The songs I hate to love

July 23, 2010

A post last week by Century contributing editor Jason Byassee raised a subject of some personal significance to me:

[Johnny Cash's] “My Mother’s Hymn Book” had that same wise, scratchy, God-like voice, and the hymns are some of the favorites of the tiny country church of the sort he and his mama grew up in. But they also had some of the weaknesses of that tradition. The songs are taken up with post-death salvation, souls in flight, bodies left behind, the world forgotten. I’m sure these songs can be read more charitably than that, but it would take some fancy footwork to do so.

As a musician, I love nothing more than traditional American country/gospel hymns and spirituals. But as a Christian, there’s little I find more troubling than the dualistic, pie-in-the-sky theology that dominates much of this beautiful music.

Jason’s right about the fancy footwork. I’ve tried interpreting these songs as liberationist instead of escapist. I’ve tried hearing them as historical expressions of faith shaped by considerable hardship. But it’s hard to avoid the fact that when I sing these songs now, I’m in some small way reinforcing what I believe persists as one of the most unhelpful strains in popular Christianity.

My typical approach has been to simply favor those specimens of the genre that steer clear of this kind of thinking. I love “On the wings of a dove” and “I want Jesus to walk with me”; my favorite is “Fill my way everyday with love.” But you can’t avoid the bad-earth-vs.-good-heaven songs for long, and anyway it’s hard to bring yourself to simply banish a song as lovely and haunting as “Wayfaring stranger.” (Similar issues exist in other church-music traditions—it's one thing for us Lutherans to reject substitutionary atonement theology and quite another to reject "Ah, holy Jesus.")

Jason makes a good case that Cash's more recently released version of the spiritual "Ain't no Grave" does better than all this by highlighting the music's darkness and tension. I also admire Woody Guthrie's somewhat more radical solution. Now, I’m pretty sure Woody didn’t share all of my religious commitments, and obviously he didn’t work within the practical constraints of church music.

But I love how he approached the song “This world is not my home.” He didn’t say, “Hmm, actually I’m pretty sure this world is my home” and tie himself into knots trying to make the song mean that instead. Nor did he simply give up and find a different song. Instead, he rewrote most of the words and turned the song’s message on its head. Here's a verse:

My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road,
A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod.
Rich man took my home and drove me from my door,
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.

In Woody’s hands, the celebratory line “I ain’t got no home in this world anymore” becomes protest and lament—and the song becomes a powerful critique of its original, of a spirituality so future-focused that it encourages passive acceptance of the unacceptable present.


forthesomedaybook said...

forthesomedaybook said...

I often consider those old gospel songs a guilty pleasure. Because I was raised on them, they still stir my soul and bring me joy, even as the theology makes me cringe.

Still, not all of "My Mother's Hymn Book" is bad--I recently wrote a piece about one of the tracks on that CD at my blog:

Thanks for this great post--and the Woody Guthrie rewrites.

Tripp Hudgins said... I

Tripp Hudgins said...

I am going to have to get my hands on some Guthrie.

Per your comments about Southern Gospel...I think we have to remember the crushing poverty that existed(exists) in the South for the decades after the Civil War and during the Depression. I wonder if people simply did not believe liberation in this world was even possible. Bah, I'm sorry. These are not original thoughts and I'm being a bit of a crank.

I love the music. The recent Cash releases have blown my mind. I get the truth in them even if it's uncomfortable. The Man's Gonna Come...Love it. Ha! It offends me entirely, but maybe I need offending from time to time.

I'm going to have to pull out my banjo.

Elaine Buker said...

Elaine Buker said...

Rationalization is everywhere isn't it? The tunes are comforting;the words don't really matter a hoot to me! Sing 'em or leave 'em. Rewrite them or forget them.

Anne Warrington Wilson

Anne Warrington Wilson said...

The bad-earth-vs.-good-heaven imagery of the traditional American country/gospel hymns and spirituals you are talking about is not new to this genre of music. That duality has been around since the Book of the Revelation and you can trace it through hymns since the beginning of the church. I think this imagery is especially comforting when you feel entirely powerless to change the hardship, injustice, chaos of your earthly life. When we feel more in charge, we write songs about making life in this world better. You can find some of each in many hymnals.

Powerless to change the earth?

Not exactly an old gospel song, but Carrie Underwood's "Change" on her album "Play On" (as well as the title song itself which concludes the album) has an interesting perspective: "Don't listen to 'em when they say you're just a fool to believe you can change the world." Carrie is a Christian.

Steve Thorngate said...

Steve Thorngate said...

Anne: That's true, but I don't know of another family of hymns as dominated by a single theme. The practical problem is not that some of the songs are like this so much as that so few of them aren't--because the spiritual problem is not looking forward to heaven so much as being consumed by it to the exclusion of earth.