Old Hymns

On Sunday mornings long ago I would walk into the clapboard church early, a few hours before service, to find the old woman sitting on the piano bench, warming up the Mason & Hamlin.

Her fingers were twisted with arthritis. Her hair was freshly blued. She was a walking advertisement for the Estée Lauder bath powder product line.

I was the church’s pitiful guitarist. They let me play acoustic beside the venerable pianist during the clapping songs. We played uptempo tunes like:

“I got a home in Gloryland that outshines the sun,
“I got a home in Gloryland that outshines the sun,
“Way beyond the blue…”

I wasn’t a great guitarist, I contributed very little in the way of talent. But the old woman once told me: “It don’t matter how little you have, as long as you give it away.”

So I gave it away. Although I’m not sure many wanted it. I would arrive at the church carrying my heavy guitar case, before the people showed up, slip in the back pew, and listen to her finger through a Debussy piece by memory. “Clair de Lune.” Eyes closed. Channeling old Claude.

She was my friend, and she proved it a few times.

One time someone in the congregation got peeved because I showed up to play guitar wearing blue jeans and a button down that wasn’t starched like marine-grade plywood. It was the old pianist who defended me against the fundamentalist fashion police.

And there was the time I invited four of my landscaping coworkers to Wednesday night’s meeting to see me play. Four of my Mexican friends showed up wearing neon work shirts and grass-stained boots and sat right up front.

The preacher intercepted my friends and guided them to the back pews so their collective appearance wouldn’t be distracting for others.

It was the old woman who gave that young minister a verbal dressing down.

That same night she invited those young men to her house for supper. Lucky them. She could cook, too.

The five of us showed up to find her house was a wreck. Her den was filled with vibraphones, saxophones, music stands, and electric basses from local students she taught each week for twenty bucks a lesson.

Before supper, if you behaved, she’d play “Moonlight Sonata,” or some Bach on a xylophone. And if you were really good, she’d sing “Walkin’ the Floor Over You” at the Steinway.

But it was the hymns she played best.

In my book, there has never been a greater artform than the American hymn, and she had them internalized.

I don’t care what you’ve been told, hymns are not merely church songs. Hymns are the American story. Every era, every hard time, every war, every Depression, every trying period from the Declaration of Independence to the Civil Rights movement has its hymn.

“When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
“When sorrows like sea billows roll…”


“What have I to dread, what have I to fear?
“Leaning on the everlasting arms…”

And one of my all-time favorites. Especially the way Mahalia Jackson sings it:

“When my feeble life is over,
“Time for me shall be no more,
“Guide me gently, safely over,
“To thy kingdom’s shore,
“To thy shore…”

And the fourth verse of the greatest loved hymn of all time:

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
“Bright shining as the sun…”

As it happens, we sang that last song at the old lady’s funeral, which was well attended. I was among the billion-and-one visitors who formed a ten-mile line outside the parlor doors. We all had our turn viewing her pinewood box.

When I arrived at the open casket I noticed many of the funeral visitors before me had placed heartfelt mementos inside her coffin. I don’t know who started this, or why. But one thing about Baptists; they’re big on trends.

I looked at her peaceful face, surrounded by a myriad of tiny trinkets, porcelain figurines, bookmarks, embroidered handkerchiefs, love notes, messy colored pictures, and stuffed animals, and my heart was pricked.

I silently thanked her for sticking up for mis amigos once. For letting a kid play guitar beside her even though he was tone deaf.

Then I reached into the pocket of my jeans and removed the only thing I had on me: a guitar pick. It seemed like a ridiculous object to put into someone’s casket, but someone once told me that it doesn’t matter how little you have, as long as you give it away.


  1. Nancy T Rogers - May 25, 2021 8:21 am

    For it is better to give, than to receive.

    • vic brown - May 26, 2021 5:07 am

      Hymns are so fine. I heard “And Can It Be” Sunday morning as special music. The arrangement was phenomenal and changed keys on the second verse then back on the third. The ending was as powerful as the “Hallelujah Chorus”. I was in tears.

  2. oldlibrariansshelf - May 25, 2021 8:29 am

    Amen and amen.

  3. Sandi. - May 25, 2021 8:36 am

    Every church needs a piano player just like her!

