For example, there's the story of beloved hymn-writer Fanny Crosby.
"I think most people knew that she was blind," he said of Crosby, who wrote the lyrics for "To God Be The Glory" and hundreds of other stately hymns.
"But she memorized huge chunks of scripture by the time she was 15, wasn't saved 'til she was 30, and didn't start writing hymns until age 40."
Brainard included three of Crosby's hymns in his new book, which features more than 60 songs grouped by theme into 10 categories.
All of the hymns are in the public domain (thus the title of the book), which means they are old enough to no longer have copyrights. The most recent hymn in the collection is Thomas Dorsey's, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," written in the early 1930s.
"That song was Dr. Martin Luther King's favorite," Brainard noted. "It was performed at his memorial service in 1968."
The oldest song in the book? "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" which dates to the 16th Century.
ARRANGING THE HYMN BOOK
Brainard's goal was to make his book a primer – a layperson's entry into the world of hymns with both educational and inspirational components. It's not exhaustive as a purely academic book might be. But there are brief biographies of the lyric writers and composers, and it offers Brainard's own observations as a 78 year-old, hymn-singing believer.
The thematic groups in the book include Salvation (song example, "Just As I Am"), Adoration/Praise ("Holy, Holy, Holy") and Petition/Prayer ("I Need Thee Every Hour"). There's also a section for special occasion/holiday hymns, which features the Civil War-era "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" with words by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
BOOKS AND MUSIC INTERTWINE
Brainard's introduction to church music came early in life - he was raised attending churches where hymns were always sung. As a youth he enjoyed the "camp song" choruses of the era such as "Do Lord" and "Give Me Oil in My Lamp," and sometimes poked fun at the old hymns. "Little did I realize that - 60 years later - I would yearn for those rich song treasures from my past," he writes in the book's preface.
Brainard knows books. For 23 years he worked for Zondervan's chain of Christian retail stores. He served in various management positions before leaving in 1983 to form his own company where he developed a Christian book clearing house. "I traveled to more than 600 conventions over 16 years selling books that I bought from publishers," he recalled.
And his love for the old hymns grew.
He credits previous books on hymns by Robert J. Morgan and Kenneth Osbeck as providing inspiration, as well the Monday morning hymn-sing gathering at Van's Pastries on E. Fulton St. in Grand Rapids..
A TAKE ON MODERN HYMNS
The author said the church he attends in Cannon Township still sings some of the "golden oldies" which contain the "thees and thous" of the Bible's King James Version.
"Can you imagine singing 'How Great Thou Art' using the phrase 'How Great You Are'''? he asked. "There's something majestic sounding about the phrase, 'thou art.'"
Brainard appreciates modern worship songs such as "Ten Thousand Reasons" which are hymn-like in structure and can be easily sung congregationally.
But it's the songs that you've sung for decades that seem to hold on the tightest. During a recent interview, Brainard found himself reciting all the words to "Day By Day (and with each passing moment....") while a reporter listened, adding a lyric or two himself.
Glorious praise, sound doctrine and divine comfort are key elements of the great hymns, Brainard writes. He makes a case that there will long be a place for songs of old that warm the heart and stir the soul.