Homeward Bound: Interpretations of Marta Keen Thompson’s Music

homeward bound

Cover of album “Homeward Bound” by Deutsche Grammophon

This past Sunday afternoon I came across a piece of music that moved me to tears.  I don’t get emotional often, so I was struck by the overwhelming power this song has, which I believe is the result of an exquisitely crafted resonance of lyric, melody, arrangement, and vocal talent combined in perfect harmony.  It’s one of those songs that seems to reach down into the deepest parts of my experience and speak to me on a level usually untapped.  I immediately took a closer look at the song, trying to unpack its meaning, and why it moves me so.  I hope to share some of the beauty that I found.

The song’s title is “Homeward Bound.”  No, not that one, by Simon & Garfunkel.  While a good song, it’s not that kind of song.  Rather, the song I heard is by the composer Marta Keen Thompson, who currently lives in Las Vegas.  She wrote the lyrics and music to this song, and this seems to be her most well-known composition.  Marta wrote some about her song, and who has performed it, on a Facebook page dedicated to the song:

Finding your true calling in life; knowing that those who love you trust that you will return… I wrote this song for a loved one who was embarking upon a new phase of life’s journey, to express the soul’s yearning to grow and change. It was premiered by a Seattle Irish tenor, but soon after was beautifully arranged by Jay Althouse and published by Alfred Music. It has been performed by choirs of all ages throughout the English speaking world and many Asian countries. There is even a Korean arrangement of this song. It is on choral contest and festival lists in the United States and Canada. In 2004 this song appeared in the video tribute to our American troops titled “Until Then” by Todd Clegg. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir recorded a spectacular arrangement by Dr. Mack Wilberg on their CD “Love Is Spoken Here”. The Canadian Tenors included a solo version of Homeward Bound on their DVD at Toronto’s Royal Albert Hall. I continue to be delighted at the wide range of performances and interpretations of this song, which now truly seems to have a life of its own.

Renditions

A new rendition of the song was just recently released on September 13, 2013, this song being the title track, by Deutsche Grammophon with operatic bass baritone Bryn Terfel and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  This is the version I heard first on Sunday.  The masterful arrangement is by Mack Wilberg, with accompaniment by the Orchestra at Temple Square.  Here is a snippet you can listen to:

To listen in full you can purchase the song or album on iTunes or Amazon.  There are interviews with Bryn Terfel about the album recording you can watch on YouTube here, and here.  Bryn Terfel recently defended the LDS Church in an interview with The Independent in the UK.  The piece was called “Stop Mocking the Mormons” wherein he notes how the missionaries visited his home in Wales, and he is touched by the hospitality and love expressed by the Saints towards him.

Another noteworthy performance of the song is by Fraser Walters of The Tenors.  This rendition is sung in a very different style from Bryn Terfel, but is still powerful. You can watch the performance below:

Other great renditions of the song have been done by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the BYU Singers and BYU Concert Choir, and the BYU Singers alone.  Todd Clegg created a military tribute video called “Until Then,” featuring the song.  There is a great instrumental version by pianist William Joseph.  The LDS group Jericho Road has also recorded the song.  Needless to say, this song is “one of the most popular and widely-performed contemporary choral pieces” today.  It is certainly popular in LDS circles.

This song clearly has a one-of-a-kind melody which captures the ear.  The arrangements have been first rate, particularly that of Mack Wilberg, who Bryn Terfel described as a “genius,” and his producer Sid McLauchlan called “brilliant.”  And the vocal performances have been world-class.

But what else is it that causes this song to touch me, and others, so deeply?  I think the lyrics are masterfully poetic, and tie together seamlessly with the music in such a way as to deliver multiple layers of meaning and understanding that connects at a very basic human level.  Of course, artistic works can mean very different things to different people.  My wife, Raven, pointed this out:

Sometimes lyrics and music can reach us in ways perhaps never intended by the author. This doesn’t make the interpretations less valid. If anything, it just attests to the author’s ability to speak to different experiences and ideas… and how multi-faceted the piece is. When authors write, or musicians compose, they usually do so with some experience in mind. But once they release that piece to the world, they know that myriad interpretations and reflections will bounce back to them as different minds and lives encounter their work.

