Monday, September 19, 2005

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)

16 Comments:

At 9/20/2005 09:21:00 AM , Blogger Cheetah, the cheetah said...

It's hard to find balance between the old and the new when each person has a different preference! I like so many of the new songs but do miss the beautiful harmony of the hymns I grew up with and are precious to me.

 
At 9/20/2005 10:23:00 AM , Blogger Laurie said...

Hi there Patrick:

I really enjoyed your post. I have found that there are times when only an old hymn will fill my heart and there are times when they don't. I am very fortunate to be in a large congregation where we still have 4 part harmony, even on the new music. I can say that without a doubt, it was music that stirred me to the Lord and to begin the long walk toward restoration.

BTW Patrick our Sacred Selections book was RED!

Be Blessed today.

 
At 9/20/2005 11:38:00 AM , Blogger PatrickMead said...

Hey yourself, Laurie! The blue book had a different title, that I can't recall. The Sacred Selection book is, as you say, red! There was also "Great Songs For the Church" and an old brown backed book that I remember from my childhood. And - yes -- they had books and paper back then!

 
At 9/20/2005 12:10:00 PM , Blogger David U said...

Your observation shows scholarship and insight.....and great wisdom. Please keep communicating your observations to us!

Your brother,
DU

 
At 9/20/2005 12:20:00 PM , Blogger Lee Hodges said...

I will never forget my first worship experience in Ghana, West Africa. I am not sure if it was four, six, or eight part harmony, but it sure gave a new sound to old hymns I had sung as a child. Funny how a new style can make an old hymn like new. I can't help but think that our Father loves variety. Just look at all of our differences. But in the end it is the song that comes from the heart that He wants. One touched by grace and that overflows with praises to Him who is all in all.

Thanks brother for another great post.

 
At 9/20/2005 03:58:00 PM , Blogger Laurie said...

Patrick:

I think through my years there were several books. A tan one, a blue one, the red book, then out came one that was published in green, yellow or blue (by then it was just confusing ya know?). Currently, we have hymnals in the pews published by the next door neighbor. Songs of Faith and Praise I believe is what is is called. (it comes in multiple colors, so I think one can match the auditorium some.) I don't believe Patrick that you are all that much older than I and yep, we had paper, ink and even microphones! Have a Blessed day in Jesus.

 
At 9/20/2005 05:28:00 PM , Blogger That Girl said...

Ahh... Sacred Selections. I tried and tried to make "s" like those on the cover!

 
At 9/21/2005 12:51:00 AM , Blogger scrapbook designer said...

As long-term youth workers at our church I frequently drive groups of teens around in my van and astonish them with my alternative Christian rock selections...my music does not sound like their parents' music and it opens up many conversations. But I grew up with the four-part harmonies from the Baptist Hymnal and your post reminded me of one of the sweetest sounds of my childhood: my Meema singing old hymns as she washed dishes. I wonder at times how my kids will reminisce about their childhood music memories and what they'll be listening to with their teenagers! Thanks for the jog down memory lane, I can use all the help I can get!

 
At 9/21/2005 01:10:00 PM , Blogger T.K. said...

My Grandparents church is quickly growing smaller by the day, and I by no means think that the old hymn's that they sing is the reason. I know that the world is ever changing and so to must the church, but I did notice one day a bulletin after picking up my grandmother. It asked "We need ideas how to get new people to the church", and only one comment was under it. Sing more hymns. I can't imagine younger people liking the older hymns unless it's a more up beat version. I'm not saying they don't but in my observations they seem to enjoy the newer stuff more. Any way, this is what I see in my little corner of the world. Thanks for the great post!
In His Grip,
Tyler

 
At 9/21/2005 02:08:00 PM , Blogger PatrickMead said...

Tyler, I think you have a point. Most of the young people I am around aren't longing for old hymns, per se, but some of the more beautiful hymns regardless of age. Another sign of change is clapping. We have a congregation where clapping in and to songs is completely fine, yet 90% of those who clap are between 25-50. Older ones don't like it and younger ones don't feel the need to do it except in special circumstances. To the 25-50 year old crowd, clapping is a sign of freedom, a declaration of independence from the hidebound past. To those who are younger, the freedom is there but they don't feel the need to exercise it.

Something similar may be going on in song selection. Now that we are free to see only new songs, praise songs, and versions of CCM songs... many of our youngest members shrug and pick a far more eclectic mix than we expected. Perhaps the iPod world at work in the church? A little of this, a little of that, and eccentrics may apply...

 
At 9/22/2005 11:31:00 AM , Blogger Stephen said...

"Young people"? Please define "young people" Dr. Mead. If such is defined as folks 18-25, then my lovely congregation on Lake Erie's south shore has but one "young person" regularly there...

 
At 9/22/2005 12:11:00 PM , Blogger PatrickMead said...

Of course, there is such a thing as "young at heart", but the fact is that if nature doesn't wear you down, time will... My "young people" reference is geared to the people studied by the sociologists about music and worship: 14-25.

 
At 9/22/2005 07:32:00 PM , Blogger jettybetty said...

Interesting point I hadn't thought of--I know the *new* songs mean freedom for me somewhat (I fit in your older group for sure)--the other day, one of our daughters (who is 24) asked me to get her a copy of a CD with all old hymns on it--I was kind of surprised--but this could be the reason!

JB

 
At 9/22/2005 09:34:00 PM , Blogger CrazyJo said...

I love a lot of the old hymns, however I don't like to listen to them if they are sung in a funeral dirge-like way. I think music being sung about and to our Lord needs to be uplifting, not make you want to go bash your head in.

 
At 9/23/2005 12:06:00 PM , Blogger Steve Duer said...

Something I learned from a Intro to Sociology class I taught:

What the father tries to forget, the son tries to remember.

This was in regards to immigration. The second generation would try to assimilate but the third would try to regain some of their identity. That cycle is a part of our lives too.

 
At 9/27/2005 09:53:00 PM , Blogger extremist said...

I love this post. It made me smile. I'm *under* 35 and discovered Gillian Welch after O Brother Where Art Thou. Her music is a near obsession for me now and I too enjoy the old mountain songs. Maybe its something in my blood, coming proudly from an Ozark, hillbilly family as I do.

 

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