August 28, 2017
Say, let’s have another ramble drawn from recent Facebook conversation, shall we? — this occasion an exchange with my sister. My sister is a good deal younger than I; I’m the oldest of four, she the youngest, born the year before I graduated high school. The other day she re-posted the post below, from American Christian country star Steven Curtis Chapman, on her FB page and tagged me, expecting I would like it. She knows me, and of course she was right. In fact, I’ve been kind of stuck on it.
Yesterday I returned to the post and said as much, that I’d been repeat listening. ‘Man, I’m a complete fool for this sound.’ Which would have been the end of it, except that in her brief reply she referred to the ‘sound’ as bluegrass. This and a terrible tendency in me to something even I frequently find difficult to distinguish from mansplaininess led me to a string of comments that I’ll reproduce here. I answered:
Not bluegrass, though. This is just a kind of small-chorus-group thing that came about from the 30s on [edit: actually from the earliest days of American radio, in the 20s], with the radio gospel hours, alongside mainstream radio-&-tv country. It never depended on accompaniment (and goes with piano first, or as much anything).
To that I felt it necessary to add a follow-up, by way of illustration:
These guys defined it in the 40s and especially the 50s.
An illustration which I’m afraid I couldn’t leave undeveloped.
Those guys were a big personal & musical influence on Elvis, by the way. This is where he comes from (and never left).
But now, I saw, I’d set myself up to make a larger sort of cultural history point. What could I do? I plunged further:
Bill Gaither wrote ‘He Touched Me’ in that environment in 1964. But by then the church-music groups and the teenage-market sound Elvis (and very quickly the Beatles &c.) is most associated with were going in fully distinct directions, pushed by the record industry.
Then, just to hammer the original thought home:
A rendition like the Chapman family’s there owes a lot to Elvis’ own recording of the song in the early 70s, undoubtedly.
A handy place to quit. But I guess I was still feeling for a bookend of some kind.
And yes, most of this stuff is musical (not to mention theological) trash. But I still love it.
That I was loving it is clear enough. If I’d found my bookend, by this point I was too much into sharing mode, as I think you’ll understand. So, compulsively:
The Blackwood Brothers in the 60s — because I can’t get enough, evidently.
At last, though, I hit on a fitting finish, an example to bring it back around to my start with and to impart a little twist with at the same time:
Not the chorus group sound, but listen to Willie Nelson’s gorgeous version of It Is No Secret sometime. See if you can keep a dry eye.
(I don’t keep a dry eye, I should say, if I lean back and listen to him sing, here. When he gets to ‘Do not be disheartened,’ I already just want to be held.)
My sister has a toddler and a newborn and can’t be on Facebook all morning, so I’d been left, through this above, to carry on uninterrupted. When she did have a few minutes (while nursing, I imagine), she hearted a bunch of my YouTube offerings, gratifyingly, but objected to my ‘trash’ comment — to the parenthesis about theological sense, specifically. I wrote back:
Well, there’s a long discussion there. But I don’t mean to say that any of these few songs in particular is bad, just that the genre as a whole is trashy. And you can understand that in more than one way — it’s not necessarily to disparage.
She seemed satisfied with that. A good thing, too, because there in responding to her I was moved by listening to the music, really, rather than the big culture thoughts. Having listened to some tunes and delivered my little lesson, I was ready to stop.
Over here on the blog, however, I’m moved by something other than the sounds. I have been wanting to return to questions I began noodling around some months ago, where I was referring not to my own FB chatter but to what a friend posted as a sort of public defense of decisions made regarding conflict in his family. ‘I want to talk a little about cultural complexity and dividedness,’ I say there. In the present post’s context I again have in mind drawing of lines between the domain of the World and the domain of the Spirit. With time, possibly, I could show how the lines he’s drawing there are related to the ones conversation with my sister about this familiar musical genre and its slightly less familiar backstory has me thinking about. For this post — you’ll be grateful to know if you’ve read this far — I’m not quite that ambitious. Anyway, we can always come back to that angle another time.
