By Dag Walker
Most afternoons back in my old hometown the old guys would sit in cane rocking chairs out front of Virgil’s barbershop down on Main Street, smoking old pipes, dozing off in the summer sun, straw hats covering their wrinkled, bald heads; and when their heads jerked up as they awakened briefly, they would talk slow and soft about the olden days of their youth. They were old, indeed, but none of them recalling the old days ever talked about the year 1755. They missed something important, the knowledge of That Happy Day.
Oh Happy Day. Philip Doddridge, an English minister and songwriter, made history back in 1755, though it was a few years after his death. Doddridge wrote “approximately 400 hymns, none of which were published during his lifetime. It was four years after his death that a close friend, Job Orton, published Doddridge’s Hymns, Founded on Various Texts in the Holy Scripture (1755).” One of his songs outlived him and even the old men at Virgil’s barbershop. One of Doddridge’s songs will outlive us all. Oh Happy Day.
It’s easy for us to float down the slow current of time without realizing that the river has been moving long before we were plunged into it, and that the river of time will continue to flow long after our day is done. We can miss the awareness that as time flows by we too flow with the past. Some old guy long ago wrote a song, and then, suddenly, centuries later, we hear it, and we don’t know, perhaps, that it is old, old, old. It was new once, and then, it’s new again. Oh Happy Day. The old guys at the barbershop drift into sleep and forget and are forgotten. The music plays on.
A thing can come to life and go unnoticed, a thing that later we recognize as highly important, meaningful, and worthy in our lives. When Dorridge’s song was published in 1755, few would have noticed the death of Montesquieu, the French political philosopher whose ideas transformed the world even unto this day. Fewer still would have noticed the birth of Marie-Antoinette. At the time, two slaves, Mark and Phyllis, were publicly executed outside the Middlesex County Courthouse in Cambridge, Massachusetts for the murder of John Codman. Phyllis was burned to death; Mark was hanged. His body was transported to Charlestown Common and was displayed on a gibbet for more than 20 years. That year, New Jersey was the site of the first steam engine used in America, at a copper mine owned by Arent Schuyler, to pump water out of a mineshaft. Likely, the most widely known event of the year at the time was the publication of Samuel Johnson’s, A Dictionary of the English Language, a book mostly forgotten today. Time takes its toll.
And then, somehow, like a miracle, the river of time reveals some grand treasure long lost, buried in the silt of memory. Who remembered Dorridge and his song from 1755? Not the old men at Virgil’s barbershop. No, it was a young man named Edwin Hawkins who dug up the song and brought it to life again over 200 years later, in 1968.
Hawkins was born in Oakland, California, in 1943. He too is now dead. In 1967, he and Betty Watson co-founded the Northern California State Youth Choir of the Church of God in Christ with 46 singers ages 17 to 25. In a time of eight-track recorders, they used a two track recorder in the church and eventually made 500 copies of their albumn, featuring Dorothy Combs Morrison as female lead. They recorded the album Let Us Go into the House of the Lord, 1968, at the Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley, California
On that album performed by The Edwin Hawkins Singers: Dorridge’s “Oh Happy Day,” .
Few music lovers today would sit still for the duration of Dorridge’s original version of “Oh Happy Day,” likely a dirge-like monotone of misery and Protestant moaning; but, when Hawkins set the music to a Brazilian beat and brought in fifty exuberant young singers, it’s impossible to sit still in one’s seat, the power of the music and the joy of the audience creating a need to rejoice in the Gospel music. Oh Happy Day, was an instant hit!
The spirit of Hawkins is resurrected in the music we enjoy today as we listen to him and his singers; and he, in turn, resurrected the dead Dorridge’s son and the brilliance we have come to associate with gospel song. Somewhere back in time, another was resurrected; and that, Oh Happy Day, was when Jesus washed, when Jesus washed our sins away.
The power and the glory of the song and the music would awaken the doddering old guys at Virgil’s barbershop in the old home town. Hawkins and his singers performing Dorridge, it lifts even the spirit of atheists to some greater height. Yes, even the unbeliever can thank God for such a wondrous thing as this song. Oh Happy Day!
Dag Walker is an American Writer
Main Photo: Edwin Hawkins /tirco.com