With a song in my heart...

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Katherine Miller salutes a song book that transformed assemblies and brought 25 years of thoughtful music making.

Come and Praise, England's most successful song book for schools, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The inspiration of BBC school radio producer and former teacher, Geoff Marshall-Taylor, it has sold more than three million copies, causing one wag at the Beeb to dub it "the Delia of school song books". The first edition of 72 songs was compiled with the help of composer Donald Swann (of Flanders and Swann fame) and the lyricist Arthur Scholey. "At first, Come and Praise was intended to complement Together, the radio assembly programme on Thursdays," explains Geoff Marshall-Taylor. "But to our delight, sales rocketed even from the beginning because people were using it as the school hymn book all week."

Such was its popularity, that Book II, containing a further 75 songs, was published a decade later, followed by The Complete Come and Praise in 1990.

This unlikely star was born because, by the end of the 1970s, schools felt that many hymn books were "irrelevant," says Geoff Marshall-Taylor. "People were waking up to the plurality in society and to the fact that school assemblies had to be broadly Christian but also reflect the wider community. Schools wanted material that dealt with the burgeoning concerns of society at the time, such as peace and the environment."

With the help of a committee of teachers, they opted for a mixture of new and traditional songs. Among the well-known hymns were favourites such as "The Lord's my shepherd" and "All things bright and beautiful", while commissioned material such as "Clap hands" (included in Come and Praise: Beginning for younger children) was written in two versions to accommodate religious festivals with two syllables (eg Christmas, Succoth) and with three (eg Diwali, Eid ul Fitr).

From the outset, Come and Praise aimed at inclusivity ("O Jesus I have promised" was rejected for articulating too personal a Christian commitment) and accessibility. Geoff Marshall-Taylor's colleague in BBC Radio, Douglas Coombes, arranged the songs so that they could be played with three fingers on the piano, by guitars or recorders. "From the tiny ant", which reminds children of their responsibility for the world around them, is sung in two parts, as is "Celebration rap", which is based on a Maori chant. The book also contains songs suitable for times of tragedy, or to encourage reflection at significant moments in children's lives.

The Rev Anne Lovegrove from Letchworth in Hertfordshire, who takes regular assemblies in six primary schools in her parish, says she finds the book "very valuable." During the recent war with Iraq, she played a recording of "Spirit of peace come to our waiting world", with the lyrics on an overhead projector. "I lit a candle and told them to think of the children in Iraq, with bombs going off all around them. You could have heard a pin drop," she says.

Similarly, Roger Catley, from Herefordshire, remembers the effect of reading "The journey of life" to pupils preparing to move onto a new school. A retired primary head, who now does supply teaching, Roger says he finds, "Come and Praise pops up everywhere because its thematic approach makes it so easy to use."

Come and Praise may no longer be the only song book used in primary schools, but it still has the highest take-up. Its contents are regarded with great fondness by most people under 35, for many of whom school offered the only opportunity to learn religious songs. Many go on to choose songs from the book for weddings, baptisms and funerals, therefore preserving it as a sort of national repertoire. Songs such as "Lord of the dance" and "Make me a channel of thy peace", regarded in some circles as objectionably happy-clappy three decades ago, are now, thanks to Come and Praise, positively mainstream. For Geoff Marshall-Taylor, the best part of the story lies in the pleasure that Come and Praise has brought to thousands of children. "By giving schools a choice of new and traditional songs, the book has kept singing central to primary school worship," he says.

Come and Praise from BBC Publications. Words and music pound;14.99. Words only pound;4.99

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