Have I mentioned the excellent volume by J. R. Watson, An Annotated Anthology of Hymns? You’re familiar with the typical “hymn history” books which give the “story” behind a particular hymn, or perhaps a biographical sketch of the author if there really is no “story”–and often the stories are apocryphal at that. Watson takes us on a journey from ancient and medieval hymnody through the mid-twentieth century, and discusses general movements in the church and in church music, significant hymnwriters, and digs into 250 various hymns with one level or another of exposition. At 430 pages, this is an outstanding volume for the music director of a church. This volume is a bit like a denominational “hymnal companion” which gives info on one hymn after another in the denominational hymnbook, but is chronological in nature. The closest thing I’ve seen is Arthur Scott Bailey’s The Gospel in Hymns: Background and Interpretation (and Eskew and McElrath is not too far from it either), but that was written roughly 65 years ago, and Watson is only ten years old. Bailey is worth getting, and is much cheaper, but Watson is, in my opinion, better written, and much more recent, even though it will set you back more (you can find used copies for around $30).
What is still missing, to my knowledge, is a thorough “parsing guide” to the most significant hymnody of the church that walks the reader stanza by stanza through the entire hymn, setting it in its historical context, demonstrating the flow of thought, explaining metaphors and unfamiliar terminology. Sort of the equivalent of a technical biblical commentary, but for a hymnbook. A compendium of hymnological exegesis, if you will. If you’re familiar with something of this nature, I’d love to hear about it!