Better Than Wide Ties
Fashions tend to go in cycles. If you hold onto the stuff in your closet long enough -- the story goes -- it will be back in style. At a youth gathering in Denver yesterday I saw kids wearing pin-striped dress shirts with huge white collars, open at the throat, and topped with a haircut that wouldn't have been out of place in Soho, London back in the late 60's. Fashionistas have been trying to bring the 70's back every year recently with only partial success. Sometimes we recycle these things as a symptom of our longing for earlier, simpler times. Other times they are brought in because they are new to the younger among us and passe to the older; guaranteeing that what the kids want to wear won't be worn by their parents -- and that is really the point isn't it? They want to be different from their parents; unique and new in their own way, even if they have to hunt through the old clothes store's bargain bins to get there.
In the late 60's and through the 70's, anytime you saw a gathering of more than four teens, you would find a guitar. Songs were meant to be sung with two voices or more, complete with simple harmonies and catchy tunes. This brought us everything from Simon and Garfunkel to The New Christy Minstrels. Everywhere you looked you saw manic-depressive minstrels playing their six string guitars, trying to look deep, and there beside them would be earnest looking girls singing along. Our songs in church were built on this tradition that sourced in even earlier music.
For the first 150 years of the Restoration Movement, our songs were relics and reflections of the old songs brought to us by our British forebears and kept sacred -- while transformed -- in the mountain fastness of the Appalachians, the Alleghenies, and the Smokies. Flavored, bettered, and respun with the songs of the Delta and songs of the southern, poor, isolated blacks our hymnals rang with four part harmonies that extolled the painful realities of life as seen through the eyes of faith.
The Melungeons, a people unto themselves, gave us shaped note singing, Harp singing, and other forms of mountain melodies. The power of that racial/genetic/historic legacy can still shine through as it did in the Coen brothers' "O Brother Where Art Thou" and the companion DVD/CD that showcased more old time music, "Down From The Mountain." The price of Gibson guitars skyrocketed and a whole new generation grabbed onto it. But why? Perhaps it is because their own music became unsingable (at least, without backup dancers and a producer) and something in them called for a drink from a deeper well.
We have seen this in our assemblies. For some time we were the lone outpost of shaped note singing; four part harmony reigning in our assemblies. We, rightly, had the reputation of being the best singers among the various name-brand churches. When more contemporary songs began creeping in -- against stiff resistance -- one of the complaints often aired was that we would lose the ability to sing in four part harmony and -- praise teams or not -- we have. But is that the fault of singing new songs or is singing new songs a reflection of where our culture has traveled? One generation's music did not speak to the next generation, nor did they know how to sing it meaningfully. They didn't carry their guitars (or other bluegrass instruments for which many of our hymns were written) anymore, had no idea who Peter, Paul and Mary were or what to take if you came down with a Garfunkel. Their music was (over)produced within an inch of its life and relied on stark images in videos for its life. And it was never sung in harmony, but in unison.
Now that the newer music is accepted in many of our assemblies and those in the 30-50 age group relish their victory over the Gaither/Stamps-Baxter/Fanny Crosby songs of the past... the kids are rediscovering old hymns. They are older than the ones their grandparents sang and their voices strain to sound as if they were wafting from a lost and hidden mountain, or they go back further and sing the majestic old hymns of the 1600's and 1700's. Dozens of new bluegrass bands have been started by teenagers and their CD's enjoy good sales in a new subculture.
Each generation must find its voice in the same way that they must work out their own salvation. As they come to Christ, they must bring the overflow of their heart and that might not sound like the overflow of your heart, or your parents' hearts. That's all right. Things change. Some things -- including some hymns -- come back. All in all, they're better than wide ties, shag haircuts, and daisies painted on VW vans. I smile when I think of what it must look like in heaven when some of us gather to sing an old hymn. Does God say "I haven't heard that song in a very long time" and smile? I know in heaven we are going to sing a new song, but to many of our kids, those old songs are new to them.
(and in case you're wondering -- this isn't a call to return to the blue book or Sacred Selections. Those books served us honorably and well, but that isn't what I am talking about. Recent sociological studies have shown that the youngest Christians are showing the most interest in very old songs -- mountain, traditional, bluegrass, or classical -- and that it is now their parents who resist moving away from the "new" songs they fought so long to establish as the church norm. This blog is not making a judgment here; only an observation)