Category Archives: Music

Hymn History: How Great Thou Art

A favorite hymn is How Great Thou Art


“Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and His greatness is unsearchable.” Psalm 145:3

“How Great Thou Art” is a Christian hymn based on a Swedish poem written by Carl Gustav Boberg (1859–1940) in Sweden in 1885. The melody is a Swedish folk song.  Its popularity is due in large part to its wide use by gospel singers, notably George Beverly Shea of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Team.

The original Swedish text was a poem entitled “O Store Gud.” written by a Swedish pastor, the Reverend Carl Boberg, in 1886. In addition to being one of the leading evangelical preachers of his day. Boberg was also the successful editor of the periodical Sanningsvittnet. His inspiration for this text is said to have come from a visit to a beautiful country estate on the southeast coast of Sweden. He was suddenly caught in a midday thunderstorm with awe-inspiring moments of flashing violence, followed by a clear brilliant sun. Soon afterwards he heard the calm, sweet songs of the birds in nearby trees. The experience prompted the pastor to fall to his knees in humble adoration of his mighty God, He penned his exaltation in a nine-stanza poem beginning with the Swedish words “O Store Gud, nar jag den varld beskader.”

Several years later Boberg was attending a meeting in the Province of Varmland and was surprised to hear the congregation sing his poem to the tune of an old Swedish melody. It is typically characteristic of many other hymn tunes, i.e., “Day by Day” with its lilting, warm, singable simplicity.

With his original English lyrics and his arrangement of the Swedish folk melody, Mr. Stuart K. Hine published what we know today as the hymn “How Great Thou Art.” Assignments of copyrights and publication rights to an American publishing firm in 1954 helped spread the popularity of this hymn. In April of 1974 the Christian Herald magazine, in a poll presented to its readers, named “How Great Thou Art” the No. 1 hymn in America.

How Great Thou Art

Verse 1:
O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

Verse 2:
When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.


Verse 3:
And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.


Verse 4:
When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
Then I shall bow, in humble adoration,
And then proclaim: “My God, how great Thou art!”


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Posted by on February 2, 2023 in Hymn History, hymns, Music, Posts of Interest, Videos


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Hymn History: Lift Every Voice and Sing

“Lift Every Voice and Sing”
James Weldon Johnson
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 519

Pender pianist, Liz Eunji Moon played Lift Every Voice and Sing for the postlude on Martin Luther King Holiday weekend. “Lift Every Voice” began as a hastily-written composition for an unassuming school assembly in 1900, but has become the African-American national anthem.

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Few hymns have the capacity to define the identity of an entire group. “Lift Every Voice” began as a hastily-written composition for an unassuming school assembly in 1900, but has become the African-American national anthem.

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) received degrees in literature from Atlanta University in 1894, with a master of arts in 1904. He had a versatile career as a writer, teacher, diplomat and lawyer, becoming the first African-American to pass the bar in the state of Florida. His diplomatic posts took him in 1906 to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, and in 1909, to Corinto, Nicaragua, where he served as the American consul.

His most prominent leadership role was as the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a position that he assumed in 1920.

His most important published works include The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1920), The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), God’s Trombones (1927), and Along This Way (1933).

Johnson had been asked to speak by the principal of a school in Jacksonville, Fla., his hometown, for an observance celebrating the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Rather than make a speech, he decided to write a poem. As the time drew near, his plans changed from a poem to a song. James turned to his brother J. Rosamund Johnson (1873-1954) to compose music for his text.

Even though the Johnsons’ New York publisher did not actively promote the song, children throughout the South kept it alive. The song gathered momentum, as it became known around the country.

Though the brothers wrote over 200 songs together, mostly for the stage, “Lift every voice” had an exceptional place in their musical collaborations. James noted in 1935, “The lines of this song repay me in elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.”

Gene Logan, a member of Ebenezer UMC in Jacksonville, Florida, connects the Johnson brothers with the Methodist Church: “James and his brother Rosamond became members of Zion Episcopal Methodist Church where their mother served as choir director and the young men served as musicians. The church was renamed Ebenezer United Methodist Church, which is now located at 9114 Norfolk Blvd in Jacksonville, Florida.” According to columnist Sharon Coon in Florida, their mother, Helen, “was the first Black female public school teacher in Florida. She taught at Old Stanton School on Ashley Street in Jacksonville, FL. His mother taught both James and J. Rosamond music and reading.” After receiving his degree from Atlanta University, James returned to the school where his mother taught as Principal in 1894. The brothers’ connections to the Methodist Church and their rearing by a nurturing and courageous mother surely contributed to their accomplishments.

