Primary effects

Guest post by Michael Hicks.

I’m not always consistent. But I’ve been consistent about two things for many years.

First, in discussions of Mormon music I always say that the masterworks of indigenous Mormon hymnody are mostly in the Primary Song Book. Second, whenever I hear Janice Kapp Perry spoken of in a disparaging or even mocking way–not uncommon among BYU music majors–I always speak up in her behalf. 

I mention these two consistencies because yesterday in sacrament meeting the superb tenor Erik Agle sang a simple but thrilling rendition of “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus,” by Janice Kapp Perry. As I listened, I thought (again), “This is one of the masterworks of children’s gospel music.” Why? The music is excellently designed, of course: the lovely but subtly surprising parallellism of the first two lines, the gradual climbing of the melody into its apex at the chorus, and so forth. But more important to me is the wording, which is not about Jesus as God or some symbol of Whatever, but about a fallen human trying to imitate His attitudes and acts.

Consider: How many hymns are there that doggedly emphasize *trying*, with the humility and understatement the word implies. Here the singer says again and again “I’m trying.” That’s all one can ask or demand of any mortal being. And the nature of what the singer is trying? All the virtues that denote real Christianity–the emulation of Jesus instead of the “mere” adoration of Him.

But there is something else: the striking emphasis on the mind, not the heart, as the locus of inspiration. “Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought,” the song says. And when the Holy Spirit (*not* the archaic “Holy Ghost”) speaks, He does it when He “enters into my thoughts.”

Then what is the message the Spirit speaks? Just this: “Love one another as Jesus loves you. Try to show kindness in all that you do. Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought, for these are the things Jesus taught.”

That’s the gospel. And if children get that message in our church via this song, they will outlast and transcend all the other, lesser messages that enter their ears through the siren songs of religiosity.


  1. Bravo!

  2. When I was called at primary chorister the first time, I was taught in a training to remember that through all of the primary and Sunday school classes and sharing times and YW/YM/firesides — very few of those lessons will be remembered word for word 20 years from now. But the gospel doctrines choristers teach every Sunday? Those will be memorized; they’ll be committed to their minds and hearts.

    I get frustrated when primary presidencies (or family, friends, etc.) don’t seem to care if my primary kids are getting enough time to learn the songs. They often say, oh it doesn’t really matter in the primary program if the kids make mistakes . . . they think I’m trying to show off my chorister skillz once a year – they don’t have the vision of what I’m actually trying to accomplish. To get four year olds to feel the spirit and memorize gospel principles.

    It’s my favorite calling.

  3. Thanks for this analysis. I agree that the emphasis on trying is particularly good.

  4. Absolutely loved this, Michael! From hearts like yours I’m persuaded that my children can learn goodness within the Church and that the goodness will stick.

  5. Very good — thank you for this reflection. I’ve always liked that one.

  6. D. Kim Croft says:

    Having been exposed to the children’s music from several denominations, I have to agree, Michael. While I’m not a fan of the offerings aimed at grownups, no one anywhere writes better children’s songs than JKP.

  7. “And if children get that message in our church via this song, they will outlast and transcend all the other, lesser messages that enter their ears . . .”

    True dat

  8. I’ve spent a lot of time as Primary music leader (it’s one of the benefits of being the ward liberal), and I agree that this song is one of the best.

  9. Nlocnil says:

    But can you defend the song ‘This Party’s Not For Me’?

  10. I love this song too. As a primary pianist it was fun to play and wonderful to listen to both musically and lyrically. Definitely one of the best.
    I am no vocalist, but I can sing on key and in a small ward a little talent can be appreciated. My daughter and I sang this song.

  11. I have always liked JKP’s songs. However, I rarely buy recordings of her works because they always seem to be sung by breathy sopranos who somehow mistake poor breath control for spirituality or reverence or something.

  12. I love to see support for primary songs. I have long felt that the pure doctrine of Christ is in the words of “He Sent His Son.”

  13. What a great post, Michael. There are so many treasures in the Children’s Songbook (and so many weird little ditties). Thanks for helping me hear this one in a new way.

  14. I adore the children’s songbook – and “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus” is a wonderful example of why.

    Whenever I hear people criticize Sister Perry’s songs, I ask them to write anything that does what children’s church songs are meant to do (be loved by and teach properly kids aged 3-12). I also have experience with songs written for kids in other religions, and Sister Perry is masterful.

  15. High praise from a professor of music composition. I like this piece, too; I chose to play the beautiful Robert Manookin organ arrangement of it at a funeral just last week. It’s a very effective piece.

    You say that if children get the message of “”I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus”, they will transcend all the “other, lesser messages that enter their ears through the siren songs of religiosity.” Care to give an example of a siren song of religiosity? Are you talking about so-called “Mormon pop” or are you referring to “lesser” Mormon hymns? (I’m not looking for titles of pieces that can be disparaged. I’m more interested in your thought process; how you evaluate good, better, best in this context.)

  16. Michael Hicks says:

    I refer to “siren songs” in the mythic/symbolic/metaphorical sense, not particularly to songs as such. See Webster:
    siren song – n.: something that is very appealing and makes you want to go somewhere or do something but that may have bad results

  17. Thanks a lot for getting this song stuck in my head all day, jerks!

  18. Dr. Hicks: OK, got it. Thanks for the clarification.

    Steve: Following President Packer’s advice on removing unwanted things from your mind, I shall help you replace “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus” with the following: “It’s a small world after all; It’s a small world after all; It’s a small world after all; It’s a small, small, world!” (If that doesn’t work, you could also try, “Who Let the Dogs Out?”) You’re welcome!

