The Biblical Songbook, the American Songbook and the Church
I think of the Song of Songs as an Old Testament torch song, and could be sung to an orchestral arrangement by Nelson Riddle or Gordon Jenkins, two of the great arrangers who worked closely with Frank Sinatra.
Well, that might be stretching a point — but not too far, really.
Like the great American popular poet-lyricists of the first half of the 20th century — and I’m thinking here of men like Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Larry Hart, and Sammy Cahn – all Jewish — the poet of the Song of Songs use similes, metaphors, double entendres, evocative and figurative language to express passionate love. Listen to the words of Ira Gershwin’s 1928 haunting love song “How Long Has This Been Going On” sung by the marvelous Ella Fitzgerald.
(“How Long Has This Been Going On” performed by Ella Fitzgerald)
I’ve been a husband for a long time, and my wife Kathy and I have raised a family. We now have married daughters with children. I know that passionate love between a man and a woman is an amazing mystery — and the Song of Songs affirms this human love as an intimate relationship, with all its sensuality and sexuality.
Of course, there are boundaries to romantic love and sexual expression that are established by God’s design for humanity. But within the parameters of that holy design, the Song of Songs describes a love between a man and a woman that is intense. And despite obstacles, that love is also exclusive and faithful.
And while celebrating holy love, the Song of Songs also speaks of the heartbreak and the loneliness that can accompany the mystery of what the Scripture calls “the amazing way of a young man with a young woman” (Prov. 30:18).
Hmm… That would make a great lyric. I don’t think Irving or Ira or Larry or Sammy could have said it better: “the amazing way of a young man with a young woman.”
I argue that what the body of music known as the Great American Songbook — that is, the American standards written in the first 6 decades or so of the 20th century — that this body of music is not simply a distraction. This music often has a profound poetic dimension to it. Indeed, I would claim that the best poetry written by the best American songbook lyricists provide expression and comfort to some of life’s most vexing issues.
We’ll continue to explore more about the Great American Songbook — and how it speaks to our emotions, aspirations for love, and sometimes just to our desire to have fun — in the weeks ahead.
This is Bob Case for “Singing in the Shower: The American Songbook and the Church.”