The NAACP adopted “Lift every voice” as its theme song. Julian Bond, former NAACP chairman, stated that the song holds deep meaning for the Civil Rights Movement: “When people stand and sing it, you just feel a connectedness with the song, with all the people who’ve sung it on numerous occasions, happy and sad, over the 100 years before.”

This hymn, often called the “Negro National Anthem” or “Black National Anthem,” gave hope to many during the Civil Rights Era. Its centrality in African-American life may be illustrated by a childhood memory of Vernellia Randall, a law professor at the University of Dayton, who grew up in Texas. She recalls starting each day in her school in the 1950s and 1960s with The Lord’s Prayer, The National Anthem, and the Negro National Anthem.

Wendell Whalum, the late choral director at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, often spoke of the progression of the three stanzas as that of praise, lament, and prayer. The opening stanza is a resounding hymn of praise full of rich metaphors such as the “harmonies of liberty” and rejoicing “loud as the rolling sea.” The second stanza is a lament that recounts the price of liberty:

Stony the road we trod,
bitter the chastening rod,
felt in the day when hope unborn had died.

The sting of these words echoes Psalm 130, “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee.” Yet the poet does not leave us here long. By the end of the stanza, we are singing with hope,

Out of the gloomy past,
till now we stand at last
where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

The final stanza is often referred to as a prayer in the African-American community. This prayer culminates with the petitions, “keep us forever in the path, we pray” and “may we forever stand true to our God, true to our native land.”

Is this a hymn just for African-Americans or is it for all people? Dr. James Abbington, Associate Professor of Music and Worship at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, Georgia, and a scholar in African American hymnody, provides an answer to this question: “Several years ago, I was invited to organize and conduct a 1,000-voice choir for the annual Detroit Branch NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner at Cobo Hall. It was during the time of the Persian Gulf War and tensions were very high between the Jewish and Arab communities in the city.?rel=0″The 1,000 voice choir, accompanied by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, was made up of Anglo-Americans, Canadians, Native Americans, Koreans, Italians, Jews, Arabs, African-Americans and others, and ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ was one of the selections for that occasion. After the first rehearsal Jewish, Korean, and Native American members of the chorus approached me and said, ‘This song isn’t just for African-Americans and people from Africa, it belongs to all of us who are ‘true to our God and true to our Native land.'”?

On May 20, 2018, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) attended The Tabernacle Choir’s weekly Music and the Spoken Word broadcast. Members of the National Board of Directors of the NAACP and the NAACP Foundation were in Salt Lake City for their board meetings, which were held in Salt Lake City for the first time. They also met with the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and made a joint statement to the media calling for “greater civility and racial harmony.”

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The Heavens are Telling


The opening verses of Psalm 19 present the heavenly bodies and their movement as a universal witness to the glory of God that is understood by people of every language. The language connects day and night as a continuous presentation. The words suggest energy, strength, joy, and light.

So many of the Psalms and scriptures have been made into wonderful works of classical music.  Franz Joseph Haydn was one of these composers.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” ~ Psalm 19:1 (NIV)

A setting of ‘The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God’ from Haydn’s  Creation.

More about Haydn’s work, The Creation, can be found on Wikipedia

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Posted by on January 13, 2023 in Hymn History, Music, Posts of Interest, Videos


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Hymn History: What A Friend We Have In Jesus

What a Friend We Have In Jesus

The Pender UMC Traditional Service Middle Hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” on Sunday October 23, 2022 was played by Liz Eunji Moon on piano, accompanied on guitar by Brian Stevenson and sung the Pender Sanctuary Choir and congregation.

Pender’s pianist, Liz Eunji Sellers played this hymn in the style of ragtime during the Postlude to the Traditional service on January 23, 2022.

How does a personal poem written to a mother from a despondent son, recently immigrated from England to a relatively remote section of Canada in the mid-nineteenth century, become one of the most widely sung hymns in the world?

Joseph Medlicott Scriven (1819–1886) was born in Seapatrick, Ireland (now Northern Ireland,) and died in Ontario, Canada. After attending classes at Trinity College, Dublin, he pursued a military career, where he trained for service in India; but had to abandon that ambition because of his poor health. He returned to Trinity and graduated in 1842.


