Wendy Chappell-Dick and the Anabaptist singers to share new approach to martyr songs
When Wendy Chappell-Dick, a 2008 graduate of Bluffton University’s MBA program, was in high school she saw the “Mirror of the Martyrs” exhibit for the first time on campus. As an adult, she is unveiling a unique approach to learning about Anabaptist martyrs during the exhibit’s second visit to campus.
“I remember the exhibit being very impactful, and I loved it,” said Chappell-Dick. “The exhibit probably sparked my lifelong interest in the martyrs because of how moving it is.”
Chappell-Dick and several other members of the Bluffton community will perform “Grace to You and Peace: Voices of the Martyrs,” at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 15 in Yoder Recital Hall. Over the last few months, Chappell-Dick has taken translated Anabaptist martyr ballads and set them to contemporary tunes—from camp songs to folk music.
“Some of the songs are about martyrs we’ll see in the exhibit, but others are stories we haven’t heard before. There are stories that didn’t make it into the “Martyrs Mirror,” and that’s one thing that’s so exciting. We’re telling stories that are being rediscovered,” explained Chappell- Dick.
Chappell-Dick uncovered several of the original Martyr songs after listening to a CD from a Dutch group that had performed on campus. The group happened to have recorded a whole album of obscure songs of Anabaptists martyrs, and they were translated into English.
“At first I thought, this is great. I’m a musician. I can sing some of these songs,” said Chappell- Dick.
However, the songs were from the 1500s and sounded like medieval chants. “It was all very boring to me, and I was, like, forget that,” laughed Chappell-Dick. “Then I noticed that most of the songs had an inscription at the beginning that said this song should be set to the tune of ‘Little Red Rose in Full Bloom’ or ‘The Water Nymph and Her Love.’ These were secular songs that people knew, and they were using these tunes and putting words to them that described their stories. I realized we could do that again and use tunes that people can relate to today to deliver their stories in a new way.”
So, over the last few months, Chappell-Dick has been reading the words to the songs, meditating on them and waiting to see what current songs came to mind. She then rewrote the martyr ballads to fit the meter of the contemporary tunes.
Chappell-Dick currently has more than 20 songs adapted for the debut show at Bluffton University, and nearly a dozen community members will join her on stage as the Anabaptist Singers.
“We’re doing this in a folk-style tradition so not everyone is a trained musician. These stories are based on a wide range of experiences so I want them to be sung by a wide range of people and voices.”
The songs tell dramatic stories but surprisingly few are actually about martyrs dying for their faith. Instead, the songs talk about the connections people have to their families and community or what life was like in the 1500s. For example, there is a song where a father explains his life philosophy to his son and another that is a conversation between a women whose baby has died and her friends in which they talk about the nature of grief. Chappell-Dick explained that about half are filled with religious content but all provide social history of the time and place.
“One thing that has been so moving to me is that these people come from a completely different world than me, but they were eyewitnesses to events and the songs were written so people would remember what happened. We’re still remembering, and that’s very powerful,” said Chappell-Dick. “These stories are still moving to us, and we are still living their stories.”
The performance by Wendy Chappell-Dick and the Anabaptist Singers is one of several special events that coincides with the “Mirror of the Martyrs” exhibition at Bluffton University from Oct. 1-Nov. 5. For a full schedule of events, visit https://www.bluffton.edu/arts/mirror/
One thing that has been so moving to me is that these people come from a completely different world than me, but they were eyewitnesses to events and the songs were written so people would remember what happened. We’re still remembering, and that’s very powerful.