As Christmas carols go, this one usually doesn’t appear on the top ten list. It is beautiful and poignant, nonetheless. The carol was first published in 1848 by Cecil Humphrey in Hymns for Little Children. A year later, the English organist Henry John Gauntlett set it to music. Humphrey also penned the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful.
The stately tune and nativity poem holds a treasured memory for me. Our high school concert choir sang all four verses in unison every year as a we processed with lit candles into our annual Christmas concert.
Fast forward to 2017. Most Sundays, fellow musician and worship director and I “jam” on a hymn tune during communion. He’s on guitar (or electric guitar) and singing while I’m at the piano. Eventually our meditative improvisation is followed by the congregation singing a of couple verses.
Once he chooses a tune, he or I come up with a chord chart featuring anything but the standard chord progression. We both have a passion for colorful harmonies! When he recently suggested “Once in Royal David’s City,” I accepted the challenge and fell into this chord progression sprinkled with a bluesy interlude which lends itself well to improvisation.
It got me thinking what it must have been like for Joseph pulling a donkey transporting his very pregnant and most likely uncomfortable wife away from home to “David’s city.” Could the obedient and hopeful couple carrying the light of the world or “royal cargo” have felt a little blue? Thus the subtitle “The Royal Blues.”
It’s my hope that you, like me, treasure the words and tune of “Once in Royal David’s City” and in addition, accept the invitation to step out and enjoy the freedom of playing beyond the page. The score indicates a repeat between measures 74-77. This is your window to ad lib and play the blues as many times as you wish!
If you are uncertain where to begin, experiment with any of the pitches of the blues scale notated in the score in any order and within any rhythm. Use notes from the melody, borrow my ideas and expand upon your own and see your gift of creativity blossom.
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