By Beth Donze
Lyrics tend to pop into the head of James Behan Jr. when he is doing the most mundane and repetitive things – like the time he was mindlessly washing his car over Labor Day weekend.
In two, short September weeks, Behan cobbled together a six-verse hymn he entitled “Thanks Be to God,” using the “Notes” function of his phone as words and phrases occurred to him and tweaking their syllabic flow on his guitar at night.
It was creative time well spent.
Behan’s hymn of gratitude earned first place in the New Orleans Tricentennial Hymn Competition, sponsored by the archdiocese in anticipation of the city’s 300th birthday. Chosen from 41 entries submitted from across the country, the hymn will make its public debut at the opening Tricentennial Mass on Jan. 7, 2018, at 11 a.m. at St. Louis Cathedral.
“I was shocked, absolutely shocked,” said Behan, 35, a parishioner of Mary Queen of Peace Church in Mandeville. “I was floored, humbled and excited that this was happening.”
“I see it as the Holy Spirit that was working (through me),” Behan added. “As I was sitting and praying, a word would pop into my head that ended up on the page. It’s a hymn of praise; it’s a hymn of gathering, of asking God to bless us and help us to be the Body of Christ that we’re meant to be.”
Past, present and future
The blind competition invited both amateur and professional musicians to take a familiar hymn tune and compose new lyrics for it. Behan set his lyrics to an anonymously written, 19th-century American hymn tune called “NETTLETON, 8 7 8 7 D,” most familiar to Catholics as the tune sung with the hymn, “God, We Praise You.”
“I was trying to find a delicate balance of celebrating the here and now, but also looking to the future,” said Behan of his primary lyrical motivation. “So, it is thanking God for the 300 years that have been; for this time of the Tricentennial that we’re celebrating now; and (also reflecting on) where God is calling the city and the Archdiocese of New Orleans to be 300 years in the future.”
Little links to life in NOLA
Behan said he deliberately kept the piece’s lyrical allusions to New Orleans subtle in the hope that its shelf life might extend beyond the Tricentennial year, and so the hymn would be appropriate for singing in just about any city.
Still, sharp-eared locals will pick up on the hymn’s Crescent City connections, such as its opening reference to being gathered “many cent’ries by the river,” and its plea for unity in addressing an age-old challenge: making “hate and violence cease.”
A couple of double-entendres are also likely to make local ears perk up, Behan said. The hymn’s reference to the Lord as “King” might also remind New Orleanians of the pretend “kings” of Carnival krewes, while the mentioning of the “Trinity,” in the hymn’s sixth verse, could also be interpreted as a nod to Louisiana’s culinary “trinity” of celery, onion and bell pepper.
The part of the refrain that states, “Here your loving, faithful fam’ly shares our prayers and praise to You,” was inspired by Archbishop Gregory Aymond and is also echoed in “Our Family Prayer,” Behan notes.
“Every time I hear Archbishop Aymond praying, he’s always calling God a ‘loving and faithful God.’ So, in a way, that’s a little hat tip to him and his role as shepherd of our archdiocese,” he said.
The refrain’s main message of “Thanks be to God” was the first part of the hymn that Behan composed. Significantly, the message is sung four consecutive times in the four traditional languages of the local Catholic church: English, Spanish, Vietnamese and French, respectively.
“The hook is important; the refrain is important,” Behan said. “That’s the part that you are saying over and over that will most likely be what people will remember about the song. It’s neat to know that if it gets stuck in people’s heads, they will be singing ‘thanks be to God’ over and over!”
Inspired to write songs
Behan, who plays the piano at Masses as music minister at UNO’s Newman Center, traces his love of songwriting to his musically inclined parents, his boyhood piano lessons and his years as a percussionist in the band of his public high school in Brooklyn, New York. The idea that he could be “a real songwriter” occurred to him when he placed third in a citywide contest in which high school seniors were invited to submit original pieces in the visual and performing arts.
“We don’t want our songs to be like diaries that we keep tucked underneath our pillows,” Behan said. “As a songwriter, you want to share something with others so that the emotions (and) the thoughts that you have connect with somebody else. It’s the light that we don’t want to keep under a bushel basket.”
Behan’s love for sacred music was awakened as a student – and later a staff member – of the campus ministry at St. John’s, a Catholic university in New York. He moved to Louisiana in 2015, the home state of his Kenner-born wife Allison. The couple has two daughters: Brennan, 4 1/2; and Claire, 2 months.
Parishes will practice hymn
Behan received a one-time cash award of $750 for his efforts. The hymn, which was selected by a seven-member panel of judges and is now the property of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, will be made available to church parishes so Catholics can familiarize themselves with the new lyrics before Jan. 7. Designed for use as either a gathering or recessional hymn, it can easily be incorporated into Catholic, ecumenical or interfaith settings, contest organizers said.
Behan said he is excited at the prospect of his future great-great-grandchildren stumbling upon the hymn – and its composer – when they study New Orleans’ Tricentennial one day. But for now, the musician is happily anticipating an event in the much nearer future.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to hear the words that I wrote tied to this hymn that most of our church knows, having it flow out of that gorgeous organ at St. Louis Cathedral, and hearing other people sing it,” Behan said. “I hope that it will be one of those hallmark moments of my life!”
To hear Behan’s lyrics tied to the musical score, go to the Facebook page of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans. The link, which will take users to a video presentation of “Thanks Be to God” performed by the choir from St. Francis of Assisi Church in New Orleans, will be available beginning Dec. 1.
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.