Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The People's Hymns: Spirituals, Camp Meeting, and a Little Bluegrass.

I do keep in mind that about a quarter of my readers are nonbelievers and I try to make even the religious posts valuable for them in some way as well. I haven't forgotten you're there.

Hymn-writing became less the province of professional musicians and lyricists only. The Wesleys, for example, were educated men who had received training in both verse and music, but did not see themselves primarily in as hymn-writers. In the 19th C the field became even less professional, especially in egalitarian America, and the words of the less-educated became popular in many religious settings.

I mentioned in the first hymnody post that non-literate cultures often develop call-and-response music, where a leader will sing a complicated line that the group echoes, or sings a patterned response. This is common in African-American spirituals, e.g. Michael Row the Boat Ashore, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and Amen. Camp Meeting/Revival songs use something like this as well - though the echoes will be mid-line - in a slightly more complicated verse-chorus structure (To God Be The Glory, There Is Power In The Blood) That’s why you learned them at camp, where they didn’t want to be handing out song sheets every fifteen minutes, and the little kids couldn’t read well anyway. This also reduces the need for accompaniment, which is why spirituals are the absolute best music for singing in the shower – they were composed for voice-only. (If you haven’t tried this, you should. NO-body knows the TROUble I’VE SEEN…)

People’s music tends to extremes for rhythm, the slow ones being highly free-form – the spirituals Were You There, O What a Beautiful City and the Camp Meeting The Old Rugged Cross, while the quicker pieces are heavy – very heavy…headache-producing heavy – on the bass and percussion. You can tell a late-19th C Baptist hymn in the first three powerful bangs on the piano. Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus, On-ward Chris-tian So-o-ol-diers. The African-Americans usually produced more tolerable versions of this pounding, but even they have burdened us with Jacob’s Ladder and Dry Bones.

You may have noticed the imagery is quite different in these people’s musics. Soldiers, boats, ladders, bones – what’s with that? Bible characters and places you never hear about unless you spend a lot of years in Sunday School: Ezekiel, Silas, Jericho, Gilead. It’s the fascinating stuff you get when you have people just latching on to what catches their fancy in the faith, without regard to any systematic theology or overarching narrative.

The images may be varied, but the themes are few: life is hard, but I’m going to heaven, is recurrent. Jesus cares for you and wants you back; get saved – now; Jesus is loyal to you, be loyal to Him. An interesting twist is how often Papa’s and (especially) Mama’s faith is mentioned. When I get to heaven I’m going to see Mama. This becomes especially pronounced in bluegrass gospel music, a later people’s music derived from the earlier. Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Mother Called My Name In Prayer. In a mobile population, often cut off from familiar places and people, the closest family relationships loomed large in the imagination. With a life expectancy around 40-45 and death coming by surprise more often than not, people strip down what they cling to pretty severely: Mom, Jesus, Heaven. We think of it as unsophisticated; for them it was emotional survival. Our condescension comes from our comfortable lives. Not a lot of time for theology in their lives, folks.

An additional note on African-American spirituals: rivers had a dual meaning. Going over Jordan meant dying and going to heaven, but crossing the Ohio River meant getting to freedom in this life. Who’s that yonder dressed in red? Red lantern on the opposite shore. Must be the children that Moses led. Safe to go on. Who’s that yonder dressed in black? No light on the opposite shore. Must be the hypocrites turning back. Go back. Not safe.

1 comment:

Teri said...

We no longer have tv, but we do have satellite radio. The height of Sundays for us is "Gospel Grass", where they play all this stuff. It's wonderful. It truly leaves you feeling uplifted. This is likely a good thing. We sing hymns without accompaniment in our church and our harmony leaves a lot to be desired ;)