  4. Jan Fincher - May 25, 2021 9:08 am

    I loved this. It was the old hymns that I sang to my grandmother, father and father-in-law as they passed over. I hope they just went peacefully hearing my voice singing those melodies to those of the angel’s. I’m afraid that the next generation won’t know those sweet hymns well enough to sing for me. But that’s ok. Somehow I’ll be soothed by those sweet songs, even if I have to hum them to myself.

  5. Dee Jordan - May 25, 2021 10:00 am

    Superb!!! Made me choke up!

  6. Amanda - May 25, 2021 10:06 am

    The guitar pick was perfect!

  7. Susan Corbin - May 25, 2021 10:08 am

    Thank you, Sean.

  8. Trey Gregory - May 25, 2021 10:23 am

    Once every couple of Sundays, the guitar-bearin’, skinny-jeans-clad crew at that beach church in Mirimar renders good service to an old hymn or two. On purpose. Because there’s no better way to worship. And there’s no better way to put down what those old hymns mean than you just did, at least not that I’ve read recently.

    Makes me think of Miss Marguerite at the console piano of Fairmount Church in Red Level, Alabama, wrapping up every service with the time-honored altar call “Just As I Am, without one plea / But that Thy blood was shed for me, / And that thou bidst me come to Thee / O Lamb of God I come, I come.” And usually, just the first & second verses.


  9. Bob Brenner - May 25, 2021 11:10 am

    What a great friend and teacher you had! What a great tribute to a. Sweet Lady. 🎹❤️

  10. D. Green - May 25, 2021 11:20 am

    “It doesn’t matter how little you have, as long as you give it away.” I absolutely love that.

  11. Micki - May 25, 2021 11:24 am

    Those hymns are, indeed, internalized. My mother slowly faded away from us due to Alzheimers, but we still took her to church as long as possible. Even when she could no longer carry on a conversation, she could sing the words and tunes to all the old hymns. That’s one of my most precious memories. Oh – and she also remembered her recipe for banana pudding – apparently that Southern delight was also internalized!

  12. Marc Beaver - May 25, 2021 11:38 am

    Exactly! The best music ever!

  13. Susan Kennedy - May 25, 2021 11:40 am

    I want to tel that so called preacher a thing or two….

  14. Jo Ann - May 25, 2021 11:41 am

    As I read your story, I was singing those old, dear songs in my head. Thank you, Sean.

  15. Patty - May 25, 2021 11:42 am

    Sean I loved today’s story. I grew up with these hymns and this warmed my heart. My dad was in the Air Force and we traveled a lot. I always yearned to be back in Red Level. You brought me home again with your words. Thank you for your gift of writing and remembrances. If you ever find your way to Covington County Alabama I wil take you to see Oakey Streak United Methodist Church.

  16. Tammy S. - May 25, 2021 12:06 pm

    A beautiful tribute for this great lady. She would be proud that you continue to give of your gifts, Sean.
    Thanks. Another great one! 💗🎶

  17. Kate - May 25, 2021 12:20 pm

    Sean, such a sweet piece of writing, and you write so many. What a wonderful lady she was. My mother was the church pianist at our little white planked Primitive Baptist Church in Tampa, Florida and that is where I loved to learn all the old hymns. She could also play tunes such as Alexander’s Ragtime Band which was a family favorite. (But obviously not at church 🤩) She loved her piano and when she died young at 60 from breast cancer the church bought a new piano and dedicated it to her, with her name on a small plaque on the piano. When the small church finally closed its doors an older member of the church called and asked if I wanted the piano, I said yes, although I don’t play and lived 500 miles away. I still really don’t know how the piano was moved, but God always seems to provide a way, and a moving truck was headed my way and the piano ended up on the truck and several weeks later at my house. I have since moved but the piano went with me. It is part of my heritage, my sweet mother playing those hymns and all her four tone deaf children singing along. (We all took after my tone deaf father, who sang loud and was awful, but I loved to sit by him in church because sitting next to him I didn’t sound that bad, and no one could hear me 😂, and besides, the Bible just says, “Make a joyful noise”)

  18. Kay Britton - May 25, 2021 12:20 pm

    It appears your dear friend knew the meaning of being Christ like. Her actions said more than 10 sermons put together! She was so right about many things. Thank you for sharing this. Your stories are what you give away every day. They ate true gifts from your heart! Thank you

  19. Tom - May 25, 2021 12:23 pm

    If I could find a small church that still sang the hymns I might go to church again. Sure miss it.

