Advent Song Analysis: How Suddenly A Baby Cries by Keith & Kristyn Getty

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop,Worship Leading

Album cover art for "Joy: An Irish Christmas" by modern hymn writers Keith and Kristyn Getty.The Advent and Christmas seasons of the Christian liturgical calendar have yielded quite a few classic hymns and carols of the faith (like Charles Wesley’s Come Thou Long Expected Jesus – read a songwriting analysis of that Advent hymn here). They’ve probably yielded even more schmaltzy duds. Worship leaders and pastors search diligently for good songs during their planning sessions for the Advent and Christmas Sunday services.

This year the search gets easier, thanks to a new album called Joy: An Irish Christmas by modern hymn writers Keith & Kristyn Getty. Let’s examine one song from this album: How Suddenly A Baby Cries” (full lyrics here).

Should We Plan Christmas Songs For Advent Worship Services?

We’ve written about the meaning and purpose of Advent, and the importance of including Lament, in songs, prayer and liturgical readings. But worship pastors and liturgical planners should also include songs and readings that tell the Christmas story, especially during the final Advent Sundays. Part of looking forward to Christ’s second advent is in retelling the story of his first.

What Is The Hymn Meter for “How Suddenly A Baby Cries”?

The Keith & Kristyn Getty band, leading worship at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY

The Keith & Kristyn Getty band, leading worship at our church, Sojourn

Let’s dive into our songwriting analysis of “How Suddenly A Baby Cries.” This Common Meter Double hymn is a folk ballad in the truest sense of the word: it is a song that tells a linear story. Like many ballads it’s a long song — length is one thing that has always set Getty hymns apart from most contemporary praise & worship choruses. If “How Suddenly A Baby Cries” were printed in a hymnal, the hymnal committee would mark it as CMD (Common Meter Double, meaning verses that are eight lines long, with an 8-6-8-6 pattern of syllables per line — eight syllables for the odd-numbered lines and six syllables for the even-numbered lines).

This then yields ten verses. The Gettys often write in accentual meter, which Robert Frost called “Loose iambic,” meaning that some lines will have more or less syllables than strict adherence to the form requires, but the accents (in this case meaning “the way you sing it”) will fit Common Meter hymn tunes. To see what I mean, just sing the lyrics of this modern Christmas hymn to the tune of any iambic Common Meter hymn, such as Amazing Grace.

One interesting fact about the hymn writing of Keith & Kristyn Getty and their frequent collaborators (like Stuart Townend, or in the case of “How Suddenly A Baby Cries,” Fionan de Barra) is that Keith often composes the hymn tune first, and then Kristyn and/or another hymn text writer drafts the lyrics (Keith told me this at the 2011 Gospel Coalition National Conference in Chicago).

So unlike Isaac Watts, Anne Steel, Charles Wesley, John Newton and other hymn text masters, the Gettys don’t set down with paper and say “I’m going to write a hymn in ____ meter, with ____ stresses or syllables per line.” In this regard they compose more like modern songwriters, which is to say that meter is more a musical term than a poetic one for them. They feel where the stresses need to go as they compose or hear the music. And even though the lyric-writing came first in this particular song, as Keith and Kristyn say in the video below, she wrote the lyrics in this same manner, using an old Irish melody as a guide:

“How Suddenly A Baby Cries” As Story-telling

I love the scope of Kristyn Getty’s story telling in this Christmas song. Verse by verse, she presents the story of Christ’s birth as a comprehensive account from each Gospel, including important characters that many Christmas carols and hymns leave out. It breaks down like this:

  • Verse One: Mary and the Shepherds
  • Verse Two: Mary, the three Wise Men (Magi) and Joseph’s dream about leading the family to Egypt
  • Verse Three: Mary and Anna, the prophetess
  • Mary and Simeon
  • Us — me, you, all of us whom the Christ-child came to redeem, and who are awaiting His return.

This gives worship leadersĀ a tool for leading congregations in singing the story of Christ’s birth and infancy.

And this gives songwriters and modern hymnists a tool for realizing an important point:

Read, know and contemplate the Bible. Mine its depths for truths and stories that other songs overlook. Just as this song includes elements of the Christmas story that few songwriters explore, many other Bible stories await the songwriter, and ultimately, church congregations. I love Kristyn’s use of the character Simeon:
Hear Simeon who had waited long
Draw near to hold the child
To speak of Him who would reveal
The many thoughts we hide;
That hearts would rise to know his grace
But many fall away;
A sword would pierce His mother’s soul
Upon redemption day

This verse also reveals the rhyme pattern of “How Suddenly A Baby Cries” — ABCB, meaning that only the even-numbered lines rhyme. Kristyn also gives us plenty of slant rhymes (a rhyme pattern in which just a vowel or consonant rhymes, rather than both vowel and consonant). For instance: child/hide.

I think this Christmas song will be around for awhile, and will make its way into many hymnals and church services during the seasons of Advent and Christmas. It’s a good song for corporate worship and for personal edification.


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