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Behind the music: 'I Hope They Call Me on a Mission'

Published: Monday, July 18 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

DALLAS — More than 40 years have passed since a Mormon music professor combined some simple lyrics with a bouncing accompaniment for a Primary song he was asked to submit.

Today, Newel K. Brown’s catchy song “I Hope They Call Me On a Mission” has been translated into numerous languages and memorized by millions around the globe.

“The greatest reward I could ever imagine is to know that Primary children around the world are singing it, and that some are motivated to actually serve missions because of it,” said Brown, a Dallas resident.

Brown is a native of Salt Lake City, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Utah. Prior to serving a mission in West Germany, he attended graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. He received a doctorate degree from Eastman School of Music and accepted positions in New Jersey, Arkansas and Texas before retiring from the University of North Texas.

Brown was teaching at a college in Arkansas in 1969 when he received a letter from the LDS Church’s general music committee requesting his talents for a project to create a new Primary songbook. He learned several other composers, also members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were contacted and assigned a gospel topic, such as faith, scriptures and baptism.

“Mine happened to be missionary work,” Brown said.

Reflecting on songs that stayed with him as a boy — “A Mormon Boy” and “In The Garden” — Brown hoped he could create something his 5-year-old son would like.

After crafting the lyrics, Brown moved to the piano and produced a melody he thought would fit and be easy to learn. The missionary tune was sent to Salt Lake City with two others that did not get published.

Sometime later his parents reported hearing the song in the Salt Lake Tabernacle as part of the musical “Zion,” a production performed in stakes throughout the church. Then he learned his missionary song had been translated into more than 18 languages.

“I had to smile when I saw my lyrics in Chinese and Tongan,” he said.

Years later, Brown's own missionary son sent him a tape of children singing the song in Korea. A niece did the same from Japan. When he returned to one of the places in Germany where he served as a missionary, he was asked to say a few words about his song. Then the bishop invited the Primary to come up and sing it.

Brown, a former member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, says it has been gratifying to hear dozens of stories generated by his song. They range from humorous to sad to inspirational. One mother wrote to Brown that her daughter learned the wrong lyrics in Primary. Instead of the line, “I hope by then I will be ready,” she sang, “I hope my dinner will be ready.” She was still singing those wrong words obliviously at age 14, her mother said.

“I guess when you invite the missionaries over to eat dinner all the time, her version of the song made perfect sense,” wrote Kelly Bluth.

A young man was still awaiting his mission call in 1988 when he was killed by a drunk driver. The prophet, then President Ezra Taft Benson, called the victim’s parents the next day to say he had received his mission call to a place where the Lord definitely needed him. Instead of singing “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission” at his farewell, young family members sang it at his funeral.

A young woman wanted to show support for her boyfriend as he prepared to depart for the mission field. She recorded her self playing Brown’s song on the piano and singing slightly altered lyrics: “I’m glad they called you on a mission.”

“Talk about a way for a girlfriend to melt a mother’s heart,” Kathy Quinn, the girl’s mother, wrote to Brown. “I know it meant the world to him (the boyfriend) too.”

In 1989 Brown received a letter from Deseret Book’s Virginia B. Cannon in connection with the Primary “Children’s Songbook.” She was seeking background information on Brown’s song for a children’s church music history project, but commented on the impact of the melody worldwide.

“What an immeasurable contribution for good you have personally made in the lives of the children,” Cannon wrote.

These days Brown and his wife, Christine, work Friday evenings in the Dallas Texas Temple and enjoy spending time with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He credits the Lord and his dear mother, who encouraged his early musical pursuits, for “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission.”

“My professional training is in music composition, but none of the performances of my solo, chamber or orchestral works has brought me the satisfaction and pleasure that this little song has,” Brown said.

Of special interest to Brown are stories of how his song has been received or how it has affected the lives of people for good. Anyone interested in sharing their story with him can write “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission” in the subject line and email it to Brown at nkbrown29@hotmail.com.

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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