Category Archives: Gospel music
Several years ago, Dr. Penny Marler approached me about participating in a program where pastors might become
friends across differences—race, age, denomination—and learn from each other. Rev. Arthur Price and I decided to make that journey together. He is the pastor of historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where, 50 years ago this fall, people driven by hate and fear set off a bomb that killed four little girls who had just prayed together. The episode set off a national revulsion to the radical racists and helped put America in a new direction.
Over the course of that few years, we became friends, Arthur much younger, a different personality, a native of the North, me a son of the South. It was one of the richest experiences of my life, and it is documented on the website of the Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence. (For more information about the project Rev. Price and I did together, click HERE)
One of the side blessings of that friendship was connecting our churches. We visited each others’ deacons meetings, had our congregations together for fellowship, and continued our friendship by having breakfast together regularly over the years. Last year, we began to talk together about doing something positive that would mark this anniversary by affirming that we are in a new day and that the faith community is part of that. We were joined by another friend, Rev. Keith Thompson of First United Methodist Church downtown.
After the massacre at Newtown in December, our sense of commitment was heightened. Whatever strikes at our Read the rest of this entry
The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South,
is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people.
Surely by now you’ve seen that bumper sticker that says, PADDLE FASTER—I HEAR BANJOS PLAYING. It’s an allusion to the worst movie for the banjo’s image since the minstrel era—“Deliverance.” Despite the wonderful “Dueling Banjos” song, which was written by the talented Arthur Smith, whom I used to watch on TV from Charlotte, NC as a boy (and who also wrote the “Guitar Boogie.”), it was an image I’d as soon forget.
The banjo is associated with rednecks, hillbillies, and racism in the American mind. We think of it as an instrument of uneducated mountaineers in the rural South. We remember white people in blackface mimicking the music of the plantations that makes us wince in pain now. And that’s too bad. The banjo is an instrument that contains a shared history in black and white. It is an African instrument that white people—especially the poor–came to love.
Unfortunately, the searing history of the plantation, slavery, with all of its terrible damage to the people brought here against their wills, left us with a bizarre and tragic legacy of contradictions that perhaps reflect in our music. The notion that an African instrument, the banjo, would embody racism is odd indeed. The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South, is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people. From the painful memories of the minstrels to the accusations against Elvis as “race music,” the musical inventions of southern culture—jazz, gospel, rock, soul, R&B, blues, country, folk and bluegrass—all formed bridges across a divide that was stupidly attempted by law and cultural taboo.
A couple of video explorations that will open up that world for you differently. One is “Give Me the Banjo” NARRATED
BY Steve Martin on PBS. You can watch it online here CLICK It is a wonderfully told narrative of the instrument through its complex history and cultural settings. It will introduce you to a lot of players you’ve never heard of, black and white, blues, old-time, folk, bluegrass and other styles.
Like so many cultural artistic expressions, you will find yourself realizing that all your surface shorthand stereotypes are nearly worthless. Finding the worlds under the music is like the difference between taking a tour of a country and living there.
Finally, I recently found Bela Fleck’s wonderful documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart.” A camera crew follows the master banjo player and his sound man as they traipse through Africa to reintroduce the instrument to its home and play along with native folk musicians across the continent. Movie reviewer Lou Novacheck wrote of it in 2009:
The main story covers their trip, beginning with Uganda in East Africa, and ending up in Mali in West Central Africa, and includes hundreds of African musicians from the countries they spent time in, Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Gambia and Mali, from the famous to unknown. I’m sure neither Fleck nor Paladino saw the complexities and immensity of the project ahead of time, and I’m equally certain that there will be at least one additional similar
trip in the future. The origin of the banjo and its concomitant history are subjects that music scholars have been chewing on for years.
Early in the ninety minute film there is an astounding clip of a group of men playing what is a gigantic “xylophone” made of small logs calibrated to different notes. Fleck, the great jam musician he is, finds a place to play along. The music is haunting, joyful, and you see as many smiles as any film ever has, genuine and pure.
Truth is, most music through time was not primarily entertainment as we have created it in the last century but participative. Music was a way that common people found relief from the dreariness of life and connected in their sorrows, joys and hopes my sharing the gift of music. The image for the banjo to me is not the “minstrel” or the sinister condescension of “Deliverance” at all. Those terrible truths existed and still do. But the image of the banjo is the jam, where people sit together and make music. There is an etiquette to old-time and bluegrass jams about taking turns, learning a canon of tunes, being invited in, and initiating the newcomer.