  19. Too late, I’ve moved on to “Tom’s Diner”.

  20. Janice Kapp Perry has written some great children’s songs. This is one of her best.

  21. stargazer says:

    Love is spoken here is my favorite… Balanced between mother and father. Not sure how to address when someone has a single parent situation. It is still my favorite JKP song.

  22. I love that song. Love. My Grandparents recently passed away. They were both musicians, not professionally but played in a band together for decades. My Grandma said on more than one occasion that if you wanted to learn music theory instinctively by playing there was nothing better than the Children’s Songbook. I love the Primarily For Grown Ups and Primarily For Grown Ups, Again! By Brett Raymond. I’m not a musician but there are so many songs that teach power pure doctrine in their words and melody, hearing and singing sometimes makes me weep for joy.

  23. I have served in Primary for a number of years and I really love the children’s songs. Music time is such an important of Primary and really the best way for children to learn the teachings of the gospel. There are so many great songs that powerfully and simply lay things out in a memorable way. Someone already mentioned He Sent His Son; some of my other favorite “doctrinal” songs are On a Golden Springtime, Baptism, If the Savior Stood Beside Me, My Heavenly Father Loves Me, When I Am Baptized, and A Child’s Prayer. Silly songs are quite a lot of fun too–I think we should sing “Hinges” for the rest hymn in sacrament meeting sometime.

  24. stargazer says:

    I want Hinges for the rest song in SM. For sure.

  25. Alf O'Mega says:

    As a long-time pianist in Primary (one of the few places to put an atheist who stubbornly refuses to go inactive), I was surprised to discover how much I liked Janice Kapp Perry’s contributions to the Children’s Songbook. It surprised me because I grew up in the sixties and seventies, and my experience with her music had primarily been “In the Hollow of Thy Hand” at weepy missionary farewells. After an extended tenure in singles wards that lasted well into the nineties, I finally convinced a girl to punch my ticket back to the family ward circuit. There I discovered the new Children’s Songbook, which had been introduced about ten years earlier. And as you say, Dr. Hicks, JKP is the cream of the crop.

    I also greatly admire “I Feel My Savior’s Love” and “The Still Small Voice.” (I’ve often wondered if Dr. Bradshaw wrote the latter to win a bet that he could get the Church to publish a song with that chord at the beginning of the second measure—basically a minor chord with a major seventh.) My favorite wiggle song is “We Are Different,” which somehow got smuggled in despite its overtly calypso rhythm. Also, while it’s not in the Children’s Songbook, Tammy Simister Robinson’s “Jesus Is My Shepherd” is worth downloading from the Submitted Music section ( Maybe I’m just a sucker for richly harmonized pentatonic melodies.

    So yes, the best music in the Church is in Primary.

  26. You know I was never a huge fan of primary music in general, even when I was in primary, and I still tend to cringe when they sing in sacrament (yes I know they’re cute, but still…) hopeful I feel bit more sentimental if its ever my own children, but you given a fresh prospective on this song and I like to think at least that I am not easily impressed. Maybe it’s, because I’m coming out (I hope) of rough patch right now and truly emphasize with the “trying”. I feel that’s really all I can do right now and phrases like “perfectly obedient” make me feel frustrated to put it mildly. The message of this song really does say something that is profound very simply. Anyway, Kudos great post.

  27. I don’t know which songs are by whom, but I love to sing primary songs as lullabies – I can share my testimony, and feel the spirit while also soothing a child to sleep. “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus” is one of my favourites.

    I also love “Give, Said the Little Stream”, and lately I’ve enjoyed singing “Mother, Tell Me the Story” (because I really would like my Mother to tell me the story of why I came here), which is another of those “Person A, then Person B, then both together” songs that I spent about a decade disliking, but have come back around to again.

    While we’re listing favourites, let me add that “I’ll Walk With You”, “Jesus Said Love Everyone” and “I Am Like a Star” are woven into the fabric of my being, they were so important to me from such a young age. Primary choristers, you are truly doing the Lord’s work.

  28. Emily Updegraff says:

    I agree the Children’s Songbook is a gem. I’ve used some of the non overtly religious songs several times at my children’s preschool (i.e. “In the Leafy Treetops”). The kids loved them, and so did the teachers, who asked for a copy of the music. And I agree JKP’s songs are some of the best in the book.

    I’ve spent some months substituting as Primary Chorister recently, and have listened to the musical content of the annual Primary Program for years, and am sad to note that what I consider the best of the Children’s Songbook is rarely used. Instead we’re seeing more “adult” hymns being used, and supplementary songs published in the Friend, that are didactic and poorly composed. The kids spend so much of the time learning songs for the program that there’s little time for much else, and whoever is choosing the songs seems to be choosing them for their didactic purposes, rather than songs that feed us spiritually and aesthetically.

    That said, I’m still grateful the Children’s Songbook has so many wonderful songs. I hope songs like “The Family is of God” (in this year’s program, didactic, and disgustingly retro in its language on gender) will be forgotten over time, but that JKP’s “Love is Spoken Here” will endure.

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