Lyrics

In the quiet misty morning, when the moon has gone to bed,
When the sparrows stop their singing and the sky is clear and red,
When the summer’s ceased its gleaming, when the corn is past its prime,
When adventure’s lost its meaning, I’ll be homeward bound in time.

Bind me not to the pasture. Chain me not to the plow.
Set me free to find my calling and I’ll return to you somehow.

If you find it’s me you’re missing, if you’re hoping I’ll return,
To your thought I’ll soon be list’ning; in the road I’ll stop and turn.
Then the wind will set me racing as my journey nears its end,
And the path I’ll be retracing when I’m homeward bound again.

Bind me not to the pasture. Chain me not to the plow.
Set me free to find my calling and I’ll return to you somehow.

In the quiet misty morning when the moon has gone to bed,
When the sparrows stop their singing, I’ll be homeward bound again.

Let me share some of the ways I interpret these lyrics, in three overarching themes.

Passing On

Probably one of the first thoughts that comes to mind when hearing or reading these lyrics is that it is a funeral song, along the same lines as Dvorak/Fisher’s “Goin’ Home.”  The first verse clearly describes times of ending, of completion, of a life lived.  The morning brings the end of night when the moon fades in the increasing daylight. The quiet stillness of that morning might attest to the end of the nights’ chorus of crickets chirping. The moon “going to bed” describes of the end of activity, of moving beyond the alertness and vigor of a visible time, to a space of rest.

Sparrows and other birds are most vocal in the dawn of morning, so the second line may refer to the evening sunset bringing the end of a day.  There is perhaps nothing more beautiful than an evening sunset bringing to a close a perfect day of vitality.

The summer ends a time when the sun is most visible in the sky, even “gleaming,” making the time most active and bright, when people get the most work done.  Thereafter we enter a period of less daylight, coldness, and less activity in the fall and winter.

Corn being “past its prime” indicates the end of the harvest, late in the year, the end of life and growth or beyond it.  Indeed, it is noted that “field maize is left in the field very late in the autumn to thoroughly dry the grain, and may, in fact, sometimes not be harvested until winter or even early spring.”  That is very late.  But for most sweet corn, the edible kind, the harvest must be done at just the precise time in order to get the most yield and flavor. The National Garden Association notes that:

The prime harvest time for sweet corn passes quickly for most varieties except the supersweets, so gardeners need to know how to judge when to harvest to get the most from their crop.  Corn is ready to be picked as soon as the ears have completely filled out.

In order to get the most sweetness from the corn, you must pick it when it has fully developed the sugars inside the kernels, before they have turned to starch:

Sweetness is the key, so it helps to understand what makes corn sweet and why timing is so important in your harvest. The plant manufactures natural sugars when the kernels are filling out. These kernels are seeds that each contain a natural food-storage compartment as well as the corn embryo. A seed can’t store sugars, but it can live on stored starches throughout the winter months and in its early stages of growth the following season. As soon as the kernels are full of sugar, the plant begins to convert it into starch. For best flavor, harvest the corn before this change can take place.

If the corn is past its prime, then it begins to turn the sugar into starch, which reduces the sweetness and the kernels become doughy.  Later on, the conversion to starch finishes, and the kernels harden completely.

At the end of a long journey, the original reason for it can wane.  When “adventure’s lost its meaning,” it means that it has been very long indeed, and the enthusiasm of setting out on it seems to have dried up.  It has been forgotten, or the reason for it no longer exists.  It is no longer adventure if there is no meaning to it.  Life is often seen as this journey, an adventure through mortality.  We are born, go through school, get married, have a family, build a career, see the kids grow up, and then later in life we retire, move on, close down, and it can seem as if the meaning is lost, or at least has come to an end.  It’s a transition point to something else.  There are no more adventures in the mortal sphere.  Time to go home, to God who first gave us life.

At times like this, those around may not want their loved one to pass on.  They may want to keep them here. “Bind me not to the pasture, chain me not to the plow” may indicate this struggle between keeping life or letting it pass. Some may plead, “don’t tie me to a machine to keep me going.” Many put such instructions in their will.  There is no point in artificially extending life when it has already gone.