Scriven’s life was full of tragedy. Following the accidental drowning of his Irish fiancée the evening before their wedding, he moved to Woodstock, Canada West (now Ontario) in 1844, where he led a Plymouth Brethren fellowship and taught. Scriven organized a private school in 1850 in Brantford and preached in the area. Some scholars believe that Scriven may have composed his initial draft of “What a Friend” written during this time.

Moving near Clinton in Huron County in 1855, he read the Bible to railway construction workers who were building the Grand Trunk Railway across the Canada West. By 1857, he relocated to Bewdley, supporting himself as a private tutor to the family of Robert Lamport Pengelly, a retired naval officer. Tragedy struck again when his second fiancée, Eliza Catherine Roach, Pengelly’s niece, died in 1860 of an illness shortly before their wedding. Scriven then returned to ministry among the Plymouth Brethren in Bewdley, near Rice Lake (McKellar and Leask, Canterbury Dictionary, n.d.). Hymnologist Albert Bailey noted that Scriven, a selfless person by nature, was known as “the man who saws wood for poor widows and sick people who are unable to pay” (Bailey, 1950, p. 495).

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography describes what we know about the circumstances surrounding Scriven’s death in October 1886:

His last days were clouded with ill-health and despondency. James Sackville, his friend and fellow-believer, found Scriven ill and brought him to his house. One hot night in 1866, Scriven left his bed without disturbing anyone, probably to drink at a nearby spring: some hours later, presumably having fainted or fallen, he was found dead in the spillway of Sackville’s grist-mill, a few feet from the spring. He was buried in the Pengelly burial-ground in an unmarked grave between Eliza Roach and Commander Pengelly (Macpherson, “Scriven,” n.d.).

A few days before Scriven’s death, Sackville found the dejected Scriven “prostrate in mind and body and heard him say, ‘I wish the Lord would take me home’” (Cleland, 1895, p. 17). It was never determined if his death was accidental or a suicide. A monument was later erected over his gravesite by friends and neighbors. Joseph Medlicott Scriven’s historical marker was placed in Otanabee-South Monaghan, Ontario, Canada, marking his homestead and burial place.

Scriven marker


Scriven published a collection of his poetic works, Hymns and Other Verses, which included seventy-one hymns “intended to be sung in assemblies of the children of God on the first day of the week and on other occasions when two or three are met together in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” These were followed by thirty-four scriptural paraphrases “not to be sung in the assembly, but to express truth, as well as convey comfort, instruction or reproof to our hearts, in order that we may walk together in obedience” (Scriven, 1869, Preface). “What a Friend,” the hymn for which he is known, does not appear in the collection, however. Why not?

Some writers have noted that the hymn was written for his mother, who was suffering from illness. Musical evangelist Ira D. Sankey (1840–1908) spread this account (cited in Bailey, 1950, pp. 495–496). This assertion is hard to verify, however. A statement from Scriven’s biography (1895) by James Cleland includes the author’s mother in the dissemination of the hymn but does not clarify other details:

When residing at the house of his friend Mr. Sackville, near Rice Lake, he composed this hymn; making two copies, one of which he sent to his mother, in Dublin, and gave the other to Mrs. Sackville, which the old lady, now over eighty years of age values highly. Probably it was through his mother that the hymn was given to the public (Cleland, 1895, p. 13).

If indeed “What a Friend” were composed as a personal poem, it may explain why it did not appear in the collection the author published in 1869. The personal first-person plural perspective contrasts with other hymns by the author. As one author noted, “almost all of his others are more firmly constructed, without emotional softness, and developed from biblical texts” (Macpherson, “Scriven,” n.d.). Carl Daw Jr. has also noted the differences between “What a Friend” and the author’s published works in Hymns and other verses, supporting the hypothesis that the poem was intended for his ailing mother rather than public use (Daw, 2016, p. 470).

Some commentaries state that the text was first published in J.B. Packard’s Spiritual Minstrel: A Collection of Hymns and Music (1857), but this is erroneous, according to hymnologist Chris Fenner (See Fenner, 2020, n.p.). The hymn appeared as we know it anonymously in three stanzas of eight lines each in Social Hymns, Original and Selected (1865), compiled by Horace Lorenzo Hastings. New England composer and church musician Charles Converse (1832–1918) then included the text in his Silver Wings (1870) with his tune under his pen name Karl Reden, a Germanization of his name (“reden” meaning “to speak” or “converse”). He states that he obtained the text from the privately produced hymnal, “Genevan Presbyterian Church (of Brooklyn) Collection.” No copy of this hymnal appears to be extant. Converse’s tune paired with the text gained prominence with Ira Sankey and spread in his revivals with Dwight L. Moody (1837–1899). Published in Sankey’s Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs (1875), later known as Gospel Hymns No. 1., Sankey mistakenly attributed the hymn to Scottish hymnwriter Horatius Bonar (1808–1889), an assertion disputed by Bonar.