This year I finally broke down an bought a banjo (to go with my guitars, acoustic and electric, mandolin, harmonicas, keyboard, violin, dobro, bass, two ukuleles and penny whistle, among other things. I just love sounds—any and every. I have a Gold Tone BG-250, a gorgeous instrument that prices at the beginning of the high end banjos. I bought it from my good friend and banjo wizard, Herb Trotman, at Fretted Instruments of Homewood Alabama.
And playing it is not a political event to me at all. It is simply soothing, a connection to ancestors and the mystery of all life. When I sit alone and play, I am not alone. I connect to the ages and to all things. While I’m not very good yet, here is an MP3 I came up with as a first composition, called, “Dynamite Hill” with banjo and keyboard on my recording. LISTEN TO GARY PLAY “DYNAMITE HILL”
In a time when people sit, docile, in front of Blueray screens and passively watch other people live life, the jam seems pretty healthy by comparison. So I offer, in closing, a wonderful group from North Carolina, “The Carolina Chocolate Drops,” play “Cornbread and Butter Beans,” who keep alive that this music belongs to all of us. In the weary, tiresome deadness of current politics and economics, we desperately need the arts to help us find our souls again. A good jam is a great start.
I once heard someone say that Loretta Lynn described country music as consisting of three kinds of songs: “Songs about love, cheatin’ songs, and songs about Jesus.” That may be so, but I don’t know of anything that a good song can’t touch. In my last post, I mentioned songs that had spoken to me in my own grief through the years. Usually they are songs that simply “find us,” a synchronicity of expression and need. You hear it and it unearths sorrow or whatever from the deepest part of you, puts it up where you can feel it and when it’s done, you have a sense of relief or having found a treasure.
There is no “this will speak to you like it did me” list. Maybe it will, maybe not. But I do like to hear about songs others have liked. So here is a partial “songs that touched me in the journey of grief and pain.” You probably have some great additions to this.
- Peter Rowan, Legacy “Father, Mother” This is one of the most poignant, most beautiful songs about sorrow and hope mingled. A family walks together on a cold morning to the cemetery and remembers. It is achingly beautiful with a stunning vocal ending.
- Pierce Pettis, Everything Matters “God Believes in You”
- Emmy Lou Harris, Roses In the Snow “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Green Pastures,” “Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn,” and “Jordan.” Rickie Skaggs, and a ton of talent plays and sings on this old CD, but Emmy Lou’s voice and these haunting old gospel songs is beautiful.
- Lynda Poston-Smith, Sigh of the Soul, Songs for Prayer and Meditation
- Ashley Cleveland, Second Skin “Borken Places” I had the privilege of opening for the Grammy winner a number of years ago. After a long career singing with people like John Hiatt and others Ashley went through a dark place in life, but during recovery rediscovered her faith again by remembering the hymns of her childhood.
Second Skin is a wonderful collection original songs in collaboration with her gifted husband Kenny Greenberg. is a terrific talent the song that spoke to me so much on that CD is called broken places
Chained to the past, chained to the fear
chains on the floor, broken for years
Freedom is calling me and my heart races
I feel it in the broken places.
Every diver knows there’s a lot at stake
But to the depths he goes as the water breaks.
And for every secret, well there’s a pearl he takes
- Vaughn Williams, “Five Mystical Songs” with the London Philharmonic. Based on the poems of the Anglican priest and mystic, George Herbert, the whole set of songs is worth listening to again and again, but “Love Bade Me Welcome” and “The Call” have been constant companions in my listening life.
- Hugh Prestwood, “The Suit,” performed by James Taylor. I like Hugh’s own recording of the song, about an old Nebraska farmer. The song speaks for itself. Listen to James Taylor do it here with Jerry Douglas. CLICK TO LISTEN
- Johnny Cash, American IV, The Man Comes Around. “Hurt.” I guess everyone has seen this one, but the video is one of the most overwhelming music videos ever made. It’s not his song, but Johnny sings about the train wrecks of his life and makes it his song. The moment when his beloved June looks at him with sad eyes brings me to the edge of tears every time in a genuine way.
- Andrew Lloyd Webber, Requiem “Pie Jesu,” sung by Sarah Brightman and a boy soprano. Webber wrote his Requiem in tribute to the death of his father. I listened to it again and again in the 1980s. “Pie Jesu” is so tender, and the innocence of the child’s voice in their duet conveys a transcendent feel for me. Classical music is filled with great help in this journey, too many passages to mention, but for a couple of decades I listened through the great classics just for my own enjoyment and found so many great expressions of sorrow and grief.
