“And Ruth said, Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)
In the 1990s, James Dunne, the composer and producer of the colossal 25-year masterpiece, Words of the Prophets, incorporated music and stories into seminary classes he taught. After gaining some confidence with his Words of the Prophets format (using the actual words of the scriptures for the lyrics), James would end each class by telling his students, “If you have a favorite scripture you’d like to hear put to music, see me after class.” One day, student Alisha Hawkins told him she had always loved the Old Testament Book of Ruth.
Now… imagine a stage in complete darkness… and after an ominous audio ambiance, a spotlight comes up on Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth. Out comes a powerful despondent voice like a phantom of an opera… “My husband is dead… and so are my sons… and here you are, my daughters-in-law.”
Most Christians and Jews are familiar with the little Book of Ruth. Within those four chapters is a story of love, devotion, and commitment. The story relates that Ruth and Orpah were two Moabite (non-Judean) women who had married the two sons of Elimelech and Naomi – Judeans who had settled in Moab to escape a famine in Judah. Suddenly, the husbands of all three women die, and Naomi plans to return to her native Bethlehem. She urges her daughters-in-law to return to their non-Judean families.
Naomi pleaded with Ruth, saying, “Behold, thy sister in law is gone back unto her people, and unto her gods: return thou after thy sister in law.” (Ruth 1:15). However, Ruth refused to leave her side.
While James’ composition is more emotionally personal than the 1954 popular song Whither Thou Goest by Guy Singer, James still originally began the song with Ruth’s famous title line, “Whither Thou Goest…”. It was James’ daughter, Cheyenne Hayes, who told him, “You should bring into play why Ruth said that.” That immediately intrigued James and ultimately led him to the powerful new opening described above, and even greater dramatic separation between Naomi and Ruth, explained below.
Though Naomi and Ruth had opposing points of view, they were ultimately reconciled together. However, the scriptures are silent on “how” the two women were able to reach a reconciliation. James thought perhaps that was one of the missing parts of scripture that will one day be restored. So, he created a chorus for the song that serves as the key to their reconciliation. That key is a third-party counselor – the Lord. That artistic “restoration” made the story complete, with perfect faithful logic to James.
James loves the symbolism in the Gospel and scriptures. He decided to tie symbolic music to the story, as well. Naomi projects her opening story in a minor (sad) key, in 4/4 march time, as she stoically marches through the new reality suddenly before her. Sounds of brooding dark clouds loom over her, depressingly, and seem to bear down on her.
Then comes the subtle transition to Ruth’s initial response: Ruth enters in a bright major key with a lilt in her voice, in a new time (signature). The transition is nearly imperceptible, but her optimism buoys morale up going forward.
Naomi and Ruth also each have their own musical icons (like Peter & the Wolf)… a violin and flute, respectively. As Naomi and Ruth come together, so do the violin and flute…. until they finally conclude together in perfect harmony.
Credits: Opening the song is Naomi, played by DeLee Brown. Ruth’s role is performed by Erica Haws Young, pictured above. All else was created by James Dunne.
With 1,000 years of the Book of Mormon now crafted in song by James, from Lehi to Moroni’s Farewell, he feels the Old Testament stories are also ripe for his style of creating first-person musical testimonies of faith from the words of the scriptures. He thanks his seminary student for her fine suggestion on the Book of Ruth, Chapter 1, that has finally come to pass… and now stay, in song.