Hallelujah Square

A few days ago over at Adam Edwards’s site, I saw this video of Chris Allman’s first night back out with GV doing an acoustic rendition of “Hallelujah Square,” but I decided not to link to it because the quality of the videography is just so appallingly bad (not only does the person with the camera appear to be filming from somewhere near the side parking lot of the venue, our phantom filmer also decides to pan from stage to screen, which results in lunging jerks of the camera up and over and around and down and blurringly back up and in toward the general vicinity of where the jumbo projection screen may be). But then reader DJ sent me a link to a version of much better quality that’s worth a look and listen:

A few thoughts in no particular order.

1. I’ve always vaguely disliked “Hallelujah Square” for its formulaic sentimentality and the mawkish, trite way it objectifies real human suffering in the world, as if the main reason for Christian suffering is to help those not suffering feel ok about their good fortune when bad things happen to good people (remember, the song was written in 1969, so it’s not like it dates from some bygone era of unironic innocence). But whatever. It’s no worse than any number of old gospel warhorses and crowd-pleasing standbys in this regard. But for some reason this was the first time I’ve really grasped the outrageousness of the first two verses’ conclusion. You know the parts I’m talking about right? Where the singer/narrator of the song turns to the blind guy who’s been the focus of the first verse so far and says, “Friend, you can’t see!” and then in the next verse walks up (walks!) to the “crippled man” and says “My friend, I feel sorry for you.”

Maybe it’s the emphatic urgency with which Allman makes so very present these lyrics we’ve all encountered a thousand times and probably learned to more or less only half listen to (typically the point of the song, I think, has as much or more to do with the tradition and memories¬† it evokes as the literal message it’s lyrically conveying). Whatever the reason, this morning it was like I was hearing them with new ears and the BS-detector set on supersensitive. I mean, honestly. Who does that? Go up to a sightless person and say, “Friend, you can’t see!” (like it’s news to the blind guy!)? Let’s stipulate up front that gospel songs, like many stylized modes of expression, try to make a point in the real world by using idealized or imagined or fictional or allegorical or otherwise artfully “unreal” constructs. Even so, the idea of even the most well-intentioned, able-bodied person of faith passing by someone with a disability and blurting out, “I feel sorry for you!” is just so preposterous it makes me giggle. Sure, we’ve all felt this before (and that’s probably the most powerful defense of the song’s heavyhandedness, that it says what most of us think), but there’s a reason nobody actually says this kind of thing: because we’re trying to have a half-way decent society here. And maybe that’s why this was the first time I also imagined I could hear just maybe a little smart-assiness in the disabled guy’s reply: “Up in heaven I’m gonna walk just like you.” Until then, please go away.

2. Allman really is probably one of the finest lyric singers in gospel music. His voice is not the prettiest, actually, nor the richest or most textured, and he can go thinnish in the upper ranges. But what distinguishes him so much is, first of all, his awareness of his limitations, which in turn gives him a self-possession of voice and manner that results in an almost eerie, certainly enviable confidence to conquer without screaming at the cheap seats. Another way to say this is, I enjoy watching him sing as much as listening to him: The absence of histrionics, the unprepossessing subtly of physical gesture and vocal ornament that collectively convey an abiding sensitivity to the expressive curve of a lyric, the restrained power to wring the last ounce of feeling from an idea … in short, it’s a pleasure to witness someone work who knows how to connect with people from the stage the way Allman does.

3. There are other clips from that first night out (alas, these appear to be more work from the Blaire Pitch Project of videographers who recorded that first version of “Hallelujah Square”), and here’s what I notice: though “Hallelujah Square” is the weakest song in a technical, artistic sense, it’s the best performed number of the four I saw. Why? Because it’s fully live. Compared to the acoustic number, the tunes done with tracks seem lifeless and predictable, somewhat plastic and coldblooded (the corollary here is, of course, using live instruments is not itself a guarantee of making good music, as this items reminds us). Though I have no doubt Allman will do fine to fabulous with numbers from the old Greater Vision¬† songbook (here’s one) - and I’m eager to hear him cover these songs, as I’ve said before - the real takeaway from these clips is that talent like Allman’s is to some extent frittered away with accompaniment tracks and sets mostly full of sing-by-number songs.

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  1. Greater Vision – “The Only Way” « Friday Night Revival on 04 Jun 2011 at 12:34 am

    […] of your opinions and preferences on their actual voices, these are arguably the 3 best lyrical singers in southern gospel music, as even Avery would admit.¬† Allman brings GV a style, swagger, and coolness that elevates the […]


  1. Lovelife wrote:

    Sometimes Avery, you think too much and analyze way to deep..just sayin

  2. quartet-man wrote:

    I recently had an ensemble sing this at church (we were a quartet, but our female tenor was having intonation trouble on the last two notes and my calling her on it made her self-concious on it, so I doubled the three of us on the mens parts and added two more ladies to her to balance out the sound.)

    Anyhow, it was well-received (even by the older members.) The song is a promise of Heaven and our new bodies and lack of problems up there. I understand what you are saying, but in songs there is some license in these things for poetic license and in telling the story. It is difficult in a few words to get it done.