    • stevenme2013 - May 25, 2021 8:23 pm

      Look up the nearest Holderman Mennonite church near you and you’ll hear the old time singing. Church of God in Christ Mennonite.

  20. Al Cato - May 25, 2021 12:27 pm

    Beautiful. What memories you brought to mind. In our little, meaning numbers in the congregation not in enthusiasm, my aunt played the piano very well and my uncle, who went to the Methodist Church just across the road, led the singing. Church would not begin until he arrived. Sometimes my aunt would stand at the front door and loudly call his name. The green hymnals were clasped by the congregation just waiting for the singing to begin. This little church is 150 years old and continues with singing and praise.

  21. Kathy Compton - May 25, 2021 12:33 pm

    The guitar pick was perfect! I wish I would have known her! But growing up Baptist, I only knew some like her! One was a Juliard grad who gave my 4 kids free piano lessons because my husband was on the church staff.

  22. Sonya Tuttle - May 25, 2021 12:36 pm


  23. Don Helton - May 25, 2021 12:37 pm

    Good one, Sean…really, really good.

  24. Leigh Amiot - May 25, 2021 12:37 pm

    What a lovely woman to stand up for you and later your landscaping coworkers.
    As God continues to create new old women, (looking at myself), I pray they are endowed with this level of grace and love.

  25. Annie Sommers - May 25, 2021 1:01 pm

    Wonderful message to start the day. Sunday morning we sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” and the memories made me want to cry. Love the old hymns. Thank you Sean.

  26. Jan - May 25, 2021 1:25 pm

    What wonderful memories … reminders of my own days in the church on the hill that I love so much. Thank you, Sean, for another wonderful start to my day!

  27. Carolyn Schlatter - May 25, 2021 1:35 pm

    Thanks, Sean! I’ve been a church musician for most of my 75 years and love the old hymns. I moved to Houston 3 months before Hurricane Harvey hit and was comforted many times by “His Eye is on the Sparrow”.

  28. Wendy - May 25, 2021 1:43 pm

    Lovely ❤️

  29. Sharon Brock - May 25, 2021 1:50 pm

    That blessed pianist is playing for the Almighty and Jesus now and loving every minute. I love the old hymns. They are glorious and some stir the soul enough to make one weep. I have never made it through Amazing Grace or How Great Thou Art without tears. Thank you again Sean for reminding us that we all have gifts to share.

  30. Lori Klein - May 25, 2021 1:53 pm

    Thank you Sean. Thank you so very much.

  31. Sharon Brock - May 25, 2021 1:56 pm

    Thank you Sean for reminding us that we all have gifts to share. Make a joyful noise unto the Lord. I cant play music and my singing voice is awful, but I will sing along with the old hymns. Even if I break down with Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art.

  32. Cecelia Arnold - May 25, 2021 2:10 pm

    I was moved by today’s column. Thank you.

  33. Helen De Prima - May 25, 2021 2:12 pm

    I grew up on the tab end of the Bible Belt; the old hymns were the soundtrack of my childhood. To this day, I lullaby myself to sleep by singing In The Garden and Whispering Hope in my mind.

  34. Jan - May 25, 2021 2:22 pm

    So been there!

  35. Pam Arena - May 25, 2021 2:42 pm


  36. K - May 25, 2021 3:13 pm

    Sean, I have commented many times before after reading your stories/thoughts/musings. Have you ever heard the Ray Boltz song Shepherd Boy? Please look it up and listen to it. I have no doubt that you realized long ago that even though you are “nothing special” in your eyes – hard life – you have had so much tragedy – and coming from that, how in the world could you ever “amount to anything”. Just in case it has somehow not been put right in front of you….you are so very very exceptional. God has given you an eye to see beauty in SO many things that most people would never notice – what a gift! We need to see more beauty and goodness in this crazy world. When it came to you, others may have seen a shepherd boy – BUT God saw a king! Thank you for using it for good! You are absolutely a perfect picture of a life well lived and a very successful man!

