Text: John Ylvisaker (1937-2017). Tune: John Ylvisaker (1937-2017)
R/ I was there to hear your borning cry, I'll be there when you are old. I rejoiced the day you were baptized, To see your life unfold.
I was there when you were but a child, With a faith to suit you well; In a blaze of light you wandered off To find where demons dwell.
When you heard the wonder of the Word I was there to cheer you on; You were raised to praise the living God, To whom you now belong.
If you find someone to share your time And you join your hearts as one, I'll be there to make your verses rhyme From dusk 'till rising sun.
In the middle ages of your life, Not too old, no longer young, I'll be there to guide you through the night, Complete what I've begun.
When the evening gently closes in, And you shut your weary eyes, I'll be there as I have always been With just one more surprise.
R/I was there to hear your borning cry, I'll be there when you are old. I rejoiced the day you were baptized, To see your life unfold.
Copyright John C. Ylvisaker, used by permission
John Carl Ylvisaker, born into a family of Lutheran pastors and leaders, his grandfather Johannes (1845-1917), for whom he was named, a long time professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary; his father Carl Berthold Ylvisaker (1896-1945), a religion professor at Concordia College in Moorhead; his uncle, J. Wilhelm, President of Luther College; was a chip off the old block. Brilliant and creative, a genius with a passion for the gospel, he became a pioneer in the world of contemporary worship music among Lutherans.
It was my privilege to know him and work with him closely over the years. We fed on each other’s ideas and experiences as we worked in the church. One year, we occasionally traveled around speaking to groups: he would play for people to sing along with him, and I would read poetry that went with the songs. In between presentations, we had time to talk.
By then he had written "Borning Cry" and it had been a surprising hit. (People write songs hoping they will be hits, but it is a mysterious thing that happens out of the blue. If there is a secret to writing hits I am sure we would all like to know!)
It had started when he began teaching music in public school. He had to use textbooks that taught children about music, such as what a sixth sounded like, by singing tunes the writers of the textbooks had written. He thought the tunes were fairly unsingable. The worst was, you could easily teach anyone what a sixth was by singing a familiar song like “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.”
From there he came to understand that the way into the ears and hearts of people was the folk tradition. It was an auspicious time for such a discovery. It was the time of the hootenannies (I realized how old I was when a seminary student asked me what they were!) and the rise of the folk with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and, of course, Bob Dylan.
From there John went on to write and sing his own spiritual songs, almost all of them either folk songs or folk song sounding. He knew that people would recognize them and sing them. So he began a life long project of finding folk songs around the world that he could use and he did. He came right out of the spiritual song tradition as well as the hymn tradition of Lutherans because he had grown up going with his father to Bible Camps around the Upper Midwest. It was a rough time for the colleges and they needed enrollment so, like many college teachers at the time, Carl Ylvisaker would recruit students at Lutheran Bible Camps. Unfortunately, he died young, leaving John bereft of a father.
In addition to working on his songs and hymns, John composed sound tracks for videos done by the ALC Media center where he worked. He continued doing the music at synod conventions, youth conventions, etc. His favorite thing, he said, was to be driving his truck with all his sound equipment down an Interstate in the middle of the night listening to music and singing along.
After the merger which created the ELCA in 1988, he had a dark night of the soul experience. Through it, he renewed his faith and continued doing what he had done, going around to camps and conventions, singing and leading worship. When his health began to slow him down, he continued writing, but all that came to an end when he succumbed to his illnesses.
Over his lifetime he wrote over 2000 songs, most connected with the lectionary. He must have paraphrased all of the Bible. His songs brought Scripture into the mouths and lives of the people who sang his songs. He was a rare sort; I thank God I was able to know him and learn from him. His father's and grandfather's son and a faithful servant of the Lord.
This song spoke to people as few other hymns at the time. It went along with their celebrations of the passages we all have in life, birth, confirmation, marriage, and finally death. Few such hymns had been written at the time. This became the required hymn for baptisms, weddings and funerals especially in the 1990s and it still continues to be treasured by those who have sung it especially at those times in their lives. It has been translated into several languages, the latest German. There is a DVD or a streaming version on his life story. "How Can I Keep from Singing: The Life and Legacy of John Carl Ylvisaker" at
Images of John through his life
Choral version Polk Street United Methodist church choir