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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Takin' It to the Streets

Do our songs make it outside of the church doors? Should they?

And did not Jesus sing a song that night
When utmost evil strove against the light?
Then let us sing, for whom he won the fight:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.[i]
Nebuchadnezzar's face became livid with utter rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace to be heated seven times more than usual and had some of the strongest men in his army bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and cast them into the white-hot furnace.…They walked about in the flames, singing to God and blessing the Lord. "Blessed are you, and praiseworthy, O Lord, the God of our fathers, and glorious forever is your name.” (Dan. 3: 18-26 passim)
In Sister Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking, she writes of the final hours of the young murderer with whom she has stood through the time leading up to his execution. She has arranged for a small prayer service, and only the priest, she, and the prisoner, Pat Sonnier are present. It is the day preceding his scheduled execution.

…The old priest arrives around three o’clock for the prayer service…I suggest a plan to him for the prayer service and he nods his head in agreement.
         I turn on the audiotaped hymn:
         If you cross the barren desert
         You shall not die of thirst…
         Be not afraid, I go before you always…
         If you stand before the fires of hell
         And death is at your side…
         Be not afraid.
         The harmony of the young Jesuits is sweet and close, a song that promises strength for difficult journeys. Pat’s head is lowered, his ear cocked close to the metal door, intent on every word.
         I picture the words of the song echoing from room to room within the death house, the words filling the place where the witnesses will sit, where the executioner will stand, the tender, merciful God-words, traveling across the hundred feet of tiled floor that must be walked to where the electric chair waits…I know the words may not stop the death that is about to take place, but the words can breathe courage and dignity into the one who must walk to this oak chair and sit in it.[ii]

How is our liturgical music, specifically, music that expresses the church’s longing for the “peaceable kingdom” of divine justice and mercy, making it into the centers of mainstream culture? Does any of our music make the journey to where people are actually living, working, voting, shopping, studying, protesting, and suffering, or is its usefulness and influence limited to the anointed walls of our churches and multi-purpose buildings?

As I start this article, I suppose that I want to have grand aspirations about this. I don’t mean hearing Catholic liturgical songs on mainstream radio stations, like we heard Judy Collins sing “Amazing Grace” or Cat Stevens sing “Morning Has Broken” in our young years. (We did, however, recently hear Phantom star Michael Crawford record an arrangement of “On Eagle’s Wings.”) But I wanted to discover stories of people singing our newer (meaning, from the last 40 years or so) repertoire in public and important ways.

There is a long history of church music entering the world outside the church, and I’ll confine a few examples to the kind of music we’re trying to focus on, music of peace and justice. In Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book about America during the ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the story is related of events surrounding the integration of Ole Miss, and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention in Birmingham in 1962. During the closing announcements, a self-professed Nazi walked to the stage and punched Dr. King on the cheek. King staggered backward, the three hundred or so attendees in the crowd were stunned. The man pressed the attack, hitting King again and again. People felt “physically jolted by the force of the violence—from both the attack on King and the flash of hatred through the auditorium…After being knocked backward by one of the last blows, King turned to face him while dropping his hands.” While the other dignitaries surged toward the attacker, King shouted, “Don’t touch him! Don’t touch him. We have to pray for him.” A circle of protection enclosed the attacker from reprisal, and King spoke to him quietly. “…A hastily organized quartet of singers moved to the microphone to hold off the crowd, singing ‘I Want Jesus to Walk with Me’ and the somber slave spiritual ‘Steal Away to Jesus.’ James Bevel interrupted to say this was no funeral—Dr. King was all right and they had weathered a stern test of non-violence…He started them off in a rendition of ‘I’m on My Way to Freedom Land,’ which gathered volume until the auditorium shook.”[iii]

