Analogue Music | Just Sing the Song: From Hymn to Hem

Just Sing the Song: From Hymn to Hem

By Adam Whipple

Several years ago, I read about the New York-based band Hem and filed the band’s name away in the back of my mind.

New CDs don’t often find space in the family budget, what with electricity and the endless eating of Lucky Charms, so I keep a mental back catalog of potential purchases. The list is usually haunted by rarities and barely-documented sessions, but occasionally I’ll find something I’m looking for second-hand. I don’t even recall where or when I found one of their records, but I won’t forget the feeling of that first listen.

The album was Funnel Cloud, their fourth full-length studio offering. The opening track functions as a prologue, immersing you in a minor seventh piano soundscape girding a perfect country drone of vocal harmonies. It was excellent, as far as I was concerned, but the second track, “He Came to Meet Me,” was what really introduced me to the band.

If you imagine Hem's sound as a novel, Sally Ellyson’s voice is the heroine.

If you imagine Hem's sound as a novel, Sally Ellyson’s voice is the heroine. As the story goes, she contacted the other band members through an ad they put in the paper, sent them a demo of herself singing lullabies, and got the gig. Video interviews have her talking about growing up in a household where singing was the norm. The timbre of her voice, as she started in on “He Came to Meet Me,” can only be described as plainsong—not the historical definition referring to medieval chanting, but an unadorned thing, beautiful without all the flashy presumption of the modern radio-single vocal. In her singing, Ellyson hearkens back to another time. You can imagine that voice coming from the next room while you’re doing dishes, or flowing patient and true over summer porchboards on some half-lit evening. She doesn’t thrash her words as though she’s contending with them. Every syllable is picked up, held a moment, and lain down in its proper time. In letting that dependable voice be the jewel of the band, Hem unearthed a current I hadn’t known was running through me.

I feel like something was always guiding my knowledge of music and song, like a canyon cradling a river. A Scots-Irish sensibility to melody and an Appalachian appreciation for hymns have held sway throughout years of erratic interjections. I grew up Southern Baptist, sitting week after week on blood red pew cushions under a dark woodwork ceiling that collected shadow and brooded over the congregation like a cloud of mystery. We sang out of either the 1975 Baptist Hymnal or some old Broadman Hymnal; I can’t recall which. Songs were accompanied by organ and piano, and we followed the notes on the page. This was a Southern church from 30 years ago, and while, compared to modern congregations, they were probably a more musically literate bunch—due to constant staring at hymnals—the melodies still weren’t overly complicated. Half, quarter, and eighth notes, in three, four, or six—nothing too gaudy.

This was my foundation. Piled on top of it were the neon bricks of modern radio hits, even though I didn’t know what they were at that point. I remember a gym-type class in grade school called Creative Movement—presumably because ‘Dancing’ would have been subject to endless calls from angry parents. Over and over again, the teacher played Kylie Minogue’s version of “The Locomotion,” which I always associated with a Crest toothpaste commercial. I still hate the song to this day. Then there was middle school, an awkward cauldron of Reba McEntire, Alan Jackson, and MTV grunge hits. Still the foundation of plain hymns settled into its immovable place, reinforced every Sunday by putting my nose in a church songbook.

Then came the projector screens and the new church music. My nose came out of the book, along with everyone else’s, and the musical foundation went under for a while. Little glimpses of it arose here or there when my dad would complain about the spastic way people tried to sing the National Anthem. Before football players kneeling, this was the Great American Controversy. There we would be, watching the Braves game, and some aspiring country artist would arrive at “o’er the laaa-and of the freeee…” and proceed to have a thoracic spasm of operatic notation in trying to outdo the last game’s country artist. Dad would wait respectfully through the end of this travesty before launching into a small sermon on why they should all just sing the song without going into cocaine withdrawals in the middle.

I had to wait until after college for Sally Ellyson to dig down to bedrock. When she finally did, and Funnel Cloud had a good long initial rotation in my house, I realized the value of all my father’s arguments with star-spangled singers. She’s just singing the song, I thought. There was no melisma, no overwrought vibrato. By virtue of letting the songs themselves speak, Ellyson had brought Hem—in my small opinion—into the company of writers and performers like Carole King, James Taylor, Pete Seeger, and Eva Cassidy. Like those old hymnals, which had presented the notes and the words and nothing more, these performers put the songs first. They served the art.

I didn’t know it was a lesson I was already learning until I had listened to Hem for a while. I had heard the admonition before, playing open mic nights or contests and waiting in line to play a song at The Bluebird in Nashville. In their performances and their songcraft, all my wisest writer friends seemed to be saying the same thing: if you strip a song down to its bare essentials and it still stands, it’s good. Plus, it can probably hold up a great variety of instrumentation without sounding overwrought. I didn’t expect to find church hymnals, my friends, and this band from New York sitting in the same corner.

After that, I kept buying Hem albums when I saw them. The songwriting, for me, holds a place in the upper echelons of the American catalog. I keep learning the plainsong lesson, too. It makes for good practice in both writing and performance, and it keeps me honest about when a song of mine is rubbish—or when it’s worth my while. Just sing the song.