The text has remained unusually stable with few editorial alterations over the years. Edward Samuel Caswell (1861–1938) published an early manuscript version signed by Scriven that was titled “Pray without Ceasing” (from 1 Thessalonians 5:17) in 1919. It appeared in four quatrains, the first three of which are familiar. The fourth reads as follows:

Are we cold and unbelieving,
Cumbered with a load of care?
Here the Lord is still our refuge:
Take it to the Lord in prayer. (See the manuscript at Fenner, 2020, n.p.)

Of the hymn, Caswell stated that it was “beyond question the best-known piece of Canadian literature” (Macpherson, “Scriven,” n.d.).

Stanza 1 establishes that Jesus is a friend that can bear our sins and burdens. This theme appears in the eighteenth century with Charles Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” (1740) and John Newton’s “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” (1779). Nineteenth-century hymnwriters are especially known for expressing their personal friendship with Jesus. For example, see Louisa M.R. Stead’s “‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” (1882), Elisha A. Hoffman’s “I Must Tell Jesus All of My Trials” (1894), and Fanny Crosby’s “Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine” (1873). The author uses the first-person plural perspective—perhaps indicating that he and his mother (“we”) have a bond in prayer and need not suffer sin and grief alone.

The second stanza asks two rhetorical questions—rhetorical because, indeed, all humans suffer “trials and temptations” and witness “trouble.” The answer becomes a short refrain: “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” A third rhetorical question asks, “Can we find a friend so faithful . . .?” The intimate friendship with the one who “knows our every weakness” is the source of solace. The refrain returns: “Take it to the Lord in prayer.”

The third stanza reframes the premise of the song with different questions, while the theme remains the same:

Are we weak and heavy laden,
cumbered with a load of care?
Do your friends despise, forsake you?

The answer to both questions is, “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” The closing image of Jesus enfolding his friend in his arms is also a common trope in many hymns from this era. The two most known are Fanny Crosby’s “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” (1868) and Elisha Hoffman’s “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” (1887).

Hymnologist Fred Gealy found an additional stanza published in Hastings’ Songs of Pilgrimage: A Hymnal for the Churches of Christ (Boston, 1886; Second Ed. 1888) with the following fourth stanza:

Blessed Jesus, thou hast promised
Thou wilt all our burdens bear,
May we ever, Lord, be bringing
All to thee in earnest prayer.
Soon in glory, bright, unclouded,
There will be no need for prayer;
Rapture, praise, and endless worship
Shall be our sweet portion there.

Since this seems to be the only hymnal to include this stanza, it may have been added by the editor who felt that an eschatological focus was more theologically suitable for a closing stanza.

Albert Bailey notes correctly that Scriven’s poetry is of relatively low quality with monotonous rhymes (Scriven uses five words to rhyme with “prayer”—some multiple times) and trite language. But even Bailey admits, “Our criticism is made harmless by the tremendous service the hymn has rendered. Any unlettered person can understand it; the humblest saint can take its admonitions to heart, practice prayer, find his load more bearable and [her] spiritual life deepened” (Bailey, 1950, p. 496).

Paul Westermeyer offers a critique from a Lutheran perspective, noting:

It has been a source of comfort for many who have sung it, though paradoxically it has also been a part of a Protestantism that denies its own heritage by turning prayer into work to control God’s grace. The repeated line “Take it to the Lord in prayer” relates to . . . comfort, and forfeiting peace or suffering pain “All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer” suggests our capacity to save ourselves by the work of our prayer (Westermeyer, 2010, p. 606).

Carl Daw offers a different analysis: “As a hymn of assurance, it has served as an effective reminder of the centrality of prayer in a well-rounded spirituality. Unfortunately, singing it has often been a substitute for the comprehensive prayer life it advocates, and its advice has been cherished, but not followed” (Daw, 2016, p. 471).