- Rosanne Cash Black Cadillac This makes a wonderful companion to your Johnny Cash collection and a necessary correction to the simplification of the movie, “Walk the Line.” When Johnny died, daughter Rosanne did this musical tribute to her experience of her father. Even without respect to Johnny’s life and music, it stands on its own as a great artistic accomplishmenr.
- Vince Gill, When Love Finds You, “Go Rest High On That Mountain.” Originally Vince started this song as a tribute after Keith Whitley died. It languished for a while, but then upon the death of his own brother, he completed the song. It has become one of his most lasting and loved songs. It is out of synch with the tone of the rest of the CD, mostly country love songs in vintage Vince style, but I have been asked to sing this song at more than one funeral (a half octave lower, of course!). You can listen to it all over YouTube. It continues to speak to those who grieve.
- Kathy Chiavola, From Where I Stand: A Personal Tribute. Kathy is a well-known backup singer, performer and vocal teacher in Nashville. It was recorded as a tribute to her partner, Randy Howard, a great fiddle player from Alabama who died in 1999. Randy is on part of the CD, as the album was underway when he died. My own favorite song is “Across the Great Divide,” a Kate Wolf song that describes death through the metaphor of that mystical peak in a mountain range where the rivers begin to flow the other way…
I’ve been walking in my sleep
Counting troubles ‘stead of counting sheep
Where the years went, I can’t say
I just turned around and they’ve gone away
I’ve been sifting through the layers
Of dusty books and faded papers
They tell a story I used to know
And it was one that happened so long ago
It’s gone away in yesterday
And I find myself on the mountainside
Where the rivers change direction
Across the great divide
The finest hour that I have seen
Is the one that comes between
The edge of night and the break of day
It’s when the darkness rolls away
- Could I even talk about death and grief without mentioning the hymns? They have been my companion and comfort and for countless others. Everyone has a list, but mine are often connected with memories of funerals I have conducted over the years—now in the hundreds. Singing “Victory in Jesus” congregationally years ago at the widow’s request as the recessional, while the wife, left penniless by her pastor husband, walked out with the family, head lifted up, tears streaming down her face, and defiant hope on her countenance. My other favorites (only a few!):
“The Old Rugged Cross”
“It is Well With My Soul”
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
“Blessed Assurance” I sang this one with a group of pastors in Israel in 1983 in Jerusalem while one of our leaders stood on a hill and wept over a loss in his family shortly before the trip. I will never forget his silhouette in the morning sun, hand braced against a solitary tree, head down, face buried in a handkerchief, while we sang, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior, all the day long.”
“Shall We Gather At the River”
This blog is drawn in part from some chapters I’m writing for a forthcoming book on prayer from Insight Press. I’ll announce it when it is available for purchase on this site.
Moments of sensitivity to God’s presence happen in the oddest places—foxholes, pinned in a car wreck, hospital waiting rooms, lying in bed when you can’t sleep. People report God’s presence when life is unraveling, but also sitting on the porch on a quiet afternoon. Holding a baby. Counting blessings. Waking up and drinking coffee. Chance encounters. Prison cells, torture rooms, earthquakes and financial ruin. A meal with friends, a good book, listening to a hymn in church and singing to yourself. God can show up anywhere, unannounced.
I had one of those moments in a basement laundry room in a retreat center just before worship. I had spent a great deal of time alone that day, thinking, praying, and resting. That evening, we were scheduled to have communion in the chapel before dinner.By the SS
During free time that afternoon I took some laundry to the basement and sat there, alone, except for my old twelve
string guitar, which I had owned since the age of sixteen. I took along a hymnal to play and sing some songs to pass the time, and did a wide variety of songs. After a while, I stumbled upon an old favorite, “In the Garden.” Theologically sophisticated people do not generally like this hymn—it has no sense of the social or community, no ethics, no grand sweep of history or lofty notion of God. It is all personal and private.
The words “I, me and my” occur twenty times by the time you sing it all the way through, most notably as, “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.” It can be seen as a rather undeveloped view of faith, infantile and self-absorbed.
But as I sang it, something remarkable happened. I began to think about my grandfather, a self-taught worship leader in Baptist churches in NC who taught shaped-note singing schools. We moved from there when I has only seven. Until then, my grandfather was nearby and always present in my life.
I am from the old school. Because I am of Welsh ancestry, I am musical, emotional and mood-swingy passionate. But because I am an American man, I am half Marlboro cowboy. I only cried at the acceptable times—maybe once per grief, or, like my father in law, who said the only time he ever cried was getting kicked in the groin in football.
The only time American men can cry acceptably like little children is when their chosen sports team loses. Then they perform tantrums. They also cry watching certain movies and shows, but it always seems to be about something else.
