Did we really listen to the great poets of our own time (especially that of our coming of age)? And if so, why have we seemingly missed out on the potential for real contemporary Faith Music?
I’ve been trying to become more healthy, getting to better shape over the past few months since I had a momentary moment that now has me permanently connected to a bright young cardiologist. As a result I now frequent gyms occasionally both at home and when travelling. Moreover, on those days that I don’t go into a gym, I then undergo what I mystically call a “mini-workout”. This usually involves some stretching exercises along with some muscular activities (including push-ups!!). At home I then ride a stationary bike — away it’s more often a treadmill. This spring, while teaching at the UofA, I resorted to power-walks. The relevance of all this to the Chapter is that except when I am at a gym, I have taken to listening to music on an I-Pod. These devices are quite amazing as I can single out a special playlist or more importantly a particular artist. And over the past several months I’ve come to the realization that some of the music I’ve been listening to on and off for well over fifty years is pretty powerful stuff. Moreover it has caused me to re-think some of my criticisms of the music that various music directors have tried to introduce into faith services.
I’ve often wondered why Presbyterian churches who want to incorporate praise music insist on music the lyrics of which most of us have never heard and the music itself is of a beat or key that might be best described as 78-rpm came fire songs played at 33-rpm. Perhaps it’s time music directors think more strategically – why not use the artists we grew up with? They might discover some surprises within the works of Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, Blood Sweat & Tears, to name just a few.
What is intriguing to me is the depth of spiritual insight some of these artists have and yet how singable their songs could be – not just by choirs or musical leaders but by the congregations themselves. Perhpas the most obvious is Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody from his Slow Train Coming album……………. – a great beat and very singable (had to be because it was written by Dylan for Dylan). This easily could be an opening musical call to worship – I could even see some inventive minister have her/his chooir sing this while the offering is being collected. The message is direct and it is profound – reminding us that there is no escaping the fact that we are placed on this planet to serve and the only choice is who!
From the same album he gives us Precious Angel (Shine Your Life on Me). There are some great Biblical references and the lyrics don’t mince words; but again, the best is that the song is singable and there are sufficient verses (the song is over six minutes) that a good music director could pick and chose for various situations or places in the service.
The title track itself is maybe one of Dylan’s most powerful – Slow Train Coming is still a strong a critique of how we let society slide off the rails and therefore we need to take a vigorous look at shaping up ourselves and the world around us. Both as an anthem and a call to service, this piece of music could be sung by even the most musically-challenged congregation.
Gonna Change My Way of Thinking may require the backing of a vibrant organist to fully come across as the music has a bit less flow and most congregations might struggle to match the words to the tempo. Nevertheless, the lyrics are pointed and would make for a very poignant anthem. While Baptists could really make it come to life, with a bit of practice even the liturgical churches could work it into their services. Dylan’s conversion to Christianity certainly impacted his vision and his writing.
Arlo Guthrie is equally spiritual in his writing. Like Dylan his voice range is such that most people can easily sign along. From his Washington County album, Gabriel’s Mother’s Hiway is both simple and meaningful. In Arlo’s original tempo it would certainly fit with many Presbyterian congregations.
From his renowned Alice’s Restaurant production (film and album of the same name), perhaps the best song to add to the contemporary music playlist is I’m Going Home. It is full of Christian-relevant references, has a very singable tune and the lyrics have sufficient repetition to make them easily learned.
Perhaps you aren’t surprised that poets of the folk era might have at least a partial spiritual leaning. But what about acid rockers? – namely the Jefferson Airplane? If you still doubt, then get out their Volunteers album and have a good listen to Good Shepherd. This one is almost prayer-like and could come at any part of a service – if I was trying to move a congregation into appreciating new, gospel-style music, this is one of my first picks, especially for Presbyterians – singable tune at a easonabled pace. The more I hear it, the more I realize that while it goes well with drums, guitars and tambourines, it could be equally powerful with a pipe organ!!
And then there’s BST’s (Blood Sweat & Tears) Hi-di-hi, Hi-di-ho – this could easily be incorporated into an opening praise sequence. It certainly has that Harlem Baptist swing to it and it almost rocks as it builds to a climax.
And this is just my first musings on the topic. I’ll let you ponder it for a bit and then I’ll come back with more thoughts, reflections and suggestions. Perhaps in the meantime someone can take the first step to try a couple of these out on a congregation, or at least a choir at their practice session.