“Set me free to find my calling,” is their pleading.  Let me move on, to the other side, where I can do good again, find adventure, find my purpose, find joy again.  We know from latter-day revelation that there is missionary work going on in the spirit world (D&C 138), and a great many good things are going on there.  It is busy there, with work to be done.  But they always add the comforting reassurance, “I’ll return to you.”

Of course, we “miss” those loved ones who have passed on, sometimes very acutely, and we long to see them again.  The restored Gospel of Jesus Christ has proclaimed that this will become a reality.  They will “return,” clothed in glory and immortality, just as the Savior made possible by his own resurrection.

One of the remarkable qualities of the hereafter, of eternal angelic beings, is that it seems that they have a different mode of communication.  Those who have experienced near death experiences (NDEs) have returned to report that on the other side they could simply think and communicate with angels by using their mind alone.  God has declared that he knows the thoughts and intents of our hearts (Alma 18:32; Hebrews 4:12).  Can our loved ones who have passed on hear our thoughts?  Do they become our guardian angels, watching out for us in our dangerous roads?

The passage of time seems to accelerate as life goes on.  As one looks back on life, it can seem as only yesterday that events transpired.  Our young children grow up.  They get married.  They have kids of their own.  And then those kids have kids. “Then the wind will set me racing as my journey nears its end.”  When life comes to a close, and the white light at the end of a tunnel appears, we are drawn towards it, by the saturated love that emanates from God.

“And the path I’ll be retracing when I’m homeward bound again.”  At the end of a life lived, one looks back on what has been accomplished.  What did they do?  Who did they help?  Who did they love?  What good did they cause? Who did they become?  NDErs often experience a playback of their life that “flashes before their eyes” as a film.  They report that they see everything that happened to them again in life, and even feel the same emotions as they did in life.  All on a journey back to our heavenly home to be with God again.

As a funeral song, it is perfect, conveying the thoughts, emotions, joys, and struggles associated with death and that sacred passage to the other side.  I would love to have the song performed at my own.

A Revelation

Another way to view the song is as a revelation from God, as if it were God’s voice to us.

At the end of the world, the Lord has promised to return.  There will be many signs before his coming, including the stars falling from heaven, and the moon turning to blood.  There will be war.  Sparrows will likely stop their singing in such tumultuous times.  Crops will see devastation.  Men’s hearts will fail them.  There will be chaos, and loss of purpose in the world.  Then will be Christ’s Second Coming, to usher in one thousand years of peace and prosperity in the Millennium.

“Bind me not to the pasture, Chain me not to the plow,” could be the Lord’s calling for us to not turn our day jobs into an idol, replacing Him with other lesser earthly things, and thereby blocking His redemptive power. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

“Set me free to find my calling and I’ll return to you somehow.” If we allow the Lord into our lives, to do the work which he has planned for us, then He will return to us.  Then he can return to us.  “He that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (D&C 50:24).  “It shall come to pass that every soul who forsaketh his sins and cometh unto me, and calleth on my name, and obeyeth my voice, and keepeth my commandments, shall see my face and know that I am” (D&C 93:1).

“If you find it’s me you’re missing, if you’re hoping I’ll return.” Those who have kept God’s commandments, and have sought his will, often long for his return, for His Second Coming, to bring peace again to the earth.  Many see his return as imminent, as in the meridian of time, and again in this dispensation, and wait patiently for it.

“To your thought I’ll soon be list’ning.” Those who wait patiently for the Lord, who pray to God in the earnestness and sincerity of their heart, He will hear them.  “Therefore, ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you; for he that asketh, receiveth; and unto him that knocketh, it shall be opened” (3 Nephi 27:29).

“In the road I’ll stop and turn.” We can, in our own roads to Emmaus, be those disciples who commune with the Savior, and may not know it.  He will comfort us in times of pain, when we need him the most.  “Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.”  Our hearts will too burn within us as we come to know Him.

“Then the wind will set me racing as my journey nears its end.”  These are the last days, the latter-days, and the Lord is doing a marvelous work and a wonder. The growth of the Church has been exponential, and is as Daniel’s rock cut out of a mountain, which is accelerating as it rolls down. We are just reaching the elbow of the growth curve, and things are about to really start moving.

“And the path I’ll be retracing when I’m homeward bound again.” The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.  The restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a return to those things Christ established in his church during his mortal ministry.  It is a restoration of all things, and the dispensation of the fulness of times, when all things are brought together.  Angelic messengers from every dispensation have returned to usher in this final round.