    My grandmother was 99 3/4 when she passed away and I loved nothing better than to sit by her in church. She was blind from macular degeneration but could sing by memory all of those old hymns. I could hardly sing because of the tears choking me. Her favorite was When We All Get To Heaven. Oh to sit with her one more time..

    But when others see
    A shepherd boy
    God may see a king
    Even though your life
    Seems filled with ordinary things
    In just a moment
    He can touch you
    And everything will change
    When others see
    A shepherd boy
    God may see a king

  37. Christine - May 25, 2021 3:21 pm

    Beautiful, O Happy Day❤❤

  38. Bar - May 25, 2021 3:23 pm

    This will be my reason for living: “it doesn’t matter how little you have, as long as you give it away.”

  39. Gwen Woodard - May 25, 2021 3:31 pm

    Ive been a church pianist for 60 years (started at 10 yo). Its all I ever felt called by God to do, and I’ve loved every minute. Thank you for the sweet story!

  40. Cheryl Buchanan - May 25, 2021 3:47 pm


  41. Linda Moon - May 25, 2021 4:26 pm

    Old hymns from a Mason and Hamlin are among the best of LIFE itself for me. I’ve noticed that you often write about my bests. What a joy divine that is. One of my Angels passed two days ago, and I can hear hymns now while thinking about her. You give away much every day in your stories, Sean, and my heart is happy thinking of them and my Angel friend right now. She gave much to me, too.

  42. Melissa Williams - May 25, 2021 4:44 pm

    This has to be one of my favorites of all your columns!! I think in the South we absorb these hymns via osmosis. I am an Episcopalian. Only about two of these are in our hymnal. But I know them all!!! How blessed I am to have been raised in the South surrounded by this music!💜

  43. Sandra Wolfe - May 25, 2021 4:55 pm

    You do good Sean. She would wave been proud of you.

  44. Debbie g - May 25, 2021 4:55 pm

    Giving what you have with a happy heart. Such good memories Sean thank you

  45. nashrrg - May 25, 2021 5:06 pm

    “I reached into the pocket of my jeans and removed the only thing I had on me: a guitar pick.” Thanks for putting out here every day the thing you have at hand. Always seems appropriate! Precious Memories, how they linger..

  46. Shirley - May 25, 2021 5:18 pm

    Almost every day I cry reading your stories…you touch my soul over and over with your words

  47. Johnny C - May 25, 2021 5:21 pm

    May her tribe increase!

  48. Brenda - May 25, 2021 5:24 pm

    Your words today were music to my soul and brought back wonderful memories of time spent in church with my Papa and Daddy; and of course the simple gyms that were sang acapella. Thank you ❤️

  49. Janie Webb - May 25, 2021 7:06 pm

    Sean, I grew up singing in the choir of a small town Baptist church north of Atlanta. I should explain that, while I can barely “carry a tune in a bucket,”
    my dad had the voice of an angel. Totally untrained but absolutely beautiful – certainly a gift from God. In his later years dad and I were both captivated by Alan Jackson’s album titled Precious Memories. All those profoundly beautiful old hymns! In The Garden, Just as I Am, Precious Memories, How Great Thou Are – to name but a few. We must have listened to that CD a hundred times!
    At age 87 dad suffered a stroke which left him mostly paralyzed and totally unable to speak. As I sat by my father’s bedside, holding his hand and singing along with the Precious Memories album on a CD player, my wonderful dad began to hum along with me and Alan Jackson. Dad couldn’t speak but he sure could hum. I guess you would have to say “he give it away” as best as he could? Two days later my sweet father passed peacefully. Talk about a “Precious Memory”….how it lingers and how it fills my soul to this day. Thank you for your wonderful stories, especially this one.
    Janie Webb

  50. Rebecca Souders - May 25, 2021 7:29 pm

    Ah, yes, hymns. Thanks… my ear worms today are old friends!

  51. Tim House - May 25, 2021 7:29 pm

    An absolutely beautiful tribute! And perhaps that pick was the most meaningful thing you could ever have placed with her. A touching story of who sounds like an exceptional person. Blessed memories (which, by the way, I’m sure you know, fits those old hymns, too)! Amazing Grace, (a favorite of mine as well) sounds so fitting for that occasion, and person.