Now, I sat in a windowless basement in California, singing “In the Garden,” when suddenly a vision of my dead grandfather came to my imagination, but now he was alive, singing with the hosts of heaven, and I felt the tears welling up. It was twenty-five years after I got the news.
Not that I had failed to grieve at all. The very first song I wrote, “The Last Freight Train,”(CLICK to listen) is where I put my loss. I wrote it around age fifteen, and the lyrics sound like a fifteen year old, but I made it the first cut on my first CD, “permanent world of pretend,” because it was my “starting place” in songwriting.
Grief can make you crazy, or, if you handle it halfway right, it can make you well. Up to you. Ignore it, and you can destroy everything around you without a clue why. Move through it and you can live for the first time like you were supposed to live. Running away is pretty common, of course, except this is more like running away to escape a terrible tattoo.
Music is a wonderful tool to put in your “grief box.” Since my grandfather, and my families on both sides, were singers and players, music helps me. But if you can’t play anything except a radio, music can help.
At our church, we are blessed to have an incredible musician, Dr. Terre Johnson, who leads our music. He is an amazing musician and minister, worked at Carnegie Hall for several years with a choral company there. He is a terrific arranger and composer of
choral music. He has written some astounding pieces for grief and out of grief. One, after a tornado hit a school in Alabama years ago, has been performed at the White House, an arrangement of “Come, Ye Disconsolate.” (LISTEN-click) He knows that the right music at the right moment can do more than soothe—it can elevate the moment above hopelessness and sorrow.
I say all of this because as a songwriter, I am always dealing with feelings of one kind or another—happiness, sadness, hope, fear, you name it. You want to feel something in a good song, not just talk about it. I write out of those wells of feeling. Disconnect from them and the song never happens.
You can drown in them, of course, but that’s another blog. The point isn’t to get stuck in sorrow, but to “man up” and stay in the room until the door opens into peace and acceptance.
I’ve met more than my share of crazy people in my line of work, and I’ve got to say many of them have some kind of terrible grief that they flounder around. And instead of moving into it, they run the other way and make themselves and the rest of us miserable with their determination to will it out of the picture. Too bad. A good cry on a regular basis or a healthy helpin’ of blues, hymns, an adagio or two, and they might climb out of the tarpit.
Next time I’ll share a list of my own favorite “grieving songs” over the years. Usually their significance has more to do with the synchronicity of occasion and song and not merely with the song itself.
Until then, don’t wait for a kick in the groin. Grief is a powerful secret that you can’t keep down in the basement forever. You don’t have to carry it around on your sleeve or talk to everyone. But find your way to sit with it, feel it, and draw on your faith to outwait it.
…there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis.
In my last post, I reflected on the interesting work of Oliver Sacks on memory. A few further thoughts about the whole notion of science, faith, and humanity.
Sacks has been criticized roundly for his “anecdotes” that don’t meet all the rigor of some scientific requirement, especially by the radical reductionists. Some believe that “there is no self or soul. We are merely the product of our acculturated experiences and brain physiology and when it’s gone, so are we.”
But there is something instinctive that we know—that there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis. Beauty, humanity, value abide somewhere beyond all our curiosity about mechanisms. Even when the mechanisms are explained, there is yet Something.
I once asked a group of scientists with whom I meet from time to time to talk about religion and science (none of whom are six-day creationists, all but one of whom are yet theists and Christians), “My question for you is not why you believe in evolution or why even intelligent design is not logically necessary from the perspective of scientific method. It is this: you are committed scientists, are convinced of its methodology, humble about what we can know. And yet you still worship, believe in God, go to church. I am much more interested in that than boring college-dorm debates where someone has to knuckle under at the end and say, “You’re right. I give up.” Why do you do this?” What is it that you DO believe?
Then I heard something fresh. “Even when you understand these things, it causes wonder.” There is Something underneath that can be alternatively explained but it seems vulgar to do so. Wonder. Amazement. Delight. Joy. They can be explained as neurons, nerves, responses, brain centers, blah blah blah. But why do they exist at all?
On December 27, 1992, I did a funeral of a real character in the town where I lived in South Georgia. Mr. Earl “Tige” Pickle (short for “Tiger,” a peculiar name for such an outgoing man!) was a newspaper columnist, leader in the community and local radio personality. Everybody who was anybody in Early County eventually was asked to be on Mr. Tige’s radio show. Since our paper came once a week, people depended on Tige to get the day-to-day necessities. He kept us up on things like the funeral notices and what the coach had to say about the big game and how the peanut crop might do this year with the lack of rain and that terrible fungus the county agent had just identified.
