Who best approaches the spirit of Bach?

Masaaki Suzuki is a distinguished harpsichordist, organist, Yale music professor, and conductor who founded and directs the Bach Collegium Japan.  He is also a devout Christian.  Many thanks to Paul McCain and the various people he credits for unearthing this quotation from the liner notes to the first album of Bach Collegium Japan.   He is responding to the question of how the Japanese can play Bach, whose music comes out of a very different culture.  He says that better than having the same culture is having the same religion:

“… [T]he God in whose service Bach laboured and the God I worship today are one and the same. In the sight of the God of Abraham, I believe that the two hundred years separating the time of Bach from my own day can be of little account. This conviction has brought the great composer very much closer to me. We are fellows in faith, and equally foreign in our parentage to the people of Israel, God’s people of Biblical times. Who can be said to approach more nearly the spirit of Bach: a European who does not attend church and carries his Christian cultural heritage mostly on the subconscious level, or an Asian who is active in his faith although the influence of Christianity on his national culture is small?”

via News Flash: J. S. Bach was a Christian – Why Suzuki Gets Bach | CyberBrethren – A Lutheran Blog.

Here is an interview with Suzuki and a sampling of his music:

The St. Ambrose Hymn Writing Contest

Who says conservative Lutherans don’t like contemporary Christian music in church?  We do.  It’s just that we want the contemporary Christian music to be, you know, hymns, as opposed to pop ditties.  And we do need new hymns.  Towards addressing that need, I am happy to announce that some twenty-somethings in our congregation, St. Athanasius Lutheran Church in Vienna, Virginia, have organized a major hymn-writing competition.  They have raised a $1,000 prize and have arranged for publication.  For details and for just learning about what the big deal is about hymns, check out the website:  St. Ambrose Hymn Writing Contest.

Here are the parameters of the contest:

The Challenge:

Many of the Gospel readings throughout the historic Church Year lack hymns which properly exposit their true sense. It is the purpose of this contest to provide profound and artistic hymns for such unaddressed pericopes (that is, a set of readings given for a certain day). Therefore, the challange of this contest is as follows: to compose a hymn which discerns and declares the meaning of the chosen lectionary texts and properly expresses the congregational response to the work of our Lord in the Word.

The Texts:

The hymn should concern itself with the following texts, with a focus on the gospel reading:

Zephaniah 1:7-16
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

The Prize:

The winner of the contest shall be awarded $1,000. The winning hymn will be publised by Liturgy Solutions, which will be granted first right-of-refusal to the hymn upon acceptance of the prize money.   The author/composer royalty to be paid by Liturgy Solutions will be 50% of all receipts from sales and any other profitable uses of the hymn (public performance for profit, radio broadcast, etc.).”

So the texts the hymn is supposed to elucidate deal with the Day of the Lord, Jesus coming back like a thief in the night, and the Parable of the Talents.

Yes, I have been asked to be one of the judges, but I will show no favoritism to the tunes of Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, or other artists that I can go on and on about on this blog.  (Well, if Bob Dylan enters the contest with a lectionary hymn, he might have an edge with me.)

But, seriously, you can use an existing hymn tune, if you like, or you can compose your own.  The words will be key.  You know those numbers at the bottom of each page in a hymnbook?  7.7.7.,,  Those are the number of syllables in each line.  That’s important to know in writing words to go with a particular tune.

Anyway, enter!  Try it.  You need not be Lutheran to win.  There is a thousand dollar prize!  The deadline is December 1.  Maybe your hymn too will be sung in future centuries.

How teenagers buy music today

The music industry is struggling because so much of its product can be accessed for free, what with YouTube and “radio” sites such as Pandora (setting aside illegal downloads).  But even when a person wants to buy music, it’s hard if you aren’t old enough for a credit card.  And it’s even harder if you want to buy music your parents wouldn’t approve of.  From Aaron Leitko:

The Internet has given kids boundless opportunities to hear music gratis, but few ways to pay for it.

To shop for mp3s on iTunes or Amazon, you need a credit card or debit card. If you’re a minor with an allowance, you probably don’t have either. . . .