We must keep our eye on the Savior, on those who He has called and ordained to lead His Church, and in time we will see His return.

A Prayer

I think one of my favorite interpretations of the song might be as a personal prayer.

The first verse tells of the end times, of a life lived.  Perhaps nothing in mortality has caused more introspection and inner searching for mankind than knowing his time is limited. Nibley often quoted the poet A. E. Housman, “But men at whiles are sober, and think by fits and starts, and if they think, they fasten their hands upon their hearts.”  The end will come, and is coming, for each of us.  We are all “homeward bound in time.”  Seeing this future for ourselves should spur us to doing everything we can now, as Brigham Young said, to “be useful while we live.”

I saw an anonymous quote the other day that read, “What you do today is important because you are exchanging a day of your life for it.”  Our days are numbered.  Indeed, we each have about 27,000 of them.  What will you do today?  We often hear, “live every day as if it was your last.”  Steve Jobs once commented on this, six years before his death:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. (Stanford commencement address.)

The prayer in pleading then goes up to the Lord, “Bind me not to the pasture. Chain me not to the plow.”  Help me find a way to live a good life, to be useful while I live, to make a dent in the world.  Spending the whole of our lives in monotonous trivialities can waste a life.  Many of us seem content to go to work in the morning, make our money, aspire to the corner office, and buy a bigger house.  While these things can be good in part, they can mask what better things we could be doing.  Are we content with that which is sufficient for our needs?  President Uchtdorf noted:

Why, then, do we devote so much of our time and energy to things that are so fleeting, so inconsequential, and so superficial? Do we refuse to see the folly in the pursuit of the trivial and transient?

Would it not be wiser for us to “lay up for [ourselves] treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal”?

And so we look to God to help us “find our calling” in life, what we were foreordained to do, what God needs us to do, what will make a difference in the world for good.  Our patriarchal blessings can give us a glimpse of our potential and mission.

President Uchtdorf again:

Our Heavenly Father sees our real potential. He knows things about us that we do not know ourselves. He prompts us during our lifetime to fulfill the measure of our creation, to live a good life, and to return to His presence…

How do we do this? By following the example of the Savior, by incorporating His teachings in our daily lives, by truly loving God and our fellowman.

We certainly cannot do this with a dragging-our-feet, staring-at-our-watch, complaining-as-we-go approach to discipleship.

When it comes to living the gospel, we should not be like the boy who dipped his toe in the water and then claimed he went swimming. As sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, we are capable of so much more. For that, good intentions are not enough. We must do. Even more important, we must become what Heavenly Father wants us to be…

Let us resolve to follow the Savior and work with diligence to become the person we were designed to become. Let us listen to and obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit. As we do so, Heavenly Father will reveal to us things we never knew about ourselves. He will illuminate the path ahead and open our eyes to see our unknown and perhaps unimagined talents.

“If you find it’s me you’re missing, if you’re hoping I’ll return.”  Does our Heavenly Father miss us?  Does He want to hold us in His arms again?  Surely, as a parent to their child.  Does he want us to return to live with Him in the celestial kingdom?  Absolutely.  And He has given us all the teachings and tools to be able to do so.

“To your thought I’ll soon be list’ning; in the road I’ll stop and turn.”  Heavenly Father often speaks to us in a still small voice, in our mind, and in our heart, by the power of the Holy Ghost (D&C 8:2).  But we must be listening.  We must have our spiritual radios in tune with the Spirit to hear the signal.  In the most random circumstances and moments of our daily lives, will we be able to hear it, to “stop and turn” to Him?  If we are on the wrong road when we receive that prompting, will we stop and turn to the right one?

“Then the wind will set me racing as my journey nears its end.”  When we find our calling, when we fulfill our life’s purpose, time flies.  It races.  We are in the flow, and it sweeps us down life’s path.

“And the path I’ll be retracing when I’m homeward bound again.”  Then, when we come to life’s end, we will look back on a life well lived, with joy in our accomplishments, in the good we did, in the people we helped, those with feeble knees and hands that hang down that we strengthened, and the ways we improved the world by our having lived in it.  We will be fully satisfied in what we have become in our life’s journey, as we return to our heavenly home.

