“Sing We a Song of High Revolt”

By Robert A. Canham

We live in restless, for some of us unwelcome, times of transformation, but alongside that our faith is a transforming faith.

As with other similar passages in Isaiah, chapter 35 is about hope and transformation:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom; …
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert. …
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing.

It speaks to those who are isolated and oppressed, may be in Babylon, may be in many other places, it is a message which spans the centuries, and it is a message for everyone, including creation itself – the desert will burst into flower; water will well up in dry places; the weak will become strong; the anxious assured; faculties, including sight, hearing and speech will be restored – liberation!

When Fred Kaan wrote his hymn:

Sing we a song of high revolt
make great the Lord, his name exalt!
Sing we the song that Mary sang
of God at war with human wrong.

it was based on the Magnificat, Mary’s revolutionary song “Magnificat,” which itself in many ways echoes Hanna’s song at the beginning of 1 Samuel.

Fred’s hymn caused quite a stir! It found its way into a hymn book used in many schools. Parents wrote to their elected representatives in parliament. A question was asked in the House of Commons – children’s minds were being filled with revolutionary ideas. May be those parents didn’t know their bibles very well! That was back in 1972. In challenging times, it is about transformation!

Eleven years before that, when the New english Bible New Testament was published in 1961 (an event probably equal to the appearance of the King James Bible in 1611 and, almost, William Tyndale’s English translation in 1525/6), Timothy Dudley Smith wrote a poem based on Mary’s Song: “Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord.” The poem became a hymn, one of the first Timothy wrote, the first of getting on for five hundred. Mary’s Song, and the hymns it has produced, are about transformation, liberation, new beginnings.

John’s account of Jesus’ ministry begins with the Wedding Feast at Cana and the transformation of water into wine. And note, it was on the Third Day. The wine gave out, but, in the presence of Jesus, water was turned into wine, wine of the finest quality. In an unpromising, embarrassing situation, it is about transformation.

As Charles Wesley has it in one of his hymns (Thy ceaseless, unexhausted love):

Its streams the whole creation reach,
so plenteous is the store,
enough for all, enough for each,
enough for evermore.

And that is the mark of Jesus’ ministry; transformation, liberation, new beginnings, enough and more to spare!

And all of this resonates in this hymn, also by Charles Wesley:

Finish, then, thy new creation…
changed from glory into glory…

This is the ultimate transformation, new beginnings – something to hold on to in challenging times.

Based on a reflection offered by the Rev. Robert A. Canham at a prayer service of the International Fellowship for Research in Hymnology, which is meeting in Løgumkloster, Denmark. Canham is secretary of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland and ordained minister in the United Reformed Church in the U.K.





  1. I’ve long loved the Kaan hymn, along with Janet Wootton’s “Moratorium on Magnificat”

    When Mary heard her cousin say
    God’s promises would be fulfilled
    she looked towards the coming day
    and sang a song to change the world.
    This is the way the world will be
    when God takes on humanity.

    But while the poor support the proud
    and tyrants thrive in lands and homes
    and while the hungry people crowd
    around the mighty on their thrones:
    while greed and need go on and on
    how dare we think of Mary’s son?

    And when it comes to you and me
    to show the world a God who cares,
    we duck responsibility
    and hide ourselves behind our prayers.
    Till we have faced our common wrong
    how dare we think of Mary’s song?

    Now face to face with Mary’s Son,
    who healed the sick and took the blame,
    we’ll let God’s promise call us on –
    and then we’ll never be the same.
    Then we can sing with heart and voice,
    In God my spirit does rejoice.

    © Janet Wootton 88 88 88
    Suggested hymn tune: Sussex Carol

  2. The 1972 example of a hymn evoking so much turmoil makes clear that singing a text is quite something different as reading a text. When you sing these provocative words they are inscribed in your body. Singing transforms the singer!

  3. I can speculate why it never caught on in the USA – “council flat”. Hard to have a culiminating phrase that is neither a poeticism nor understood (you can get away without one or the other, but not both…).

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      Indeed; not only the concluding “council flat” but also the fact that the rhymes in the first strophe are imperfect while the rest of the rhymes are perfect. Not one of Fred Kaan’s better creations.

      The hymn has appeared in only five hymnals: two in England, one each in Australia and Canada, and one in the USA (J.S. Paluch’s We Celebrate in Song, 1976).

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