If your tastes don’t align with Best Buy’s music buyer, you’ll have to turn to iTunes. And your folks, who control the purse strings.

“Right now, most kids are using parents’ iTunes accounts or otherwise relying on parental permission to make their purchases,” says Mary Madden, a researcher at the Pew Internet and American Life Project. The only hiccup: The songs that teenagers want to hear and the songs their parents let them hear are often very different. Leveraging chores in exchange for Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (uncensored version, of course), the Tool discography or anything Odd Future-related is for brazen teens with particularly liberal or oblivious parents. For the rest, an awkward conversation about the record’s content is inevitable — unless they get their hands on a gift card.

“This is kind of the untold genius of iTunes that’s not spoken about, when it comes to teenagers, is the gift card,” says Crupnick, who estimates that two-thirds of the money teens spend online is with such cards. . . .

“They only ever pay for music out of respect for the artist,” MTV researcher Mariana Agathoklis says. “They almost view that as a way to show off their fandom, where it used to be that you would follow an artist on tour, you would look like them and wear their T-shirts.” A record is no longer an impulse buy — it’s patronage.

via How can you be a rebel if you use Mom’s iTunes account? – The Washington Post.

Queen Of Country Music dies

Kitty Wells, arguably the first big female star of country music (not counting the women in the Carter Family), died Monday at the age of 92.

Here is her breakthrough song, a response to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” in which the singer laments that a “honky tonk angel”–that is, a woman of ill repute–broke up his marriage.  Kitty, irked at that song, wrote a reply using the same tune, in which she makes the musical observation that the MAN is to blame for breaking up his marriage by his unfaithfulness and that MEN are the cause of good girls going wrong!

Kitty Wells, ‘Queen Of Country Music,’ Dead At 92 – Music, Celebrity, Artist News | MTV.com.

UPDATE:  I garbled the account of Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life” to which Kitty Wells was responding.  The man is complaining that his wife who left him turned out to be nothing but a “honky tonk angel” and that he should have known that she would never “make a wife.”

What are some good songs?

I really enjoyed yesterday digging up those old songs on YouTube, not just those that shed light on the article we were blogging about but also the ones you suggested in the comments.  I was also trading songs back and forth off line, with my assistant Zach showing me a tune by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and me coming back with Roy Acuff’s “Wreck on the Highway.”

Let’s do that for its own sake.  Given that YouTube seems to have virtually every song anyone has ever heard of, post a YouTube link in the comments to a song that you would like to share with the present company of Cranach readers.  Pick ones that you think the rest of us would enjoy or find edifying or find interesting.  Obscure songs–ones that most of us probably are not aware of–would be especially welcome.

I myself, for all of my high culture pretensions, am pretty well-versed in rock ‘n’ roll circa 1950-1980, as well as folk and classic country music, but I am way out of touch with popular music today.  So I would appreciate learning about some contemporary artists.  I have been critical of contemporary Christian music, but I suspect there are some good songs in that genre, so if you know of some, I’d be glad to learn about them.

I suspect others of you are sadly ignorant about musical geniuses such as Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, and Hank Williams.  Or cutting-edge musicians like Django Reinhardt or Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.  Perhaps someone could complete your education.  All genres are fair game:  bluegrass, jazz, classical, even rap and metal as long as the lyrics don’t transgress the PG-13 standards of this blog.  Everything from opera to the op’ry.

Get the idea?  A word of introduction would be helpful–why do you think this is so good and what do we need to know to appreciate it?–followed by a link.  Take it away. . .

How Christianity, for awhile, became cool

The 1970s was a time of hippies, free love, psychedelic drugs, and cultural revolution.  But it was also a time of major religious revival, with the “Jesus Movement” gaining headway in that very counter-culture.  How could that be?  Baylor professor Philip Jenkins credits the Byrds, who popularized a recovery of American roots music, much of which is explicitly Christian.  He explains:

At least part of the explanation lies outside the religious realm, in quite secular musical trends of the late 1960s, and the rediscovery of American musical roots — originally, without any religious intent whatever. As a driving force in the new cultural/religious upsurge I would point to one group above all, namely the Byrds. Through the mid-1960s, the Byrds moved ever more deeply into psychedelic experimentation, culminating with the 1968 album The Notorious Byrd Brothers, but at that point, things changed radically. David Crosby left the group, which now added Gram Parsons, with his enduring passion for country and western music. In 1968, the reformed Byrds began recording at Nashville, where they even played the Grand Old Opry. (The audience had no idea what to make of them).