David Halberstam in The Children describes the metamorphosis of “an old black church song” called “I’ll Be All Right Some Day” in the crucible of the civil rights movement in Nashville in 1960[iv]. Invited to lead a song at a demonstration, a white folksinger by the name of Guy Carawan sang “I Shall Overcome,” using a lyric that had become politicized during a strike of black women in mid-1940’s in Charleston. “From the start, their singing had been a critical part of their demonstrations. When they had been arrested, they had instantly become the jail choir, and that had not only given them strength, it had helped bond them together…On this particular day, their music was to become even more important. ‘We shall overcome,’ Guy Carawan began to sing as he picked his guitar. ‘We shall overcome some day.’ Some of the leaders…who had already heard the song took it up immediately…It was perfect for the movement; its words, its chords, above all its faith seemed to reflect their determination and resonate to their purpose perfectly….Others who had heard it before but had not sung it during a demonstration took it up. Suddenly the sound seemed to sweep across the courthouse square. It was a modern spiritual which seemed to have its roots in the ages…It was easy to sing…it was religious and gentle, but its force and power were not to be underestimated…It was an important moment: the students now had their anthem.”[v]

What a journey “We Shall Overcome” has had, from church song, to folk song, back to church song. Just hearing the strains of the song evokes a time, a movement, and inspires a new hope in us and in people all over the world. One independent journal reported recently: “Thousands marched through Guyana’s capital on Mar. 20, demanding the government order an independent investigation into claims of a state-sponsored hit squad blamed for more than 40 killings in the past year. …Shouting anti-government slogans and singing hymns like “We Shall Overcome,” more than 3,000 protesters converged at a rally near President Bharrat Jagdeo’s office in Georgetown.”[vi] This folk hymn continues to serve the church both inside and outside the walls of worship.

There’s also a history of music outside the church being “baptized” and coming in with the people. This drives purists crazy, but it’s an engine driven by two pistons: one is a need for something that doesn’t exist inside the building already, the other is the participation in the living faith of people that some non-ecclesially born songs are. Most of us who have been in this ministry from the beginning can remember with some pieces like this: the use of “Day by Day” from Godspell  in the mid 1970’s (the text of which, after all, is the prayer of St. Richard of Chichester, and appears in hymnals with other melodies, like many of the Godspell songs), and the foray of folksongs, worksongs, and protest songs into liturgies when there wasn’t an adequate vernacular with which we could blend our voices at worship. Most of that is past now, but I still notice, in more informal, quasi-domestic gatherings for eucharist, that some analogous non-liturgical music finds its way into worship.

Perhaps the most famous and enduring example of the baptism of a non-liturgical song is this one. Sy Miller tells this story of how a song he and his wife, Jill Jackson, wrote for a summer camp took flight:
“One summer evening in 1955, a group of 180 teenagers of all races and religions, meeting at a workshop high in the California mountains locked arms, formed a circle and sang a song of peace. They felt that singing the song, with its simple basic sentiment – 'Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me,' helped to create a climate for world peace and understanding. When they came down from the mountain, these inspired young people brought the song with them and started sharing it. And, as though on wings, 'Let There Be Peace on Earth' began an amazing journey around the globe.”[vii]

Now in dozens of hymnals, “Let There Be Peace on Earth” started as a camp song, and has been recorded by artists as diverse as Liberace, Mahalia Jackson, and Vince Gill.

Barely two generations later, we seem to live in a different world. People don’t sing much, outside of those ritual times when we’re expected: the seventh inning stretch at a Cubs game, for example, or around the table at our child’s birthday. Even that is slipping into disuse, isn’t it, as anyone knows who has gone to one of those annoying restaurants where the waitstaff comes out singing some ill-conceived substitute for the copyrighted “Happy Birthday,” and it comes out sounding like an atonal, arrhythmic rap that is painful to hear. David Koyzis, professor of political science at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, wonders whether the “ubiquitous presence of commercial (i.e., recorded) popular music” over the last century or so may not be having an effect on folk singing and “folks singing,” just the kind of public singing I’m wondering about. He writes,

For North Americans, music is no longer something that springs from the heart of a community's lived experience. For those making the music, it is often seen as little more than an expression of the individual's ego—driven in large measure, of course, by the profit motive.  Aesthetic criteria, if there are any, would seem to be beside the point. For the rest of us, music has become a commodity, available, like everything else, for purchase on the open market.[viii]

A teacher, commenting on his article, refers to a substantial body of professional literature which demonstrates the decline in the ability to sing (people who say, “I can’t sing”) is directly attributable to the rise in “recording technology and sound amplification.” Singing is a learned behavior and skill, and as children experience their parents singing less, they tend to sing less themselves.