Conclusion

These are some of the beautiful things this song speaks to me, and the ways it touches me so deeply.  Perhaps it touches you, too.

How do you interpret this song?  What does it say to you?  Please add your thoughts in the comments below.

8 Comments

  1. Posted September 26, 2013 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    Thank you.

  2. JRSG
    Posted October 14, 2013 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    This was very good. Thanks.

  3. Posted October 18, 2013 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    I heard this song on the radio program “Music & the Spoken Word.” I wholeheartedly agree with you with the power this song has to tap into my deepest feelings and emotions. I’m not the only one who feels this way about a song. I have a prodigal daughter, and I’m always praying for her return.

    I appreciate all the other meanings you found in this song.

  4. Yusuf Suharyono
    Posted December 7, 2013 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much. Your interpretations are truly profound and touching.

  5. Sheldon Cheshire
    Posted January 2, 2014 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    I first heard this song when my (at the time) fourteen year-old daughter (my oldest) sang it for a vocal recital nearly two years ago. For some reason, I was already fairly emotional that day. I broke down crying when she sang, “Bind me not to the pasture. Chain me not to the plow. Set me free to find my calling and I’ll return to you somehow.” I realized that my sweet little girl is growing up so quickly and there is nothing I can do about it but to be there for her as she finds her calling and pray for the time when she is “homeward bound again”. I can’t hear this song without getting a lump in my throat and realizing how much I love my sweet daughter.

  6. Laura
    Posted March 7, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    I had many similar thoughts to the meaning of this song. As I was listening to it one day I thought…what if Christ was saying this to us? What if these were his words to his disciples? Christ needed to complete His mission and his disciples had to let Him go- let Him achieve the greater good. It does not seem to necessarily be what the author/composer had in mind- but it’s lovely that way.

  7. Rachel
    Posted May 13, 2014 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    I tend to think of this song in the light of the second coming of the Saviior in this dispensation–and the beginning of it reminds me most of this, because the misty morning is like this last dispensation where the gospel never again will be taken from the earth, and the red sky is one of the revelations we have of that morning. Other than that, I think you covered that part of my thoughts very well. Thanks for this site.

  8. David
    Posted May 21, 2014 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    Thanks to those who shared their thoughtful insights. I have a few to add:

    Last month one of our daughters graduated from BYU Hawaii and the choir (of which she was a member) performed Mack’s moving choral arrangement at the graduation. The penny whistle added a haunting longing to the musical texture. A few weeks later our oldest son graduated from BYU Provo and one of his classmates performed a solo version of the same piece…”out if the mouth of two or more musicians…” or something like that. I was moved by both performances and found myself pondering the simple, but rich word images and exquisite music.

    My initial take on the piece was the already noted interpretation of a young person with high hopes in the spring of their life who had left the home he/she loves to find their life, study great thoughts, see the world and experience first hand the adventures that lie beckoning just over the hill and down the road (like Bilbo Baggins setting off on his great adventure – from the known to the unknown). But after a while with a few turns of the earth, a little more life experience and the beginning if wisdom we all reach the point where adventure lost its allure and meaning – and we find ourselves thinking about home and longing to return. Like Dorothy in “The a Wizard of Oz” we find greater meaning and worth in our roots and appreciation for our home and loved ones than we originally imagined possible.

    My second interpretation is a variation on this same youthful desire to see the world, but from the less ennobling experience of The Prodigal Son. His desire to experience what the world offered led to riotous living where he wasted, rather than improved his opportunities. From the viewpoint of a Prodigal (haven’t we all been one to some degree?) the text of Homeward Bound is the morning moment after a bleak night when he realizes that there is greater joy and peace in his Father’s home if he gives up his current life choices and returns to find his calling – a higher calling – as he RE-turns to head home with a providential wind helping to speed him down the road into his Father’s waiting arms.

    Final variation on a theme – a missionary who has served well and is now ready to return home. It is time to turn over the cultivating and harvesting to others and seek the next calling in a life of service – a life lived in crescendo. As one turns from the plow and pasture which had provided great joy and fulfillment, another will take his/her place as they begin their service.

    The music and messages available in this piece have great depth and layers of meaning. It continues to be a joy to ponder. I hope it is the same for others!

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