From “Turn, Turn, Turn” To The Doobie Brothers: The Roots Of My Desire To Push Musical Boundaries In Church
To say that music has always been a part of my life would be to understate the matter. Part of coming to terms with my Mother’s recent 90th birthday, I’ve been thinking back and remembering all sorts of things from my childhood. After we moved to the house where my parents still live – I had just started kindergarten – my mother would often play a record on one of those small portable turntables that children had. My favorite for falling asleep was the original soundtrack to Disney’s Snow White. Later, after my paternal grandfather passed away, my brother got an old radio. At night, Mom would find a station with music. We could get stations from French-Canadian stations featuring hockey-game coverage to Chicago’s WLS that, at that time, still played music. Then there was the small transistor radio I had. For some reason I could only get the local radio station, WATS, out of Sayre, PA, and I have had Peter Nero’s version of “Autumn Leaves” burned in to my brain as representing the kind of music they played.
Even before that, though, music was just there. That little record player I wrote about belonged to my youngest sister. We would sit and listen to 45s in what we called “the playroom”. My oldest sisters would also play 45s at night. Their room was next to the room I shared with my brother. There was no wall, just a curtain, with a dressing table up against the curtain, separating our rooms. I would sneak under that dressing table and listen to “Barbara Ann” and other songs, watching my sisters dance and sing and play air guitar on a tennis racket. Not only was music ubiquitous; I learned from this experience that it was something to enjoy, something that brought joy, and happiness, and made you lose yourself in the sounds.
As I wrote earlier this summer, I have a touch of synesthesia. For some reason, my brain is wired funny; not only do I hear music, I can also see it. Different timbres feel different on my skin. That’s one reason I’ve always played music loud; the louder the music, the greater the effect. In a couple weeks, I’m going to a death metal concert, and I’ll be up front. Being at a show, with my synesthesia, it’s a whole-body experience, full of pleasures it’s hard to describe. What’s weird, of course, is I took it for granted that other people experienced music this way. When I realized they didn’t, I was quiet about it because how do you explain something like that when you’re five or six? In any event, not only was music ubiquitous, a source of joy and freedom; it was something experienced by the whole person, an experience that is a different kind of physical pleasure than just “hearing”. As I told my therapist this summer, being at a live rock concert is actually better than sex.
I need to say a couple things about my exposure to music as a small child. First, I never made a distinction between “Son Of A Preacher Man”, say, and the Broadway soundtrack to The Sound of Music or an LP my parents got me when I was in first grade, I think, A Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra. I listened to it all, took it all in, and all of it was music. I didn’t make distinctions, except between those things I liked and those I didn’t (Mom’s Mario Lanza LP never quite cracked through my head as something I could like). Categorizing music the way it’s done now – popular, classical, country, pop, rock, rhythm and blues, soul – was foreign to me. I saw no difference between American Bandstand and Soul Train, except the dancers on the latter show were much better. And, of course, the racial divide between the two was enormous; I thought that was odd, because the music on both was good-to-great, most of the time.
The other thing I need to say is that I actually listened to songs. Not just the sounds, but the lyrics. While I might have misunderstood Leapy Lee’s One Hit Wonder, “Little Arrows” as referring to a cowboys-and-indians fight, at least I was listening. And I was always trying to take what I heard – as you can see from thinking “Little Arrows” could have worked as the theme to F Troop – and put it in the larger context of the world I was learning about. Thus, the lesson from watching my oldest sisters that music is not only to be enjoyed, but brings about joy. Then there was Miguel Rios’s “Song of Joy”. A rough translation of Schiller’s poem that Beethoven set to music in his Ninth Symphony, even with the heavy Spanish, it was clear to me this was a song that sounded an awful lot like the stuff I was learning about in Sunday School. Stuff like living together without being mean to one another. Like liking and even loving other people. That brotherhood was something all people had because of God.
The one that really hit me, though, was The Byrds’s cover of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn”. It hit me like a body blow that this song had been lifted directly from the Bible, and ended with a plea for peace. Since the war in Vietnam was still going on, you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out this song was a plea to end the war. And that plea was right there, in the words of Ecclesiastes.
Not only could music sound good – I love that electric 12-string sound – it could say something that I’d heard in Sunday School and church. From that point on, I was listening for other such things. Sometimes they were implicit, like some of the early songs of Bob Dylan. Sometimes they were even more oblique; the last real hippie songwriter was John Denver, whose music was filled with pleas for love, respect for other people and nature, and a kind of wide-eyed appreciation for the wisdom of children.
When I discovered rock in my teen years, I was more attracted to songs with lyrics that said something. Which doesn’t mean I refused to listen to music that was about cars, girls, sex, and fun. It just meant my favorites were things like Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”, songs that said it was OK not only to be different, but even necessary to protest all the things in the world that were wrong. Again – this was something I continued to hear in Sunday School and sermons and read that Jesus said. The world is broken and it takes working against the grain in order to change it.
My senior year in high school, our youth choir director at church wanted to know if any of us had any suggestions for something to sing for an anthem. I think she didn’t have any new anthems, or perhaps she was really interested in hearing what we had to say. I said I thought “Jesus Is Just Alright” would be awesome. She actually laughed at me. I told her it was originally a gospel song, written by Arthur Reynolds. She just shook her head at me. I ran into her a few years later, and she continued to laugh at the very notion of singing “Jesus Is Just Alright” in church.
Recently, the Rockford District of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church had a revival. The District Secretary mentioned on Facebook that the praise band had played . . . “Jesus Is Just Alright”. When I saw that, I laughed and laughed and laughed. It had taken thirty years, but it had finally happened. I felt more than vindicated. I felt like others got it. The latest song from Hillsong or some other Contemporary Christian group or songwriter isn’t the only thing available for people to use. There are so many songs out there where the Spirit sits, waiting for us to notice. And they can get us up on our feet, dancing and singing along.
There are still ideas and thoughts, some musical and others theological, through which I have to work, but the principle, it seems to me, has already been made clear. The world is full of songs, and they can proclaim the glory of God in all sorts of ways. Sometimes really loud and with a great guitar solo.