Over a century ago, at the dawn of recording technology and amplification, Chesterton bemoaned the lack of singing in industrial society in a quirky essay called “The Little Birds Who Won’t Sing.” Wondering aloud, after seeing medieval engravings of workers in various walks of life singing, why bankers and postal workers don’t sing while they work, he concocts a few work songs for them, and suggests they give them a try. When he’s turned away in his various attempts to market his idea, he muses,
…There is something spiritually suffocating about our life; not about our laws merely, but about our life. Bank-clerks are without songs, not because they are poor, but because they are sad. Sailors are much poorer. As I passed homewards I passed a little tin building of some religious sort, which was shaken with shouting as a trumpet is torn with its own tongue. THEY were singing anyhow; and I had for an instant a fancy I had often had before: that with us the super-human is the only place where you can find the human.
Human nature is hunted and has fled into sanctuary.[ix]

And yet, “singing is normal when people have something to sing about[x]” has almost become an axiom in our trade. “People in love makes signs of love[xi],” we are told. American Catholic communal singing, at least in the liturgical context, is more vibrant than ever. But our newer repertoire hasn’t really had much time to become heart music, and we’re still searching out our identity as Christians in the modern world. Our Scripture and ritual books are Eurocentric, anthropocentric, largely pre-Copernican and pre-industrial. There is little public discussion or even formal acknowledgment of the theological or moral significance of advances in physics, biology, anthropology, psychology, or even philosophy. On the other hand, assemblies are increasingly educated in these areas, and increasingly unable to integrate their experience in their work life and home life with the world of the gospel. There is a great sense in which we are at sea, and perhaps our ritual time together, with its singing, affirms a simple truth that may strengthen our endeavor to reconcile the worlds of modern life and the gospel: we can announce the rule of God if we stay together, assured that the God of these ancient scriptures is the God of m-theory and the genome.

Anyway, it occurs to me that I am, to some extent, examining the wrong end of the horse, “looking for love in all the wrong places.” Maybe it’s not the song getting outside, it’s the song getting inside that matters. What happens to people who sing the songs is what matters. So I asked them what they thought, and I looked at what is happening in my parish. There are hugely generous social ministries at St. Anne’s that begin with family-based projects of young children, continue through a van-based soup ministry by our teens, and go on to a thrift shop staffed by parish volunteers, an annual garage sale that raises about $100,000 for Project Hope, our main social outreach ministry, and an ongoing relationship with an Chicago parish and a food pantry. My own family was the recipient of two weeks worth of extraordinary generosity, including huge meals for six delivered every other night for the two weeks preceding Christmas, while I was recuperating from surgery and my wife was caring for me. And this was not an isolated act, but one coordinated by our Women’s Club that has been repeated many times for others.

And there are the stories of the songs themselves going beyond the walls of the church and into the domestic church. Some of them are small and local, as when the dad of the Kidchoir third grader wrote to me, “…After the tree lighting ceremony (with John Bell) we often, in our house, say ‘oh yes I know, oh yes I know’ when a simple ‘yes’ will do.  Further, we still sing ‘oh happy day’ to capture the excitement of last year's Easter ceremony.” Some of them are more far-reaching, even global, as pilgrim and choir member Diane writes, “The most profound experience I can recall was in 2002 in the rural town of Citeje, three hours from Mexico City.  Our group spent the day planting trees to prevent erosion and painting their church.  We were welcomed by the mayor and local residents who danced and sang for us. Later, after they served us lunch, I played "Lord, When You Came" (“Pescador de Hombres”) on guitar and we sang it in Spanish.  All the people knew this song and joined in.  Some of the men played their guitars along with me.  It was awesome!  We felt like one big family united in our faith and the music.” 

