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Hymn of the Week: ‘Brother James’s Air’

Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 10/15/17

Here’s a beautiful setting of the 23rd Psalm (our responsorial this Sunday), rendered by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Our choir is singing this hymn during communion this Sunday.

About the composer: 

James Leith Macbeth Bain (1860–1925) was a Scottish hymn writer, religious minister and author who became known to his peers as Brother James. He is remembered for his religious publications, as well as the hymn tune “Brother James’s Air”. James’s ministry calling took him to Liverpool over the next decade, before going to London to work as a Spiritualist Minister. Indeed, there is strong evidence that this is true as he married an Elizabeth Parker of Liverpool in Paddington in 1895. Smith recalls that it was rumoured in Pitlochry that James had been ‘adopted’ by a ‘lady of means’ and eventually had inherited her wealth, but whether that rich lady was his wife Elizabeth (Lillie), or a benefactress of his bachelor days, is not known. At any rate, the 1901 Census for 77, Warwick Road, Paddington, London indicates that the married couple were able to afford a maid and a cook. Lillie died in 1909 in the Liverpool area, the place of her birth in 1881. James dedicated his first published work in 1909 (‘The Christ of the Holy Grail’) to her. Smith also recalls the following: “He went to London, but occasionally visited Pitlochry. His career in London was not known there in Perthshire, except that he worked among the poor. He was a nature-lover, a wanderer among woods and hills, a shade eccentric perhaps, author of a number of books, mainly religious, and added Macbeth as another middle name for these publications. I can recall only two incidents involving James and myself ….. Once when he was on his way to fish in the Tummel, he asked me to accompany him. He had not long started when his cast caught in a branch. He climbed the tree to dislodge the cast and, much to his annoyance, he accidentally broke the branch. I asked him why he was annoyed. ‘Man’, he said, ‘I’ve just lost a real good friend. Many a fine cast have I found on that self-same branch.’ Later in life when I enquired of a lady who had lived next door to him in Oakfield Terrace as to whether she knew James to be musical, I was told that she did not think he played any instrument, but ‘he was aye hummin’.” (Ibid.) This last remark makes his composition of “Brother James’s Air” a tune sung frequently with ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’ and the less well known ‘My Shepherd is the living God’ which are both versions of (Psalm 23all the more remarkable, but may explain the tune’s beautiful simplicity.
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