When They Ring the Golden Bells

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival. ~C.S. Lewis

Last night, we gathered in the home of the dearest of friends for an evening of music and fellowship. It was a celebration of God’s bounty in our lives, the most treasured and notable of which were the people that filled the rooms of our friends’ new-old house. With each year that passes, we take these loved faces less and less for granted. I seriously do not know what I would do without them, such trusted companions of sunshine and shadow, and I can hardly even begin to thank God for their influence in my life.

Every person there was a beautiful sight to my eyes. Some of the friendships represented were brand new, bright with lovely promise, while others were of a lifetime’s duration. Parents and siblings filled the circle, and the angel-fresh faces of three little girls whom Philip and I love with a devotion akin to servitude.

My friends and I sang some of the old favorites in our repertoire, with a couple of Early American “shape note” songs as an eager hat-tip to Christmas. There were readings of original poetry and essay, an exquisite selection on classical guitar, and a husband and wife duo that literally broke our hearts with the sheer beauty of their oneness expressed in words and music. The kind of music that makes you smile with your eyes full of tears.

At the end of our little program, before the ‘congregational singing’, my friend Rachel and I sang a piece that is very dear to both of our hearts, “When They Ring the Golden Bells”. I had come across a version of it years ago, a collaboration between Natalie Merchant and Karen Peris, and was immediately struck by both the beauty and the familiarity of it. I had always wanted to learn it with Rach, and we did play around with it a bit. But when my grandmother died, Rachel agreed to do the song with me at her funeral, and it was while we were practicing it that I made the connection where I had first heard it–at Rachel’s wedding, of all things. It was such a sudden, poignant illustration to me of the sweet brevity of our days, and of the glorious perspective on life and death held out to us in the Gospel. When we sang this song together at my little grandmother’s funeral, with my brother accompanying us on the guitar, all I could think about was the great Marriage Feast that was awaiting.ย  The real end of the Story.

Last summer we set down a few tracks of some of the duets we’d worked on, and Rachel’s long-suffering and extremely talented brother came to play the guitar for us. I can’t express how patient he was with our demands upon his prowess, alternately instructing him to speed up or slow down according to our whimsy as he strummed and plucked and picked his way through songs like, “I Saw a Maiden” and “Oh! Tell Me How to Woo Thee”.

Don’t tell anyone I’m doing this, was the look he gave us when the songs leaned too heavily on the sentimental side. But we all had a fantastic time together, and I think that when we came to “Golden Bells”, he was relieved that here, at last, was a song in which there was no dighting me in array or Fie! Nay, pritthee-ing.

My rendition of it last night was considerably less sound than the one we recorded on that sunny July day, as my voice wavered and broke a couple of times at the vast span of emotion and association connected with the song for me. I was overwhelmed with what it all meant; with the faces in the room and the faces I can’t wait to see again in heaven. And with the deathless promise of the One who “will wipe away all tears from off their faces…”

Here it is, if you’d care to hear it. It’s not perfect–at least, certainly not my part–though Rach sounds like an angel and Joseph like a master and Philip did a great job mixing it down.

When They Ring the Golden Bells

Thank God I have these people in my life. I love them so.

13 Responses to “When They Ring the Golden Bells”

  1. Josh says:

    Marvelous! ๐Ÿ™‚

    For some reason, it makes me think of George MacDonald’s description of Heaven: “…the regions where there is only life, and therefore all that is not music is silence.”

  2. jodi says:

    I’m just about to head off to bed. What a lovely song to take with me as I fall asleep. I love your blog, Lanier. And you.

  3. Stefanie says:

    The song was beautiful – thanks so much for sharing.

  4. Jessica says:

    Oh, Lanier…that was so lovely! Thank you so much for sharing…what a beautiful song.

    Some of the language in this post (i.e. “set down tracks”) rekindled something that I’ve wondered for awhile…when are you and your friends going to put out a CD? Some of your songs you post here I’ve saved to my computer, but that’s definitely not the same as a whole CD. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Juli Aaron says:

    What a lovely arrangement sung by very lovely voices. My south-Georgia granddaddy used to play this on his harmonica. Thanks for the memories. What a sweet blessing it is for you to have such friendships.
    Happy Thanksgiving!

  6. I love that phrase you shared about new friendships…bright with lovely promise….

    I’m off to have a listen to the Golden Bells…..

  7. I didn’t have time to listen to the nusic clip when I read your post late last evening, but definitely went to sleep with the remembered melody in my head.
    My late mother was a dedicated musician and teacher, also a church organinst. When They Ring the Golden Bells was in a book of “Organ Voluntaries” which she once purchased. It was many years before I found the piece in an old Rodheaver hymnal.
    I enjoyed your styling of an old favorite.

  8. Megan says:

    Wow, two voices I love so dearly. And miss terribly! Stunningly gorgeous. Thanks so much for sharing.

  9. Elisabeth says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Lanier. It’s beautiful. I know it’s tricky negotiating the rights of music for performance / recording / distribution, but a CD would be lovely!

  10. Elisabeth says:

    Postcript: I posted my earlier comment too quickly! I want to add that I think it’s delightful that you make music and sing songs with your friend. People used to do so, but I think the arrival of CDs has put people off, because they feel intimidated by the quality demanded for a recording. I’m so glad you make music and sing songs for the sheer joy of it (although you do it so beautifully!) – thank you for the inspiration to do likewise!

  11. Judi says:

    I just listened rather late, but I’m so glad I did. As I listened to the beautiful melding of your sweet voices, I like Elizabeth just above me, was thinking of how people used to sing together like this, and what a loss that this art/pastime has been mostly lost. So thankful it hasn’t been lost completely, and thankful that you’ve shared it. And also wishing like others that you’d make a CD, or sell the one you’ve made for family. (I have an instrumental–piano and strings–Christmas CD that my brother’s family made for all of us one year, and it is one of my most-played favorites!) I love the way you live your life, Lanier. You are an inspiration!

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