Since I was the new preacher in town and he had more or less run out of interesting guests, Tige invited me to be interviewed. He was particularly interested in the fact that I was from Texas and, as people usually do, assumed that I knew all about things Texana. I didn’t know these things, of course, but like any good Texan, what I lacked in fact I simply invented, added and padded.
He was a wordsmith who appreciated a good story and a well-written sentence. He often came up to tell me how much he appreciated some joke I had told in a sermon or some point well-made. Of course, as in all lives, the day came when life began to take his gifts away, and it took them in a most cruel fashion. This dear man with a sly grin and quick wit began to lose his words. They said it was Alzheimer’s.
One day, long after the ravages of senility had begun to take their toll, I went out to the nursing home to lead a worship service. As always, Tige was present, sitting in a rocker at the back. By now he had become silent and unresponsive. This particular day I invited the residents to join me in singing “Amazing Grace.” As we began to sing, something came over Tige. He got up as though moved by an invisible and ancient force of habit and moved toward me. Now he was no longer in the day room at the nursing home. I believe he was sitting again in his mind in the pews of First Baptist Church and worshipping in his regular place.
He sang out loud and continued to make his way forward until he stood shoulder to shoulder with me. There he continued to sing as though he were leading the congregation itself until we finished the song. When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun; we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.
Then he went back to his seat. When nearly everything else had left his memory, the power of a lifetime of faithful worship and faith had marked his life. Though he rarely spoke those days, something raised him out of that chair and moved him to sing every word of that great old hymn. Religion has just about lost its soul in America trying to control the culture, run politics and come up with glib answers to everything. We’d do better to settle back into mystery, in my opinion. Humility is not such a bad place to be, not if you really believe in something. Especially if you think there is Something that comes from beyond us, beyond death, beyond decay and Alzheimers and suffering and loss.
Oliver Sacks’ work may also remind us that the practice of faith is deeper than what we “feel” or “decide” or experience. There is something entirely worthwhile about the practice of faith that resides at the level of gestures, behaviors and trusting actions. Liturgy, devotions, singing, and prayer become habits of a life. Theologian Greg Jones once wrote:
Two of the most powerful intellectual and social forces in our culture are the hard sciences and capitalist economics. Together they have conspired to produce images of personhood that undermine Christian understandings. According to these images, persons are defined by their rational capacities and their productive contributions.
The loss of reverence and respect for human life and human bodies, whether they retain capacity for memory or not, is the result of our obsession with reason and the GNP. But institutional religion can commit the same sin. People can be valued only for being young, for the contributions they make to the community or for their sameness to us. This is as far from the religion of Jesus of Nazareth as can be. The One who welcomed lepers, outcasts, children and the sick reminds us that pragmatism is a useful tool but not a way of life adequate to all things.
I find it frankly puzzling to meet conservative Christians who effusively praise Ayn Rand. In the words of Liz Lemon, “What the WHAT?” We can love, value, care for people poorer than us, less fortunate, weaker or damaged. This is not misguided but actually a humble bowing before mystery. There are yet things in a silent woman sitting in the activities room of the nursing home unknown to us. And so we care for her, not only for her past, but for the simple fact of respect and care for her deep fellow humanity. That is enough. To learn this is the beginning of wisdom.
The website “Sightings” put out an interesting piece this week. Thanks to my good friend and blog reader Lamon Brown for forwarding this to me. It is a piece on the music of Adam Arcuragi. I was unfamiliar with Arcuragi, but immediately was drawn to go read the piece and the NPR interview of Arcuragi. His album Like a Fire that Consumes All Before It, writes M. Cooper Harriss
…has raised interest in the popular-musical category of “Death Gospel,” a metaphysically attuned variety of the Americana genre named by Arcuragi. Death Gospel is not sonically related to “Death Metal” (a heavier
Heavy Metal music); nor is it overtly “gospel” music. Arcuragi describes it in a recent Huffington Post interview as “anything that sees the inevitability of death as a reason to celebrate the special wonder that is being alive and sentient. That’s the hope with the songs. . . . It is exciting that we can reflect upon it as intelligent life and do something to make that wonder manifest.” Arcuragi’s interview attributes little theological import to the gospel portion of his category, noting instead his love of 2/2 time and pointing to a number of historical antecedents such as Claude Ely and Johnny Cash, and more recent–and some might say more “secular”–acts including Neko Case and the Flaming Lips.
