The Biblical Songbook, the American Songbook and the Church
I’ve been talking about the history of the Great American Songbook — those pop standards written between about 1900 and 1960. Today, I want to start my biblical exploration and the Great American Songbook with a key passage from the 4th chapter of Genesis. There, we find a text that mentions three men in particular. First, a man named Jabal, “who was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock.” Then there is a man named Tubal-Cain, “who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron.”
And right in there with them — in Genesis 4:21 — the Bible says that a third man, named Jubal, “was the father of all who play the harp and flute.”
So right there, along with agriculture and manufacturing, the Bible mentions music.
Now, a key word “play” used in Genesis 4:21 and it’s the Hebrew word tapas. It means “catch” or “handle” or “take hold of” or “grasp,” that is, “all who play or take hold of the harp and flute.”
The point is: God wants us to be makers of music and not listeners only, even if our instruments are rudimentary. And of course, most of us have a biological instrument — our voice. Now, maybe we can’t sing as well as some, but we can “make a joyful noise.”
(“Play a Simple Melody” performed by Bing and Gary Crosby)
Musicologist and theologian Jeremy Begbie points out, “the idea of listening to music purely for its own sake would be unknown in the culture of the ancient Near East. Music is fundamentally something done and done in a social context.… Musical instruments seem to have played a relatively small role in Israel’s culture. This is probably due mainly to the prominence of words in Jewish faith.”
Perhaps that accounts for all the great Jewish lyricists of the Great American Songbook, including Irving Berlin, Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Yip Harburg, and many others.
And speaking of Jewish poet-lyricists, next time we’ll turn to the wonderful love poem of Hebrew Scriptures that has inspired song writers for centuries — the Song of Solomon.
This is Bob Case for “Singing in the Shower: The American Songbook and the Church.”