope and joy this day, others only know of life’s despair.” No wonder my lyric tweaks weren’t working! Of course there are no “others”! We are all in this together, in joy and sorrow, wholeness and brokenness, problems and solutions.

It took a few more days to finish the lyric rewrite, but the song now had a strong guiding principle. As the cocksure conclusion “So shall we sing together and prevail” stepped down to make way for “Sing to renew a covenant grown frail,” I knew those twenty-five years of rewrites were worth it. Finally, finally, finally, No Ordinary Song earns the promise and possibility of its last line: “May every alleluia plant a seed.”

Text

No Ordinary Song

As we lift our voices on this day,
Many hearts are heavy with despair.
How can our lifted voices find a way
To bring us one step closer to repair?

If a wounded world we wish to heal,
We must sing no ordinary song.
Make it a cadence relevant and real,
Its every measure purposeful and strong.

Let this song our greatest hopes contain:
Well-fed children be its just refrain,
Roofs over every heartbeat be its tune,
Its harmony from peaceful cities hewn.

Sing of hope while hammering each nail.
Sing of joy while pulling every weed.
Sing to renew a covenant grown frail.
May every alleluia plant a seed.

Elizabeth Alexander
© 2020 by Elizabeth Alexander

Performers

Performers

Premiere: Laura Betinis Healy and Anthony Healy (YouTube and Viemeo)