Music is good news breaking through the pavement.
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What exactly are we hoping for when we download an iTune? What sense of expectation do we bring to the table when we pay money to watch somebody belt out a chorus in a darkened room?
There's something so commonplace about our taking in of music that we tend to forget about the remarkable degree of faith, hope, and love involved. What I think we're looking for is a good word to take the edge off. We're daring to believe that reality might unfurl before us by way of other human voices. We might even believe a soothsayer or shaman is about to show up among people like us. We're experimenting with an Amen.
In a rather revelatory chapter of Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan tells, as a young man, of finding one Thelonious Monk sitting alone at the Blue Note with a large, half-consumed sandwich on top of his piano ("in his own dynamic universe even when he dawdled around," according to Dylan). When the young singer mentions that he plays folk music up the street, Monk responds as if commenting on the weather: "We all play folk music."
Folk. Now there's a good word. It manages to lift a burden somehow. Folk is just folks trying to tell other folks what's happening in their heads as they try to remember or forget stories or feelings; folk is trying to tell truthfully what happened by telling it a little slant. What isn't folk?
A folk song, after all, is not an edict from on high, but often a disruptively truthful word about the way things are. It expands the sphere of sanity little by little, and it breaks into monopolies on truth. It opens the doors of perception. Will we settle for anything less than that? Do we want to be changed? Do we want release?
I like to tell my students that anything they find in their literature textbooks should be viewed as no more or less highfalutin' than a trucker writing words of love or loss on a napkin at a Waffle House. There are no complete strangers. Everyone's invited. Everyone's allowed.
As a form of testimony, folk music speaks from outside the flow of power. It will always have a certain democratic heft in its appeal to observable reality, and it is insistently by, of, and for the people. It's this very rock & roll presumptuousness concerning people passing information and illumination to other people that brings us toward a term gospel: truthful (and therefore good) news that demands disclosure; human expressions worth sharing.
You can call it a jazz sensibility as well (or blues or spiritual), and perhaps labels such as these will always be with us as a kind of cataloguing to help us find what we're looking for. But "gospel" of some sort is probably always the point. We're on the prowl for inspiration. We don't journey toward live performances or buy box-sets in an entirely disinterested or detached state. We want a shot of something "bloodier than blood" (in Wilco's memorable phrase), something extra-authentic, something to prick our nerves and rattle our brains.
In an effort to ascribe a solidarity between the Presbyterian Ishmael and the cannibalistic Queequeg of Moby Dick, Melville described humanity as a "multiple pilgrim species." Nothing is doctrinaire or religious (in the worst sense) in Melville's characterization of our journey, but, on the other hand, nobody gets to be viewed (or views himself) as unsacred or merely secular. We're all involved in worship of one kind or another; we're all on a pilgrimage. A revelatory word can come from any quarter, believer and unbeliever alike. No hierarchy here. No official word. Only testimonies.
And to borrow a little from Chuck D of Public Enemy, folk music (in the broad, Thelonious Monk sense) is the people's CNN. In the predominantly oral societies of ancient times (Roman-occupied, first-century Palestine, for instance), it was often believed that words were infused with mystical powers. But speaking truthfully, prophetically, or in an inspired fashion wasn't something just anyone could do; only priests, prophets on the payroll, cronies, and other professional religious figures were permitted to make sure the right speech got spoken.
To get a better hold of the sociological significance of gospel, we might echo the befuddled and frustrated testimony of Flannery O'Connor's philosophizing serial killer, the Misfit, in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find": "Jesus thrown everything off balance." The Misfit winces at the mention of a savior who single handedly brought up the net value of human beings for every culture that takes him seriously, and he sees how rumors of the Nazarene's notions mess with what passes as normal and, in the Misfit's view, disturb a man's confidence. He figures that if Jesus were the real deal, there's nothing to do but drop everything and follow him. And if he weren't? No pleasure but meanness.
To the Misfit, Jesus' gospel isn't just another peaceful easy feeling or just a decent sentiment; the good news is a question mark against whatever we erect as an absolute. Like a chain reaction (or a slow train coming), gospel is a different sort of social imagination moving through history, breaking the pavement of the status quo of countless cultures beyond the Middle East, even searing the conscience of a slave-holding culture that believed itself to have the definitive word on how to read that thick, black, leather-bound book.
So gospel is multi-partisan. Properly understood, gospel makes equal-opportunity pilgrims of males, females, Jews, Greeks, slaves, and the legally free. Nobody owns the copyright on the good, truthful Word. No label can contain the reach of the people's good news. In this sense, gospel is a wider ranging broadcast than we tend to imagine. Perhaps inevitably, the term would eventually be used for advertising purposes (or to categorize music that contains the right number of obvious Biblical references and clichés), but that doesn't mean we have to define it so rigidly. The Biblical witness is a little muddier than the "spirituality" market allows. When we think of the Bible as "religion" or "spirituality," we're letting ourselves be misled if we think primarily of consistently "uplifting" verses or devotional thoughts inscribed on greeting cards or written in tracts. And gospel, in the deepest sense, can't exactly stay out of politics, as the saying goes, because news bears witness. Gospel speaks truth to power brokers and commodifiers.