In August 1968, the Byrds released the album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which pioneered a new style of country rock. It also initiated a revolutionary change in the country music world, which was at the time very conservative musically and politically, and where long hair was strictly taboo. (Merle Haggard’s Okie From Muskogee became a huge hit the following year, and a confrontational conservative anthem). At first, country listeners assumed Sweetheart was meant as a mocking retro parody, while the rock audience was bemused. Over the next few years, though, the two genres increasingly coalesced, with all sorts of fusion styles inbetween — country rock, Southern rock, outlaw country, and the rest. (John Spong recently published a terrific history of this synthesis as it developed through the 1970s in Texas Monthly, but subscription is required).

Suddenly and shockingly, “country” culture became fashionable, as part of the Southernization that historian Bruce Shulman described as one of the key social trends sweeping America in the 1970s. This shift was greatly strengthened by the demographic and economic trends of these years, and the shift of wealth and population from Rustbelt to Sunbelt states.

Quite unintentionally, the Byrds also revived and legitimized Christian themes in music for an audience wholly unaccustomed to them. If you want to revive America’s roots music, it’s hard to do so without incorporating hymns, gospel and Christian songs, and Sweetheart of the Rodeo featured such evocative classics as I am a Pilgrim and The Christian Life.

In 1969, they recorded the Art Reynolds Singers song “Jesus is Just Alright with Me,” which became an anthem for the emerging Jesus People. Plenty of other artists jumped on the bandwagon, recording or adapting Christian roots — and that is quite distinct from the contemporary emergence of avowedly Christian contemporary music. (Christian rock largely dates from Larry Norman’s 1969 album Upon This Rock). The language of pilgrimage, redemption and sin entered rock music, as did Satan himself: in 1970, the Grateful Dead issued Friend of the Devil.

Suddenly, young people who knew nothing whatever about the American religious heritage were exposed to this music, in highly accessible rock/country fusion styles, played by hip musicians with long hair and beards. Along the way, they also heard key evangelical messages, which suddenly became cool and contemporary.

And that, I suggest, is a major reason why those Christian movements were suddenly able to find young audiences open and receptive to their messages.

via RealClearReligion – When Evangelicals Were Cool.

I love the Byrds!  I heard them play.  I do remember marveling at all of the Christian references I was hearing in their music and in other albums of that day.

And yet, I’m not sure I’m convinced by this analysis.  Why did those old hymns and gospel songs resonate with people like Gram Parsons and record-buyers the way they did?

I think a better explanation is that where sin abounds, grace breaks in.  Which means that we may be in for another spiritual awakening soon.

But this gives me the excuse to post some Byrds music. (“Jesus is Just All Right With Me” comes from 1970, though there is nothing particularly rootsy about it. Gram Parsons joined the group in 1968, but the far better “Turn, Turn, Turn”–a setting of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 by Pete Seeger–came out in 1965. This YouTube version is stellar, but it is more recent, from 1990.)

UPDATE:  Thanks to SK Peterson for bringing up this STUNNING song by Gram Parsons (with harmony by co-writer Emmylou Harris AND Linda Rondstadt):  “In My Hour of Darkness.”  This is what the original article is talking about, not just with the coolness factor (though the accompanying pictures of these three performers are very, very cool) but with the way Parsons is taking that old-time gospel hymn structure and using it in a highly personal and expressive way.  (I think we will all need to purchase the two-album set GP / Grievous Angel.)

I would add that the difference between this and what passes for most contemporary Christian music in the pop vein, in addition to facing up to “darkness,” is that Parsons is drawing on the past, on the Christian musical tradition, rather than repudiating it.