I was immediately drawn to this for a couple of reasons. First, because in my work as a minister, I am around death and dying on almost a weekly basis. I’m guessing my funerals are now in the hundreds over 32 years of work. I have buried old people, babies and everyone in between. Suicides, cancer, tragedies, fires, drowning, car wrecks, sweet release from Alzheimers, folks whose loved ones and friends were all gone, and those who left too soon. On only a few occasions did I bury people no one was sad to see go. One funeral prompted a member to come, “Just to see what you were going to say about him, Preacher.”
Yet in a recent gathering of ministers when I asked the question, “If you quit your job now, what would you miss most?” children and funerals were at the top of everyone’s list. Way ahead of committees, raising money, and listening to people comment on our appearance every Sunday. We all understood—there is something holy about death and the grave. It takes us to an edge of life that paradoxically renders it precious and intoxicating. All the people in one’s life, gathered together, all the stories and sadness, food and laughter in one place. Everything stops for a few days, no matter how “busy” we are, it’s not too busy for this.
Second, it is intriguing because I have, oddly, found myself writing about death a lot in songs. I have one about a man remembering the love of his life just after she has died, another about a man named “Michael” who faces death from cancer, a song I wrote in college, but added a bittersweet fourth verse years later. I have one called, “Hole in the Ground” that is so morbid I have never performed it, and another called, “Farewell, Baby Girl,” about an anonymous newborn found floating in the Chattahoochie River when I pastored in South Georgia. While some of it is fictitious, the basic story is real—a tiny infant, drowned by her parents, shortly after birth. I donated my services to bury the child in a pauper’s area where babies were buried in our local cemetery called, “Babyland.” What resulted was a song so somber that my wife never likes to hear it performed. I’ve only done it once.
I had a great time in concert last night at the Moonlight on the Mountain venue, appearing with Lynn Adler and Lindy Hearne. Afterwards I found myself engaged into two intriguing conversations. One was with a fellow musician who is a Christian and an English teacher, and we had a fairly substantial conversation about suffering .
I did a little more milling around and found myself standing at the car talking with another new friend about science, evolution and the possibility of real faith. My acquaintance commented that the unreality of his childhood religion, its failure to look at its own shortcomings, made faith quite hard.
Acoustic music fans are serious about their music. I continually find the most profound conversations that happen in that place, where artists write gritty, funny and sometimes raw takes on life. That all of this happened at the end of a musical performance in which I did not do any overtly Christian songs is rather remarkable. It does make me wonder if the guaranteed happy praise and triumphalism of too much Christian music is rooted in a shallow theology underneath that cannot paint life with much reality because it renders death as unreal.
We are actually more comfortable with the denial of death. After all, when one of the most powerful commendations of many so-called “different kind of churches” is their claim that they make church fun, what in the world is that? And then we go and hear far more difficult truths from our secular songwriters, who often are actually taking all these things seriously. Strange.
I started singing in the Jesus movement in one of the early youth choirs. I remember one song in a musical called, “Life,” by Otis Skillings, when early contemporary Christian writers were cranking out material for a hungry marketplace of churches. I remember very little about the musical. I loved singing. I only remember one line, though: “LIFE, pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa.” It sounded musically like elevator music. Even then I thought, “This is pretty shabby.” True art tells truth, it doesn’t gloss over it or make it more palatable with shortcuts through the hard places. Tell the truth—onto every cheek some tears must fall. And then…REAL life can break through. I have another song that puts it this way, “Life is for real.” Without death, you never know.
Tonight I will be in concert at Moonlight on the Mountain in Bluff Park, which is in Hoover, Alabama. Hoping lots of my friends will come out. I will be sharing the evening with Adler & Hearne, a songwriter duo from Texas. The some in the first time that I have had a chance to hear them live, and I’m looking forward to it. I will have the first half of the concert beginning at 730. Adler & Hearne will come after me, and lots of friends have told me they’re coming out tonight. We’ll have a grand time! If you’re in the Birmingham area I would welcome you to come and join us.
One of my very favorite things to do is to read song titles. Titles are one of the most challenging aspects of preaching or songwriting. A title has to catch the listener’s interest. It can cause them to wonder, or it can be the hook of the song. A lot of titles, Especially in the seventies, seem to have little or nothing to do with the song itself! A good title can play with your mind. Fortunately, titles cannot be copyrighted, so sometimes you can even re-do a great title . Here’s the song list for tonight. I’m a couple of terrific friends, Brent warren and Don Wendorf, who are coming to play with me on some of the songs. He is the setlist for tonight. You can ponder the titles and come hear for yourself.
|Stuck in the Mud|
|Man I Didn’t Kill|
|Imperfections No. 2|
|Playing It Safe|
|Momma’s Only Sleeping|
|Overload of Bad News Blues|
|The Us That Used to Be|
|Trying to Remember|
|A Little Truth Can Kill You|
|People in Egypt|
|Your Whole Life In Front of You|
|Cold Hard Cash|
|What It Is|
|Sky’s a Clearing|
I thought that title might get your attention.
