When I was in law school at the University of Illinois in the early 80s, our student ward had a killer elders quorum. Our EQP was a grad student in music named Michael Hicks, who is now a professor of music at BYU. (Mike wrote a reminiscence of our quorum in his “A Quorum Memoir,” Sunstone 89 (September 1992), here.) One of our quorum activities was billed as “an evening with the Polysophical Society” (can you tell this was a university ward?), and at that event Mike and one of our choral students presented “The Soldier’s Tear,” which was one of Joseph Smith’s favorite songs. I really liked it; I thought it was haunting, and knowing its connection to Joseph made it special for me.
I used this song once in the priesthood session of a ward conference maybe 15 years ago when I was EQP. I put together a male trio (I had a couple in our ward that was very musical put it into a male trio format) and we performed it that way. It went over very well and was the hit of the conference.
So when our ward music chairman wanted me to do a special musical number for sacrament meeting, I decided to dust that song off and perform it. Almost out of laziness I decided to just do it as a solo a cappella so I wouldn’t have to find other people to do it and coordinate rehearsals and such. But this was a risk, as I don’t really consider myself as having a soloist’s voice (I have a good choir voice), and this was only the second solo I’ve ever performed at Church.
For the past month plus I’ve been practicing in my car while I drive to and from the train station on my commute. I always worry that when I stop at a light someone in a neighboring car will notice that I’m singing; I tried to make it look plausibly as though I was talking on a hands free cell phone.
I was feeling very nervous as I walked into church. I figured it was good for me to experience nerves on that level, so that I can empathize better with, say, recent converts who give their first talk.
I had two main concerns. First, since I was singing without accompaniment, I really had to nail the first six notes. If I got those right, I knew the rest would follow. So I didn’t sing the opening or sacrament hymns, as I was too worried about losing those first six notes in my head. I kept singing them over and over silently to myself. Thankfully, when I sang it the start went fine and I got off on the right track. Second, I was worried about becoming emotional, which would make it hard to sing. Since I relate the song to Joseph Smith and some of his experiences, it is touching to me, but I couldn’t afford to allow myself to become weepy. Again, I think I succeeded at this. I could feel the emotion rising just under my skin, but I kept it sufficiently under wraps so that I was able to get through the entire song without interruption. I kept my gaze just above the faces on the last row. I knew that if I actually looked in people’s faces and saw people crying, I would lose it myself.
I was very pleased with the performance. I got out of the gate just fine, and I thought my voice was strong and clear pretty much throughout. The song probably could have used more dynamics than I gave it, but I mainly just wanted to get through it without embarrassing myself, and I accomplished that. And I got a cold the other day, but the cold didn’t seem to adversely affect my performance.
I gave a little introduction to the song at the pulpit, which went something like this:
This little song I’m about to sing needs a word of introduction. There is a common misconception that Joseph Smith’s favorite song in life was “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief.” That is certainly the most important song we associate with him, and it’s a fair bet that it became his favorite song in the final hours of his life. But that song had only recently been introduced into Nauvoo, and it is likely that Joseph heard it for the first time in that upper bedroom of the Carthage Jail. And we have no record of Joseph’s reaction to the song; recall that it was Hyrum who asked John Taylor to sing it the second time. So if we bracket that song, what was Joseph’s favorite song in life?
With a lot of public figures who lived that long ago, we might not know, as people often did not think to record for posterity what their favorite song was. But in Joseph’s case we do have some insight. There is a very important historical source known as the Benjamin F. Johnson letter. This letter was written in 1903, which is almost 60 years after Joseph was killed, so it is late. But the important point is that Johnson was indeed a close, personal friend of the Prophet. And in this letter Johnson gives a list of five of Joseph’s favorite songs:
Wife, Children and Friends
The Battle of River Rising
The Soldier’s Tear
The Soldier’s Dream
Last Rose of Summer
I would like to sing one of these songs for you. And so, brothers and sisters, I give you The Soldier’s Tear, one of Joseph’s favorite songs
The words of the song are as follows:
Upon the hill he turned,
To take a last fond look
Of the valley and the village church
And the cottage by the brook.
He listened to the sounds so familiar to his ear,
And the soldier leaned upon his sword
And wiped away a tear.
Beside the cottage porch,
A girl had knelt in prayer.
She held aloft a snowy scarf,
Which fluttered in the air.
She breathed a sigh for him, a prayer he could not hear,
But he paused to bless her as she knelt
And wiped away a tear.
He turned and left the spot,
Oh do not think him weak.
For dauntless was the soldier’s heart,
Tho’ tears were on his cheek.
Go watch the foremost ranks in danger’s dark career,
Be sure the hand most daring there
Has wiped away a tear.
So have any of you ever sung a solo at Church? Were you petrified with fear the way I was? How did you manage your nerves? Did it go well, or did you muff it, and if the latter how did you deal with it? Will you ever do it again? Share with us your stories.