  52. Christopher Spencer - May 25, 2021 7:58 pm

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSVyD6luJz8 Leaning on the everlasting arms

  53. christina - May 25, 2021 8:22 pm

    What an amiga you had in the old lady! I’m gonna remember her kindness and fire next time the old hymns roll around.

  54. Jack Lawrence Giddens - May 25, 2021 8:28 pm

    Besides the ones you mentioned Sean, my other favorites are “In the Garden”, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”, “I Saw the Light”, and I could go on. All cause my eyes to water up.

  55. Bob E - May 25, 2021 8:36 pm

    ‘Her fingers were twisted with arthritis’
    Thanks for the fond memories of my grandmother who was church organist for 55 years.
    She also taught scores of piano students with those capable hands.
    God bless those two wonderful ladies.

  56. MAM - May 25, 2021 9:50 pm

    She would think your gift was the perfect one, because, after all, that’s how she met you!

  57. Lynn Lewman - May 25, 2021 10:42 pm

    Sean, like so many, I loved this story and I too love old hymns. I think your guitar pick brought a smile to her in Heaven. You are so blessed with your gift to write. It speaks to so many – and that ain’t bad.

  58. Chasity Davis Ritter - May 25, 2021 11:55 pm

    Those old hymns they get me everytime. I know the words they’re etched in my heart too. Sang them for years and years of my life. The music they play and sing in church now is ok and it’s worship songs but nothing gets to me like the old school hymns. God bless this sweet woman for all the years she gave all she had. “Maybe someday glad morning when this life is over I’ll fly away” and get to meet her because “when the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there”. I’ll be looking forward to meeting you too as well someday.

  59. Gordon - May 26, 2021 1:32 am

    Another wonderful post, Sean. Christian hymns are sacred and special. The text and tunes mean so much to so many individuals. They will be around for eternity.

  60. Dave Conkle - May 26, 2021 1:34 am


  61. Missing the hymns - May 26, 2021 1:52 am

    How I miss the hymns in our Baptist church. Now we sing “praise songs” and they are sung all in one long string. Never a break between the tunes. Just a transition from one to another like it’s another verse to a different melody. UGH! And then we have an ”orchestra” that drowns out the choir and congregation. And a woman who feels she needs to play her trumpet like Gabriel blowing his horn at the Second Coming of the Lord! 😡😡😡

  62. Connie in Mississippi - May 26, 2021 2:12 am

    I love the old hymns I grew up on. We still sing them at our church. Sometimes, I don’t sing, close my eyes and listen to the congregation singing. I feel the presence of my parents and grandparents. I imagine this is how the music of heaven sounds.,

  63. Liz Hoyt Eberle - May 26, 2021 7:50 am

    Ahhh, sweet Sean, precious story. I grew up in the Baptist Church in Hearne, Texas…. the 40s and 50s… the south. And those hymns in your story… oh my. Im Lutheran now Nd we have beautiful, Biblical hymns but none can compare to leaning on the Everlasting arms. Thank you for reminding us that there were and still are really good, kind people in the world who do the right things and who can make the chords of heaven ring. 🤗💖🎵🎶🎶

  64. Mike Barnett - May 26, 2021 10:25 am

    Was living in Tokyo and met a cute girl from Taipei, Taiwan. We were fellow foreign students living in a dream, without a care, while seeing the world. Then she says she is going home for a week during a holiday and I ask if I can come along. She says sure, so off we go. Then Sunday rolls around and she says time to go to Church. I had stop going 6 years earlier, when I started Oregon State and now there I was again; and Mrs Chang the preacher’s wife began to play Rock of Ages. Everyone was singing in Taiwanese and I was singing in English but it didn’t matter! I really felt that day I was home, back in the pew at the Forest Grove First Christian Church. I tell people, when they started playing those old hymns it just smelled the same.
    Three years later I married that girl and we have been married 45 years this coming June 19th. Love those old hymns and God Bless the people who play them!

