Sunday, April 08, 2018

The Gospel origins of country music ... and rock 'n' roll?

I was recently invited to have a conversation about this topic for a forthcoming radio broadcast. More on that to follow.

It’s a subject that’s been been in the back of my head for a long time, absorbed over maybe 30+ years of reading, listening, observing and researching. Fragments have been posted here too.

With the huge upsurge of popular hymnwriting which seems to have followed the revivals of the 1850s in particular* (in Scotland, Ulster and America pretty much simultaneously), a new ‘template’ for hymnwriting emerged. Simple tunes, easily singable. Repeated choruses. 4/4 time and 3 chords. Big ‘hook’ melodies. Easy to harmonise with. Written by skilled songwriters, many of whom were already successful in the secular mainstream. A little faster and suddenly you’re starting to sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd unplugged. I can remember a piano player in a hall I used to go to in my teens, not much older than me, who, when he got the chance, would sprinkle in a bit of honky-tonk when he thought the hymn warranted it. It was magic.

These hymns were massively popular - and at the same time somewhat controversial for the more traditionally-minded churches. It brought the format of secular pop songs and folk songs into the churches - and when you grasp that, then you can see more clearly the case for exclusive Psalms-only worship.

Yet the Wedderburn brothers in 1500s Scotland had done just the same thing with their Luther-inspired Gude and Godlie Ballads (see previous post here). Never underestimate the power of songs -  the Ballads ‘… did more for the spread of reformation doctrines than any other book published in Scotland …’ but soon it would be John Calvin’s Psalms-only approach which would come to dominate the country. Fast forward 300+ years and when Moody & Sankey arrived in Psalms-only Scotland in the 1870s, and Ireland shortly after, the Glasgow press wrote that the hymns sounded like Scottish and Irish folk music (see previous post here). So what Moody & Sankey did wasn’t ‘new’, they were in fact just turning the clock back.

Many famous singers emerged from the world of popular hymns. It’s a big subject for another post. We’re not just talking about the Carter Family of the 1920s, it carries on right up to the present day. The wonderful 4-times Grammy winner Jason Isbell - a native of Alabama and 7 years younger than me - recently spoke of his grandfather teaching him to play the guitar, starting with gospel standards. 

And of his father’s 6 day working week in the local hospital meaning he was sad to be too tired to go to church some Sundays, which inspired his song Something More Than Free.

Sunday morning I'm too tired to go to church
But I thank God for the work
When I get my reward my work will all be done
And I will sit back in my chair beside the Father and the Son

From 1850 to now is about 170 years of unbroken tradition. The quality of the songs is so good that they have endured.

When you grow up in an environment of that type of songwriting, the basic template is only a whisker away from what would become known as 12 bar blues. And the hymns were used in both white and black churches. And mixed ones too. Music gets shared. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, Thomas Dorsey would all sing these and compose similar ones of their own. Go to 9 minutes here to see Thomas Dorsey and Sallie Martin. Just wonderful!

Gospel is a message before it’s a genre. The life-changing message of being made right with God by faith alone through grace alone - a gift received, not a reward earned. Christ not merely as a good example or wise moral teacher, but as our Substitute, Mediator, Advocate. What Luther described as ‘The Great Exchange’ takes place - Christ took upon Himself what we deserve, and we receive what He deserves. Whether it’s through the grandeur of Handel’s Messiah, a plaintive ancient Psalm, or an irresistible foot-tapping gem like Would You Be Free from your Burden of Sin?, it's good news worth singing about. This isn’t religion as control, this is faith as liberty. As Philip Bliss wrote around 1870, “Free from the Law, Oh happy condition!"

Elvis’ only Grammys were for his gospel albums. And so many of the writers of those old hymns were of Ulster descent. It’s not an American importation, it’s a genuinely transatlantic tradition. Moody, Sankey, Chapman and Alexander came over here; many of ours went over there. James Martin Gray, whose parents emigrated from Gray’s Hill in Bangor, became one of Moody’s right hand men and wrote the hymn Only A Sinner Saved By GraceCharles Hutchison Gabriel is said to have sold 17 million copies of the sheet music for his 1900 composition Oh That Will Be Glory For Me. That’s as many sales as Hotel California by The Eagles, one of the biggest-selling albums of all time.

Just before Christmas, Mojo magazine had a free cover CD entitled True Faith. So many great tracks on it, including Johnny Cash’s 1959 version of Lead Me Gently Home Father.

It was written by William L. Thompson, who is said to have been America’s first million dollar songwriter. His grandparents had been Ballymena emigrants. Thompson had a massive musical instrument mail order business, selling everything from harmonium pump-organs to fiddles, guitars, mandolins and banjos. Here’s one of his hymnals which he edited and published around 1904, featuring Where He May Lead Me I Will Go, Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown, I Surrender All, Sunshine In The Soul, all just in the first few pages. Classics every one.

The great evangelist Dwight L. Moody, on his death bed, turned to his friend Will L. Thompson and said, 'I would rather have written “Softly and Tenderly” than anything I have been able to do in my whole life!'

* there were of course many hymnwriters before 1850, but it’s a useful date in terms of the scale of output and the arising publishing industry.

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