I "met" Ace Collins a few years ago when I accepted an invitation to speak at Louise Mandrell's theater in Pidgeon Forge, Tennessee. Louise and Ace are "old family friends." His role was to acquaint possible speakers with the format Louise was looking for. What should have been a 15-minute conversation became an hour-long discussion of everything from family name (I'm a Collins on my mother's side) to collectibles. Ace is one of the easiest people in the world to talk to...which must be why our conversation about his latest book flowed so well. So join me as I chat with Ace about Stories Behind America's Hymns of Faith: Songs That Unite Our Nation (Zondervan).
Eva: Ace, what does it mean (to you) to be an American Christian?
Ace: In truth, I have never associated my citizenship with my faith. I do think it is easier to be a Christian in the United States than almost anywhere else, and I have always been proud and considered myself blessed by having been born in America, but I have never really called myself an American Christian. In my way of thinking, I am a Christian first and then an American. I guess, in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, I have drawn a mental line between church and state. Now, can you separate the influence of faith on this history of this nation? No, and this book's songs and their stories pretty much showcase that fact.
Eva: Your book holds the stories behind the hymns that inspire America. What inspired you that this should be your next project?
Ace: This book really was born in the mind of Cindy Lambert, my editor at Zondervan. She knew that I was writing a book on the stories behind America's patriotic songs for Harper Collins (Songs Sung Red, White, and Blue) and suggested that the stories behind the hymns that have inspired America might be a great companion book. I love working with Cindy and was thrilled with the opportunity to research my favorite music styles -- sacred and inspirational.
Eva: Ace, I'm amazed by the amount of information given. How did you research all this?
Ace: My secret is having a wonderful relationship with the acquisitions librarian at Baylor University. When I needed to get a hold of books, if she didn't have them, then she arranged for another library to allow her to borrow them for me. Then, because this deals with history as much as it does faith, I had to spend a great deal of time researching songs that made an impact on Americans during the most traumatic moments in our history. We began with more than 400 songs that we thought might make the cut, then, as we stumbled onto other possibilities, added songs to the list. As an example, single paragraph in a book on the Civil War is why "Roll Jordan Roll" is here.
Then, after we had looked at the impact of each song, the cuts were pretty easy. Of course, by that time, we had uncovered the basic stories behind all those songs. So really we could have written eight or nine books with the stories we had in house by that time.
Eva: The songs range from those written many years year ago to the most recently composed. What is the span (and the titles) and what caused you to choose those particular songs?
Ace: If memory serves me correctly, "Amazing Grace" is the oldest song in this list and "God Bless the USA" is the newest. That spans almost 400 years. "I Love Thy Kingdom Lord" had its roots in the American Revolution and others came about after W.W. II, yet when each was written was not as important as their lasting impact. Consider this fact: There were more than 650 songs written about Lincoln during and just after the Civil War, but none of them is well known today. Yet, written at the same time, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" remains one of this nation's greatest songs of inspiration. It has stood the test of time. That was the final litmus test for each song in this book.
Eva: Ace, you really threw me some curve balls as I read this book. One in particular is this: Jesus Loves Me was taken from a novel. Do what?? <Grinning> Care to tell more?
Ace: "Say and Seal" was one of the best selling novels issued just before the Civil War, yet we have now all but forgotten it. That book is not even a footnote in literary history. Yet on a single page of that Anna B. Warner book she wrote a little poem that the novel's lead character shared with a dying child. That poem was then taken by the great songwriter William Bradbury and turned into the song we know as "Jesus Loves Me." It is a children's song now, but during the Civil War men from both the south and north sang it around campfires between battles. Imagine, a poem from an obscure novel is now the best-known children's song in the world!
Eva: I found it interesting that you chose "Amazing Grace" and "What a Friend We Have In Jesus" as your opening and closing entries. Was there a reason for this?
Ace: I love the fact that the book begins with a British song that was born on a slave ship headed to this country and ends with "What A Friend," a Canadian song that the American revival movement took around the world. We are a nation of immigrants and our history is made up of influences from every corner of the world, these two songs clearly display that. And while neither was born here, it was in America they had their greatest impact. We imported them, and then exported them back to the whole world. I think "What A Friend" is the best story in the book too. Yet, the reason they are first and last has only to do with the fact that Zondervan decided to post the stories in alphabetical order.
Eva: And here I thought it was something deliberate. Well then...let's be deliberate: Ace, would you close us in a short prayer...for our country...and for the songs that resonate within us all?
Ace: Dear Lord, it is often in songs where we find the words and emotions that not only inspire us, but spell out our faith and chase away our doubts and fears. Let the words and music which have inspired Americans for generations be heard again today, so that those in our cities and villages, as well as those serving this nation a half a world away, can find the strength that can guide them through each moment of each day. Finally, let us remember, as we find in the words of one of the songs in this book, that God does not ask for us to be anything we are not, rather he wants each of us just as we are. He can do wonders with all us if we approach him with that humble spirit and presence. Amen.
Award-winning national speaker, Eva Marie Everson is the author of Shadow of Dreams, Summon the Shadows and the recently released and highly anticipated Shadows of Light. She can be contacted for comments or for speaking engagement bookings at www.EvaMarieEverson.com