  65. Kay Recknor - May 26, 2021 4:50 pm

    WOW, thank you for sharing. I can remember my late mother-in-law playing the organ & piano in her small Missouri country church. When she visited us in Virginia she always tried to get someone to fill in while away. However, on one of her visits she was unable so recorded hymns on a cassette and commented they would just have to have “canned music” until she returned home. I commented to her that she could play at her own funeral. This sweet lady lived to be 100 years and 9 months and, of course, I immediately found the new organist and inquired about the cassette that she had made. At the viewing her friend said she was unable to find it. However the next morning her friend came to me before the church service and said she had just found it. So Mother Margaret was able to play at her own funeral!

    • Roxanne Langley - May 26, 2021 6:14 pm

      That is just wonderful!!!

  66. Roxanne Langley - May 26, 2021 6:11 pm

    I was surely hoping you had a pick on you. We did this for my Daddy. We’d never done it for anyone else before, but it just seemed wrong for his pockets to be empty. In life, his pockets added a good 10 pounds to his frame–his artificial leg added another 20. We put 22 bullets, empty shotgun shells, a pocket knife, a hand-tied (by him) white perch jig, a spinner bait, a bass lure, a duck call, some matches, and a pitch pipe (he led singing at church). We knew that was just a husk–Daddy was gone to glory, but that body had housed my Daddy’s spirit for the 69 1/ years he was blessed to walk the earth, and he had served as the hands and feet of Jesus, (or, in his case, foot of Jesus), for untold folks. We did NOT put his artificial leg in the pine box (and it really WAS polished pine–the most beautiful coffin I’ve ever seen), and Momma is a little sad about that to this day. It was a part of his life too. Anyway, I’m glad that my Daddy always had a pocket knife, and a “piece of fire” with him, and that guitar players always carry a pick.

  67. H. Jones - May 26, 2021 6:32 pm

    So true! Loved the story!!

  68. Linda Holmes - May 26, 2021 7:51 pm

    Loved it, loved it. Thank you for sharing, Sean.

  69. Marilu - May 26, 2021 9:48 pm

    Beautiful, Sean simply Beautiful.

  70. johnallenberry - May 26, 2021 10:23 pm

    Amen! And Good for Her for sticking up for your friends! You’d think the young pastor might have taken a lesson from the Widow’s Mite or maybe heard about how Depression Era preachers were nailing signs to trees telling folks that the Good Lord doesn’t care if you show up in your worn out overalls, just come to His house on Sunday. Whatever the case, he showed them judgement, SHE showed them Jesus.

    God bless you, Sean.


  71. jimbornzin - May 27, 2021 7:26 pm

    Sean, thank you for this heartfelt tribute to a wonderful Christian woman. I grew up in Memphis and love my
    somewhat southern roots. I’d appreciate it if you check out my website, novels and artwork. Peace, dear brother.
    Jim Bornzin jimbornzin.com

  72. Nancy - May 28, 2021 1:13 pm

    With my bad guitar playing and my love for old hymns really related to this one🎻♥️ bless her!! For all those kindnesses & lessons. I keep on sharing anyhow the little I have to share even if it is not studio quality sound or the greatest talent. I’m still surprised when I hear someone loved one of my songs! Thanks for each and every memory you share!

  73. Syzi - June 3, 2021 1:28 am

    Sometimes those old hymns get me thru the next hour.

  74. Charlie Mathers - June 3, 2021 1:04 pm

    Most evenings, at 5:00 pm at hospice, I show up to feed dinner to an old horse woman. She’s been a horse woman all her life. Along with being all the other woman things. Mother, lover, wife, friend. She’s all crippled up now. So much so you would think she’d been a bronc rider instead of a raiser of race horses. She doesn’t eat much now so I try to concentrate on desserts. She does love avocados! After she eats, I usually read her that day’s Sean of the South column (I still don’t know what to call it). She likes your stuff. Doesn’t say much, but smiles and cries in all the right places. so I know she understands what you write. Just wanted to say Thanks, Sean from me and SW. we sure do enjoy you!!!

  75. Charlie Mathers - June 3, 2021 1:08 pm

    p.s. Pandora has a channel called 100 inspirational hymns. I run it all day long when I’m not running the Mahalia Jackson channel

  76. Joy Dollar - June 14, 2021 11:17 pm

    Fresh tears here, pretty much every time🥰🥲


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