I got word that a dear sweet woman who used to be a member passed away this weekend. Betty McGee was an incredibly nice soul. Her life had plenty of ups and downs. But she was one of those hidden jewels of Baptist churches in the South. All most non-Baptist people ever get to see are the preachers, and that’s a shame. That’s like judging a house by the septic tank, at least when you consider the Reverends that purport to “speak for” Baptist folks. If I was going to nominate anyone to represent Baptist people (which is against our polity–NO Baptist “speaks” for any other), it wouldn’t be any preacher. The Southern Baptists who pass all those resolutions, well, that’s just what one little group of people got together and said to one another. The press likes it, but it’s worth about the cost of the toner and paper as far as authority as far as real Baptists are concerned. The loonier it is, the more you can guess that it’s from some man that annointed himself.
No, I’d elect a woman who was at least 75. They’re about all the good that’s left in the Baptists today. Especially the widows and single women. In every church I’ve been part of, I’d go with the older ladies in a church fight any time. Their kindness, love for children, friendships and loyalty, well, you can talk to ladies in that age group and everything opposite of them is why we’re in a mess.
Betty was one of those folk. She took it on the chin more than once in life, and somehow managed to redouble her efforts to do good with what was left. Betty’s obituary told some pretty great things about her. “She helped pioneer teaching on Alabama Public Television. She taught American History at W.A. Berry High School for 23 years and was an educator in Alabama for 37 years. She was an avid volunteer in both Birmingham and Sylacauga. She was an active member for many years of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. After moving to Sylacauga, she continued to volunteer her time and talents at First Baptist Church Sylacauga. “ But it doesn’t tell about a person’s goodness and character. That’s okay. People who knew her know. She fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith.
Rest in peace, Betty. Here’s my song of the day, in memory of you. “The Old Rugged Cross,” a funeral favorite for a great lady. (click the link to listen)
“Just a Little Talk With Jesus” is a famous old gospel song. Last night, our band, Shades Mountain Air, had a grand time at the American Gospel Quartet Convention in Birmingham and sang this crowd favorite. I knew that it was a song that black and white audiences in the South had shared since it was written. It’s been covered by just about everybody—Bill Gaither, Elvis Presley, the Stanley Brothers, and innumerable mass choirs, quartets and Sunday night gatherings around the piano in little country churches. (click this link to listen to the song by Shades Mountain Air)
It’s so heartfelt, so soulful—are you in trouble? Look in and up—just a little talk to Jesus will make it right. This song first found me in my seminary church, where I was minister of music and youth (a lofty, long title for a part-time staff member in a blue-collar white church). My church was southern, small-town North Carolina Southern Baptist folk, barely scratching to stay above the black folk in the town—marginal at best. Ever Sunday night we gathered around the piano and pulled out our “Number 8s” our name for the red songbooks we loved full of familiar gospel music. Anyone who wanted to be in the “kwarr” (choir) would gather with us, and people would call out a favorite. “My God is Real,” was the one Mr. Jernigan always requested. “They Tore the Old Country Church Down,” “Whisper a Prayer,” “Troublesome Times Are Here,” Mansion Over the Hilltop,” “If That Isn’t Love,” “Hide Me, Rock of Ages,” and, of course, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus,” because the bass singers got to show out.
I’ll never forget the day that a black family showed up at our church door and one of the men sent his little boy back to tell them they couldn’t come here. I tried to get the church to put up a basketball goal in our parking lot for the little black children who were always playing when we drove up for Sunday night church. But it was 1978, and our world was cracking but the walls hadn’t come down. I lost my first church vote of my career as one family who barely came to church brought their entire extended clan to vote my proposal down. It was a hard lesson for a 24 year old future preacher.
It was our little church, where we came for comfort. We didn’t want change, just the comfort of “a little talk with our
Jesus.” Lawd, we loved that song. What a trip to find out that this white gospel favorite was written by an African American composer named Cleavant Derricks.