With the power of Herod, Pilate, Jim Crow, and Pharaoh somehow relativized, a "democratic dignity" (Melville's phrase) is now attributed to every human voice (peasants, outcasts, cast-offs, the least of these), and every kind of redemption song can break through and multiply. These songs can mark a day of judgment for every death-dealing abstraction, con-game, or unjust ruler on the scene. Folk music is an entering into a communal awareness, a partaking of the mother wit that resists the despair of having nothing to say. Folk is born beneath the radar where most executives and profiteers who wouldn't think to pay any mind. But for anyone looking hard, the avenues of communication (of fear, worry, hope, and forecasts) are expanded into a great wide open.
At this point, we might invoke the figure of Johnny Cash who purposefully sought to channel, in his words, "voices that were ignored or even suppressed in the entertainment media, not to mention the political and educational establishments." That's a vocation, for sure, but we wouldn't think to reduce the witness of Cash to the merely "spiritual" any more than we'd characterize William Blake's vision as either religious or political. The dichotomies don't fly when we're dealing with a human heart in conflict with itself. (That would be every human heart, by the way.) Dylan once recalled that experiencing "I Walk the Line" for the first time was like hearing a voice calling out, "What are you doing there, boy?" The authoritative dissent and the truth-telling power of those about to rock & roll will know no convenient divisions, and the powers that be are put on high alert. A change is going to come.
Admittedly, the connotations contained within the category of "religion" are perhaps inevitably held in contempt by honest people. There's an understandable aversion to allowing our love of good music to get contaminated by anything that approaches such talk. The illness that informs the boastfully "religious" is well-epitomized in Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry who, we're told, "got everything from the church and Sunday School, except, perhaps, any longing whatever for decency and kindness and reason." There's a lot of that going around these days. And to say the least, the distinguishing feature of the self-described religious doesn't appear to be integrity. This gospel seems to have as much to do with Jesus' first-century gospel as a Dodge Dakota does with the Crow Creek Dakota tribe.
But are we clearing up matters with a term like secular? Do Cash and Al Green and Martin Luther King and John Brown self-consciously add a little spirituality to their otherwise secular careers? The labels won't testify. They don't describe what's going on, and gospel won't suffer proprietorship.
In the music most affiliated with the term gospel, "some of these days" is the operative phrase because the words witness to an earthbound hope that is neither "pie in the sky" or merely "life after death." You can hear it in Sam Cooke and throughout the Goodbye, Babylon box-set. Packaged in a wooden box and framed in cotton, Goodbye, Babylon includes everything from Sister Terrell to Hank Williams to the Reverend J.M. Gates's "Death Might Be Your Santa Claus." With one hundred thirty-five songs (1902-1960) and twenty-five sermons (1926-1941), the collection calls into question whatever we mean by "secular" and deconstructs our cataloguing impulse. There is a train and a river and a light coming down. "Some of these days" characterizes an age to come that will further sanctify an already sacramental present. The tension between what is and what ought to be drives the growls against hypocrisy and the satirization of the self-satisfied and uptight. If there's a justice that will still all lying tongues and days when the dead and the rubbed out will return to tell a story or two, all speech is up for grabs. Folk makes louder and livelier expression permissible and appropriate, a way of staring down madness with mirth. There is no terrain outside folk's jurisdiction, no subject that's inappropriate or irrelevant to the stories and sayings and lamentations.
There is music out there, selling by the truckload, and it has the same effect on the human heart as undersized shoes had on women's feet in ancient China. When music is untruthful, the songs are largely void of investigative power, only desensitizing, never urging us to look a little harder at other people's faces or our own. Such sounds don't invite real listening. And then there's folk, a more reliable witness to what's going on than most journalism, demanding to be inherited, committed to memory, sung around a fire, whenever we hear the music. Folk isn't so arrogant as to view itself as a No Spin Zone, because folk music understands that to spin is human. And those who think they're without spin are only too quick to cast the first stone. Folk music is a little more modest in its goals, but folk will try to tell truth as well as it can, even among the slow to believe.
Folk invites our consent. And if we're willing, the music will become a part of the way we see, chastening and invigorating our way of looking at the world. The music is good news. Folk is people talking.
David Dark lives in Nashville and is the author of The Gospel According to America: A Meditation on a God-Blessed, Christ-Haunted Idea and Everyday Apocalypse. Favorite lyric: "You try to love her, but you're so contrary / Like a chainsaw running through a dictionary." -Elvis Costello
In David's article, among other things coming across bloodier than blood, I hear the same voice speaking as the Czech revolutionary, Vaclav Havel, did when he said,
"We had our parallel society. And in that parallel society, we wrote our plays and sang our songs and read our poems, until we knew the truth so well that we could go out into the streets... and say, "We don't believe your lies anymore!" And [the whole thing] had to fall."Let it come.