Tuesday, April 14, 2009

thoughts on church music, part 1 (why drunks should write hymns)

At the church we visited on Easter Sunday, led by friends of ours, we sang "I Saw The Light" by Hank Williams Sr. As I sang a song I grew up hearing, more on my dad's 8 Track player than at church, I wondered why this simple little song, bearing nothing in common with the great hymns, with a melody that could be considered hokey by today's standards resonates so strongly with me (and others I would presume).

I wonder if it is the same thing that brings such power to Come Thou Font, Amazing Grace and It is Well With My Soul along with gospel songs written and sung by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and even Ryan Adams or Kanye West. In each of these songs there is an underlying darkness, whether it is because of the past actions of the person (Amazing Grace), the doubt of the writer (Come Thou Font), the tragedy of life (It is Well With My Soul) or the inability to reconcile the belief system one has to the world in which one finds himself (Hank Sr, early Johnny Cash or Kanye West).

It is not surprising that most of the good examples come from country/ folk and soul (and hip hop). However, I think this is why some of U2's songs have been canonized, as well as works by Rich Mullins, both of whom struggle(d) with much of what I described earlier. It is also why a song such as The Lust, the Flesh, The Eyes and the Pride of Life by the 77s works so well. Dark honesty of the human condition and longing for something you know you have not achieved works well for many of us. But, I will acknowledge, personality-wise it is the same reason some of us are drawn to the Emerging Church or liturgical music versus the happy, happy, joy, joy Charismatic music. Of course, I would wonder if the best songs written straight to God, with no apparent darkness, still have it underlying (see the hymns above, as well as I Saw the Light).

As I think of this, I wonder if this is one of the reasons contemporary church music (praise and worship, etc.) usually lacks anything beyond an emotional high and lyrics that could have been written by a computer program that randomizes Biblical phrases and words. People feel a spiritual buzz when they sing it, but it leaves them in the same state of euphoria they feel after a kiss from their significant other, longing for another song but untouched by something deeper and other-worldly.

This other worldliness or transcendence is something I will talk about in another post. However, do the songs that hold the most sway come from a place of extreme honesty as opposed to a desire to write a song to be sung in church because it is expected or you want to hear people sing your songs or you are feeling awful happy about God today? Does this unsettled spirit, the same that creates the greatest art, also create the best church music? As one that loves the paintings of Van Gogh, films of Hitchcock and the music of Hank Williams, this makes sense to me.

When I was younger, I was told to look at the lifestyle of those creating contemporary Christian music to see if their words and the actions were in alignment, not understanding that many of the great songs we sang in church were written by those that would have been ostracized by the CCM industry of the 80s and 90s. As I have grown up, I have realized that many of the great songs of Christian faith have been written by those that did not always believe it, hardly ever lived it (whatever it is) but always longed for it (at least a connection to God). Since they could not experience it, they wrote and sang about it. It is why so many great musicians left the church and CCM or struggled to hide who they really were. In fact, I have heard this from many of my friends formerly involved in CCM and church music.

So, just maybe I need to find all the songs written to God by drunks, drug addicts, former drunks and addicts, along with those struggling with (or happy with) doubt and ask my church to sing those.

in part 2 I will explain why Arcade Fire writes better church music than Chris Tomlin
in part 3 I will explain why church music is kinda like Disco music

If I continue I will look at why church music works better when it comes from community and common experience, why I think hymns work better than praise songs (and we need to write new hymns), why I think it is so hard to write good church music (especially theologically centered church music) and try to figure out who is doing it better. Of course, I may give up very quickly.


Rob Shearer said...

I was telling my friends a year or so ago that every church in America needed to be singing Lucinda Williams' 'Unsuffer Me', and when folks would listen they'd give me this really blank look...like 'wtf would we want to sing this depressing song in church?'.

Not everyone seems comfortable digging in to the 'dark honesty of the human condition' and prefer to stick with the euphoria of weekly happy, happy, joy, joy kisses on Sunday.

As for me, give me the music of drunks, misfits and outcasts. It's beautiful.

DJ Word said...

good call on Lucinda. I always wanted to do "Get Right With God" in church, but have never had the opportunity.

She is exactly the kind of person i was thinking of.

Gideon Addington said...

I actually wrote a post concerning this for the Beatitudes Society last week. Referring specifically to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah".
(if interested: http://www.beatitudessociety.org/blog/alex_carpenter/20090408/1276 )

I think you're right though. I would say we have to wrap up our darkness in our music - but for me I would also say it needs to be beautiful (but I'm an Episcopalian so... )

But I'm certainly not interested in "Jesus is my Boyfriend" praise and worship stuff. I think it presents a bad theology, but also a inadequate response to God and life. We are beings who suffer surrounded by beings who suffer - and our relationship with God needs to address that (as does the Psalms, so well.)

kristi said...

i love how your mind works. honestly, if i hadn't had someone (you...) point out some of the bad theology of so much "praise" music, i wonder if i would still be singing it, happy, but feeling empty and discontent, unsettled inside, somehow subconsciously feeling like there had to be more.

now that i notice these things, i find it impossible to sing along to "Jesus is my boyfriend" type songs because rarely, if ever, do i ever say to Jesus or God any of the things in those songs.

instead, i feel very comfortable saying and singing along to the darker, more honest lyrics because 99.9% of the time, it's where i am spiritually, and it feels so much better to just be honest with God, since He knows anyway...

while we were singing "i saw the light" i wondered if williams wrote it because it was what he longed for, wanted for himself, even in the midst of his depravity.