  3. onemadeupmind wrote:

    Allman’s voice has always reminded me of Kirk Talley’s voice, which, I happen to like.

    Greater Vision is back!

  4. Jeremy Hatfield wrote:

    The sentiment expressed in “Hallelujah Square” is reminiscent of George Younce’s recitation of a poem about the physically handicapped from the “Live in Atlanta” album.

  5. Irishlad wrote:

    The fact the singing cowboy/writer Ray Overholt also wrote “Ten thousand Angels” proves he was a pretty good writer.It’s interesting to note a few years back he took a heart attack which left him blind and minus a leg.I wonder did it happen prior to ‘69 and thus the inspiration for the song or was it a case of “mocking’s catching” played out by a cruel twist of fate.

  6. melvin klaudt wrote:

    I guess this argument pretty much negates Jesus asking the blind man what he wanted Him to do.

    Don’t you believe the Lord knew what the blind man needed? Why then ask the question? Don’t you believe the Lord had compassion and felt sorry for him?

  7. quartet-man wrote:

    #6, remember, there are times Christ asks people questions in the Bible that obviously He already knows the answer to. In fact, God did in the Garden to Adam and Eve after they fell. For instance, He knew why they were hiding, who told them they were naked etc.

  8. Auke wrote:

    I think Chris Allman’s voice has a very compelling quality…i love Chris Allman. He is a true tenor, like Terry Franklin…nothing forced about it…very relaxed..and confident!

    Hallelujah Square is indeed a song that somehow has a high annoyment level to me too..never liked that song.

  9. honolulu sqare wrote:

    Hallelujah Square is the most horrible hit Southern Gospel song of it’s era. What would today’s horrible hits be?

  10. copperhill wrote:

    A few observations from someone who has heard Hallelujah Square a grand total of twice: before I read Doug’s commentary the other day and then again just now.

    People have more tact that to literally tell someone “Friend you’re blind” or “oh my, you’re dragging your crippled leg down the street” or “do you realize you’re gasping for breath?” They may very well think it but they don’t blurt it out.

    My takeaway is that because of their faith and attitude and the hope they have in Jesus, people who some may pity and consider less fortunate than themselves are actually better off than the person doing the pitying, if that person isn’t saved.

    The song is certainly not written in “person first” language–which normally makes me cringe– but the song would lose a lot of it’s impact if the lyrics changed “blind man” to “man with a visual impairment” and crippled to “mobility impairment.”

    The speaker (”tears in his eyes” “feeling blue”) attempts in a somewhat clumsy way to reach out and show compassion/minister and he is the one who ends up getting ministered to in the powerful last line of v3: “I’m going to heaven now HOW ABOUT YOU?”

    That being said, I’ve never heard the song butchered/performed badly, which could factor into some folks distaste for it? I think the singer might factor into one’s reaction to this song more than most.

  11. Kyle wrote:

    I heard someone write an additional verse at Stamps Baxter School of Music in 2001. It was about seeing a newborn baby, which put it all in a different perspective. Very well-written, too.

  12. gina wrote:

    For obvious reasons, this reminded me of a scene I witnessed at a gospel concert a few years ago. The male singer called a young (mentally challenged) fan up from the audience to sing with him on a song that was her favorite. During all the breaks in the song, as he lovingly placed his arm around her, he would exclaim to the crowd words like, “You need to thank the Lord for your healthy child. THIS could be YOUR child”, etc. I’m sure he did not mean to belittle the girl, but I remember thinking how her mother in the audience must have felt.

  13. Irishlad wrote:

    # 12 You sure it wasn’t the male singer who was “mentally challenged”.

  14. BUICK wrote:

    Gerald Wolfe can still play a mighty fine SG piano. I’d almost rather hear him play as sing - - and I do like to hear him sing.

  15. Just Thinking wrote:

    I read your comments before watching the video and was all prepared to agree with you. But after watching, I really didn’t feel the way you did about it. I didn’t get the feeling that the singer was minimizing the suffering of those he sang about. In each instance, he was sympathetic, but the sufferer was looking beyond this life to a better day. What is wrong with sufferers focusing on the hope instead of wallowing in the suffering? It is a comfort to them to think of the hope. And what did you expect the singer to do? I mean really, it is just a song. And a good one, I think.

  16. Extra Ink wrote:

    Chris Allman is a fine singer and communicator. I look forward to seeing more of him with Greater Vision.

  17. cynical one wrote:

    #15 — I had the same process and thoughts. I did not get the feeling the author or singer was looking down on the sufferers, like the story Gina told. I felt the emphasis in the song is the optimism of the blind man, et al, and the determination to “see all my friends in” heaven. I don’t know if it’s a great song, a good song, a mediocre song, or a bad song. I just know it seemed well-crafted, and I always kinda liked it.

  18. Grigsby wrote:

    I like walking up behind people, putting my hands over their eyes, and singing the “Friend, you can’t see” line.

  19. Chris Allman wrote:

    Way too analytical guys. The idea is simply the hope that Heaven has to offer. Bottom line… every night when we have the privilege to perform it it blesses those who are there. Why, because we can all relate to imperfections yet, if in Christ, we will all be perfect one day.

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