The Biblical Songbook, the American Songbook and the Church
Not long ago in the Seattle Times, someone wrote the following in the column “Rant and Rave”: “To all of the jazz musicians who have helped to make my life full of joy, beginning with Coleman Hawkins’ ‘Body and Soul’ when I was a teenager. I am 90 years old now and still LOVE jazz. It fills my soul.”
Now, I don’t want to get too silly about “filling my soul with jazz;” only the Holy Spirit can really fill someone’s soul. But I do think that well-written and played popular music does speak to our emotions and psyche — and Coleman Hawkins’ rendition of the 1930 Johnny Green ballad, recorded by the great saxophonist in l939, can still bring joy to your heart. Give it a listen…
(“Body and Soul” performed by Colman Hawkins)
Now let’s go from saxophonist Coleman Hawkins to theologian John Calvin. I’ll bet you’ve ever heard that segue before.
While warning against using music for “foolish delight,” “vicious attractiveness,” and “vanity,” Calvin nonetheless states “Although the invention of the harp, and of similar instruments of music may minister to our pleasure, rather than to our necessity, still it is not to be thought superfluous, much less does it deserve to be condemned.” Calvin went on to say that music is to be embraced if it “benefits human society” and is “profitable” to mankind.
Popular or folk or commercial music has always spoken to people in their time. And while I can’t say that all of it has “benefited human society,” all of us know non-religious songs that have emotionally moved us or expressed the sentiment in our hearts at a particular time in our lives. In this way, popular music can often have a spiritual, even transcendent quality.
A couple of years ago, Jeffrey Keuss of Seattle Pacific University wrote a little book titled Your Neighbor’s Hymnal: What popular music teaches us about faith, hope and love. In the book, Keuss covers the span of popular music primarily from rock to soul. And he says that much of that music has something sacred to say to the general public.
I’ll advance the Keuss thesis a bit. If rock or hip hop speak sometimes about profound things such as “faith, hope and love,” how much more so does the wonderful musical poetry of song writers such as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, and Johnny Mercer, just to mention a few of the great lyricists of the 20th century. If you listen carefully to what these poets have written, you will hear lyrics that always speak of creation and fall – and, yes, sometimes redemption.
More on that next time around.
This is Bob Case for “Singing in the Shower: The American Songbook and the Church.”