Greg D said...

Great post. I think that good music, in any genre, is seldom written by stable people leading perfect lives. Artistic greatness is found on the edges of what we call normal. I wonder if we'd (the Church) be more successful at reaching people if we stuck with the songs that touch on despair, like "Why Me" and "I Saw the Light", instead of happy little "isn't life great now" ditties.

Chris said...

Hey Thanks for the great post. For a while I've been trying to collect "valley songs" (the opposite to Hillsongs) Below is a list of songs I've collected only some I've road tested.

40 - U2
Ain’t No Grave -Frett Not
Amazing Grace (sung to house of the rising sun) - Blind Boys
Back To The Cross - ??
Be Thou My Vision - ??
By the Rivers of Babylon - Sinead
Come Lord Jesus - ??
Constantly Amazed - Solomon Porch
Didn't my Lord Deliver Daniel - ??
Dig It Up - Psalters
Do Lord - Johnny Cash
Down by the Riverside - Sister R Tharpe
Down to the River / Valley to Pray - Alison Kraus
Dumpster Divers - Psalters
Everything - Tim Hughes
Everywhere I Go - Frett Not
Face Of The Humbled Poor - Paul Gioia
Get Right with God - Lucinda Williams
God of Justice - Tim Huges
God’s Gonna trouble the Water - ??
God’s Love is Good - Dave Andrews
Gospel Ship - ??
Hallelujah I'm Ready - ??
Hard Times Come Again No More - Stephen Foster
Have Mercy - Paul Gioia
He Aint Never Done Me Nothing but Good - Dottie Rambo
Hey Hey You Say - Dave Andrews
I am a Pilgrim - Johnny Cash
I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole - Blind Willie Johnson
I Saw The Light - Frett Not
I Shall Not Be Moved - Johnny Cash
I Still Pray - Kasey Chambers
I Want Jesus to Walk with Me - Mars Hill
I Will Be Your Friend - Guy Davis
I’ll Fly Away - Alison Krauss
I’m bound for the promised land - Johnny Cash
I'm Free - Psalters
In the Sweet By and By - Mars Hill
It's All Right Now - Arizona Dranes
Jesus And Me - Paul Gioia
Jesus On The Mainline - Kaiser & Mansfield
Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning - Blind Willie Johnson
Let Justice Roll - Dave Andrews
Let it Rise - ??
(The) Light from the Lighthouse - ??
(This) Little Light Of Mine - Kaiser & Mansfield
Long May He Reign - Paul Gioia
Long Way From Home - Kaiser & Mansfield
I Know I’ve Been Changed - Tom Waits
Mary Don’t You Weep - ??
My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less - Nikki Chiswell
Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen - ??
Nobody's Fault But Mine - Blind Willie Johnson
No Turning Back - Paul Gioia
Oh Happy Day - ??
One Day - Dave Andrews
Our Great God - ??
People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
Picture of Jesus - Ben Harper
Prince of Peace - Paul Gioia
Ps 99 - Kaiser & Mansfield
River of Life - ??
Shower Of Grace - Paul Gioia
Some Great Day - Paul Gioia
Still Small Voice - Paul Gioia
Swing Low Sweet Chariot - Johnny Cash
Take ‘Em Away - ??
(This) Train - Sister R Tharpe
Troublesome Waters - Johnny Cash
Turn Me Round - Psalters
(The) Way of Christ - Dave Andrews
Were you there when they Crucified my Lord - Johnny Cash
What a Friend we have in Jesus (sung to the rose) - ??
When the Tears Fall - Tim Hughes
Why Do You Love Me? - Paul Gioia
You Got To Move - Kaiser & Mansfield
You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond - Blind Willie Johnson

DJ Word said...

awesome list. have you published it anywhere online? it could be a great resource for others.

Anonymous said...

"It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick."
My inner goth has always led me to seek out the light in dark places.
The most spiritual musically-charged experience I ever had came with listening to Wings for Marie/10,000 Days, a 16-minute epic by Tool in which the singer eulogizes his mother's faith, unwavering even as she spent the last twenty-six years of her life paralyzed from a seizure ("Set as I am in my ways and my arrogance, burden of proof tossed upon the believers. You were my witness, my eyes, my evidence--Judith Marie, Unconditional One"). This song came seven years after A Perfect Circle's radio hit, Judith, wherein the same singer rails against her for her ignorance ("Oh so many ways for me to show you how your dogma has abandoned you...F*** your God, your Lord, your Christ").
It doesn't get much more honest than that. Many Christian singers will make veiled references to long-gone days of doubt, but they always seem to wait until things get better before they write these songs.
I'd love to see a musical adaptation of Psalm 88.

Anonymous said...

Also...Sundy Mornin Comin Down (the Johnny Cash version) is another great piece.

Chris said...

Hey Rick, I've posted almost the same list as a post on my very small blog achurchlessfaith.blogspot.com but that's it. I'll look at posting something a bit more permanent and updated.