The website “Southern Edition” has a fine biography about Rev. Cleavant Derricks. He was a wonderful musician who was born in Chattanooga in 1910 and had a stellar career as a minister, musician and pastor. A gentle, kind man, his songs were sung by tens of thousands. The website says that
The same songs that ministered to impoverished blacks enduring discrimination in the Jim Crow South spoke to the hearts of disadvantaged whites whose lot seemed similarly dismal due to hardships spurned on by the Great Depression and the World War II years. Like Dorsey, Tindley and Morris, Derricks would write songs that addressed daily hardships, praised a loving, sustaining God and spoke of the heavenly reward believers would gain following their labour on earth. Butler adds, “And, too, his songs were sung in the Pentecostal churches back in those days. Those people were considered the poor class—you know, the common man. They were struggling, and so his songs were accepted very rapidly because they did have that hope.”
Butler points out that “most people didn’t know [Derricks] was a black man when his songs first started being published by Stamps-Baxter.” James R. Goff Jr. concurs in his book, Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel, stating, “With an unmistakable influence from the shape-note convention arrangements and a style that often featured the bass part on the chorus, Derricks’s songs found their way into Southern shape-note hymnbooks, though few in the South would probably have guessed the author’s racial origins.”
The colossal stupidity and sinful ignorance that was racism kept us apart, but music and common suffering ignored what our systems and conscious minds erected to supposedly “protect our way of life.” We always were one and the same. Thank God we at least sang his songs. So today’s song, in honor of Rev. Derrick, is “Just a Little Talk With Jesus.” Thank God Almighty, we are further down the road to being “free at last.” Free to love one another and sing the songs of Zion.
Tonight our band is going to perform in one of the most prestigious gospel venues around our region—the American Gospel Quartet Convention, here in Birmingham. Here many of the great African American gospel groups gather to sing, worship and honor fellow performers each year. It’s meeting at the More Than Conquerors Church in Birmingham. I like the names a lot of the independent churches give themselves. It says something about “who we want to be.” I heard about a midwestern church that actually named itself “Christ Memorial Church.” What in the WORLD! Ain’t you people heard about Easter???!!!!
Anyway, many of the greats of gospel have played here over the years—the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Fairfield Four (remember the quartet singing in “O Brother Where Art Thou” when the boys are about to meet their maker at the end of a rope?) Gospel and Blues have often conflicted with each other. Some in the church even disapproved of the blues, feeling that it conflicted with the joy of the gospel. I read once that the magnificent Mahalia Jackson, who died in 1972, refused to sing the blues. “’Blues are the songs of despair,’ she declared. ‘Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing gospel you have the feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong, but when you are through with the blues, you’ve got nothing to rest on.’”
Mahalia Jackson may be one of the greatest singers EVER. Her rendition of the song of the day I posted today, “Precious Lord,” plays at the Lorraine Motel while you stand at the spot where Martin Luther King died, at least it did when I visited, and the tearful experience I had there inspired my song “Lorraine.” I have to gently disagree, though. The blues, they are Bible songs, too, if we read the Psalms right. There is a whole section scholars call, “Psalms of Lament.” Over sixty of the psalms are considered “laments,” mingling despair and hope as a prayer calling on God for help. Somehow, to win victory by denial is a diminishment of the spiritual journey.
Still, the fork gospel music became offers a place of respite, joy, and at least a chance to voice the vision of victory. Thomas Dorsey, the author of “Precious Lord,” embodied this contradiction and conflict between blues and gospel. Son of a pastor, he rebelled against his raising early in life and went to Chicago in the early blues scene and gained some renown under the name “Georgia Tom,” but he struggled financially and spiritually.
“Precious Lord’ was born out of his own tragedy. The preacher’s kid who had the foundation, whose parents prayed for him, who drifted away, into the nightclub world and secular success, then, two mental breakdowns, and finally, surrender to the gospel ministry and a long, long career at the famous Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago nevertheless suffered terribly.
In 1932, in the midst of his transition back into gospel for good, his wife Nettie died during childbirth, along with their firstborn, Thomas Andrew, Jr., who died the next day. Thomas was away at a gospel meeting, and got the news. Out of the anguish of that song came “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” It was the end of his blues singing for good, oddly enough.
His gospel greatness came out of that crucible of suffering. There is no guarantee about life. If the Bible is any guide, the blues will be the way to Gospel Joy. They are different parts of the same journey. I hope you’ll enjoy a listen to a version of Dorsey’s song I recorded with my bandmate, Nancy Womble of Shades Mountain Air. We recorded it at my house, with me playing bass, guitar and mandolin and simply a lead vocal. It is spare, recalling the hallowed, bluesy, holy crucible of Tom Dorsey’s suffering. Ann Lamotte says there really are only two kinds of prayers: “Thank you, thank you, thank you” and “help me, help me, help me.” One is gospel, the other blues…