What I will try to do for now is characterize the peculiar sort of rough analysis applied to popular music in my family, church, and early school surroundings from the time I came along (not long before Elvis got around to his recording of ‘He Touched Me’) to when my sister did (about when Steven Curtis Chapman first hit stride as a national ‘CCM’ name). What was acceptable popular music and what wasn’t occupied a lot of bandwidth in my world, to put it briefly. What I knew from very early in life was that there was the Lord’s music and there was the World’s music; I also knew that this itself wasn’t where the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable lay. Not everything that presented itself as Christian expression was clean, obviously, and not everything that didn’t was necessarily unclean. When you think about it, that’s a pretty hefty download for a person in the years from kindergarten to adolescence. For me, even so, the principles did penetrate in some fashion. ‘Rock,’ I understood, was the wrong sort of music by definition. It shouldn’t surprise, I think, if I note also that that definition’s turning out to be something of a perpetual difficulty tended in my young mind, over time, to make this the more, not the less, compelling a basic question of moral interpretation and resolve. In relationships of varying intensity to that definite, if often distant or obscure, species of wrongness, there were all sorts of cultural markers to be identified and made sense of, there were vast interpretational gray areas to be approached with circumspection, and there were characteristic threats of deception and moral failure to be guarded against — things one learned to deal with, if not to understand, mostly through imitation. I did learn it, and I remained pretty obediently discriminating in some sense up to maybe age twenty. Steven Curtis Chapman, in fact, was at first a borderline case (as Elvis had been for us, with a kind of special, vaguely ironic prominence, when I was a child) — ‘sort of rock, not exactly’ — to be negotiated when I was eighteen or so. That degree of severity in the practices of avoidance of the World of my youth my sister is too young, thankfully, to remember.
Something I couldn’t appreciate so young, of course, was how recently forms of popular music had been recognized, in the particular Christian communities I knew as mine or like mine, as this seemingly essential zone of moral problem. Which isn’t to say that my parents and those around them didn’t frequently frame the issues in significant part by way of reference to their own pretty recent youthful experiences. When you’re a kid, naturally, it takes a while before anything prior to your own existence doesn’t seem somehow ancient; anyway, musical matters and their associations were packaged with Bible lessons, which indeed were ancient in source.
And I certainly couldn’t appreciate how little I was really being given to go on, considering how important the question was said to be. Ignorance of or deliberate narrowness about music and the extents of its strange withering and flowering, simultaneously, in and through the twentieth-century moment of American emergence went hand-in-hand with elevating some things about music to a matter of moral obsession. It would be wrong here to find fault too easily with willful neglect on its own account; a community might choose with good cause, at least in part, not to make pursuit of an understanding of music in its condition of massive cultural change a priority. It’s not the ignorance we have to notice and criticize, it’s the discrepancy between the ignorance of it and the obsession with it.
But how is it that a community comes to live with such dis-integrity in the habits and methods of judgment it depends on to see itself defended and maintained? Here’s where I begin to get at what I’m interested in. If it wasn’t already clear, I’m not into any mere cataloguing of Bad Things about the religious scene of my upbringing. What’s worth trying to talk about is the connective tissue of hows and whys, both intrinsic and extrinsic and in relation to effects both bad and good. Can we cast that accusation I casually toss in the direction of the record industry, above, in some terms of query about how religious-community identity evolves in the period of that industry’s ascendancy, for instance? Sure, I think we can, if we promise ourselves we won’t get too hung up on it, at least (seeing that after all we don’t perhaps know all that much about that industry). Not that taking a tack like this is necessarily likely to settle anyone’s mind about what’s failed or succeeded in a given community in a given historical period. But then, I don’t know that a settled mind is my goal. For problems continually in motion, I probably want my mind to keep finding paths of attention and adaptation rather than to be settled.