While other tunes appear with this text, CONVERSE by Charles Converse is the most popular. Carlton Young suggests that CONVERSE is reminiscent of Stephen Foster tunes of the era and provides a perfect musical vehicle for this prayerful text. He notes that this tune follows the same general melodic contour as Foster’s “Jeanie with the light brown hair” (Young, 1993, pp. 687–688). Converse, a Massachusetts native, was an associate of William Bradbury (1816–1868) and Ira Sankey in revivals and the Sunday school movement.

The range of recording artists who have sung this song is staggering from long-established white performers Pat Boone (, Rosemary Clooney, Loretta Lynn, Barbara Mandrell, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton to African American gospel artists Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, and Ike and Tina Turner ( More recently, Contemporary Christian artist Paul Baloche has recorded the song (, indicating that it continues to have a witness to younger generations. Baloche’s improvisatory coda bridges the nineteenth century with the twenty-first. The hymn’s inclusion in the film Driving Miss Daisy (1969) as sung by Little Friendship Missionary Baptist Church Choir (Decatur, Georgia) confirms its iconic status in the genre.

The simple language becomes a virtue in translation, and the folk-like melody easily transcends cultures around the world. The musical treatment of CONVERSE varies in each cultural setting, but the message remains the same. There are few hymns that I have heard more regularly around the world. Scriven’s biographer, James Cleland, noted in 1895, “In the steerage of the steamer, a traveler returning from Europe, heard a mixed company, who spoke different languages, united in singing this hymn” (Cleland, 1895, pp. 5–6). One hundred years later, this author verifies hearing this song sung in various languages and renditions, including a humble congregation for people with leprosy near Ogbomosho, Nigeria; a Filipino Anglican congregation in Manila; a thriving Baptist congregation in Matanzas, Cuba; and an African American Methodist congregation in Atlanta. A modest poem, written in Canada as a private meditation for the author’s mother in Ireland, has found its way into many hearts worldwide and, undoubtedly, has been a source of comfort for millions of Christians for more than one hundred fifty years.


Albert E. Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950).

James Cleland, What a Friend We Have in Jesus and Other Poems by Joseph Scriven with a Sketch of the Author (Port Hope: W. Williamson, Publishers, 1895): (accessed December 27, 2020).

Carl P. Daw, Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).

Chris Fenner, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” Hymnology Archive (February 2020), (accessed December 26, 2020).

Margaret Leask, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus, ”The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, (accessed December 26, 2020).

Hugh D. McKellar and Margaret Leask, “Joseph Medlicott Scriven,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, (accessed December 26, 2020).

Jay Macpherson, “Scriven, Joseph Medlicott,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Vol XI (1881–1890), (accessed December 26, 2020).

Joseph Medlicott Scriven, Hymns and Other Verses (Peterborough: James Stephens, 1869): (accessed December 26, 2020).

Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2010).

Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).

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Christmas Music, Conclusion ~Auld Lang Syne

Auld Lang Syne

“Auld Lang Syne” is a Scots poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of a traditional folk song. It is well known in many countries, especially in the English-speaking world; its traditional use being to celebrate the start of the New Year at the stroke of midnight. By extension, it is also sung at funerals, graduations and as a farewell or ending to other occasions. The international Boy Scout youth movement, in many countries, uses it as a close to jamborees and other functions.

The song’s Scots title may be translated into English literally as “old long since”, or more idiomatically, “long long ago”, “days gone by” or “old times”. Consequently “For auld lang syne”, as it appears in the first line of the chorus, might be loosely translated as “for (the sake of) old times”.

Here is an old kinescope from over 50 years ago!! For 100 years, the slow drop of a lighted glass ball on New Year’s Eve from atop One Times Square in New York City has become an American tradition. A huge crowd gathers every year to welcome in the New Year.

Beginning in 1956, Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians entertained the US on New Year’s Eve with a combination of music and the live “ball drop” at Midnight. Guy continued this tradition until his death in 1977. His band still played on at CBS Television on New Years for an additional 2 years. (Dick Clark’s Rockin New Years Eve began in 1972 on ABC and still broadcasts annually.) This broadcast began right after the 15-minute news and ran for an hour. Guy plays the music and newsman Robert Trout announces the beginning of the New Year.

If you look closely, you’ll see acerbic television personality Henry Morgan in the crowd. TV was very primitive 50 years ago. Harsh lighting, a cheap office clock and a World War II searchlight scans the crowd below. I hope you’ll enjoy ringing in the New Year – 1958! Recorded: December 31, 1957.

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Posted by on December 31, 2022 in Holidays, Music, New Year, Posts of Interest, Videos


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