Then, there’s the longer letter I had from Phyllis, one of our bereavement ministers who recently had lost her own husband. Getting a note like this makes me remember why we do the work we do, and be glad for the call that brought me to it, and that strengthens me in it daily. Her italicized references are to the text of “Covenant Hymn,” a song by Gary Daigle and me that is part of our liturgical repertoire at St. Anne:

I told you several years ago that I thought Covenant Hymn was the most beautiful love song ever written.  It is a song about love, commitment, the uncertainties of life, the challenges of a relationship and finally the acceptance of death.  And life after death.

Cliff experienced a great deal of pain during his last months.  When the pain medications weren't working effectively during those hours, we would pray and sing and sometimes cry.  But we always got through the dark night.

I came to see everything as part of our journey, part of God's plan for us.  …
At one point, I moved into the hospital with Cliff.  Wherever you live is my home. And the so the journey continued, and mountains before us were vast.

While at home after the amputation, Cliff lost his balance when trying to get off the couch.  I'll raise you from where you have fallen.

And then suddenly everything started to fall apart.  I had to call 911 and he was readmitted to the hospital…I knew we were at the end.  When I was sure that we had done all we could medically for Cliff, I said we would take him home.  Your fears and your doubts I will calm.  He hated hospitals.  I knew, however, that he only had a few days left.

But he seemed to be afraid to let go.  I tried to think about what his fears and doubts might be.  I talked to him about those things. Even though he was no longer talking and seemed to be asleep he clearly understood what I had said.  There was less tension in his body and was breathing more easily.  Later that day,  our youngest daughter and I were with him, she on one side of the bed and I on the other.  We talked to him as he went home. Wherever you die, I will be there.  He was so peaceful, with a little smile on his face and then he was gone.

As I said, the Covenant Hymn was my daily prayer, my daily promise, my focus but also my map for the journey.

Several of the great songs of scripture, while we know them to have been liturgical, seem to arise out of the hearts of their “singers” in moments far from temple and liturgy. Miriam’s great “Canticle at the Sea,” the latter Miriam’s “Magnificat,” the song of the Three Young Men from the book of Daniel cited above, these are sung at times and in places not associated with the temple cult. The psalms are on the lips of Jesus as he makes his exodus and hands over the spirit to the Church. Yet all of these songs have their origin in the community, in the cultic worship of the people of God. Perhaps for us, too, when the need will arise, whether on the shore of some liberation, or in the bedroom of decision or revelation, or in the fiery Abu Ghraib of some modern Nebuchadnezzar, the music of our own worship, the songs and psalms of our modern prayer, will carry us together through doubt, fire, and sea. We musicians have both to teach people to sing and teach them the songs. After that, it will be Christ who will give us words in the time of need. It will be the Spirit who will say, “Sing!” And the Church, God willing, will sing.

for Pastoral Music magazine.  Completed January 15, 2005, birthday of Dr. M. L. King, Jr.  © 2005

[i] “When in Our Music God Is Glorified,” by Fred Pratt Green, 1903-2000, © 1972, Hope Publishing Co.
[ii] Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking. Vintage Books, New York, © 1993, 1994. Pp. 80-81.
[iii] David Halberstam, The Children, © 1998 by The Amateurs Ltd., published by Random House, New York. P. 655.
[iv] In another interview, Pete Seeger recalled singing “We Shall Overcome” for Dr. King in 1957 or 1958. In the interdependent world of folksinging, it is entirely possible that Carawan had learned the song from Seeger. Branch, however, makes no mention of this.
[v] Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963, 1988, Touchstone Books, Simon and Schuster, New York. P. 231-232
[vi] Asheville Global Report, #309 (Dec 16-22, 2004)
[vii] from the Jan-Lee music website, copyright owners,
[viii] from “Comment,” an online publication of the Work Research Foundation, “broadening and deepening public dialogue on work and economic life, Volume 22, number 5. See
[ix] Excerpted from “Little Birds Who Won’t Sing,” from Tremendous Trifles, by G. K. Chesterton, (Project Gutenberg online edition), Chapter 30.
[x] see, for instance, Aidan Kavanagh, Elements of Rite, Pueblo Press, New York, © 1982, p. 31
[xi] “Music in Catholic Worship,” Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy, NCCB, 1972. Pp. 4.

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