Sunday, January 1, 2012

A subcategory of folk music

We are heading into a new year of congregational singing at Ashland First. The end of 2011 has been a busy and wonderful month -- this is the fifth Sunday in a row we have been leading singing at church.

A good number of good people showed up on Christmas morning for a communion service and carols. We led the singing with a guitar and accordion (Joy to the World, Love Came Down at Christmas, Go Tell it on the Mountain, What Child is This). For a couple of the great carols we ditched the instruments and relied on the voices of the 50+ people present. I introduced Hark the Herald Angels Sing with these words, "We are going to sing this carol the way our forbears sang it. We will use the sacred harp--our voices."  The work from the carol singing school really paid off: we heard four-part harmonies coming from the congregation.  For the closing carol we had the two sides of the sanctuary stand and face each other as we sang O Come All Ye Faithful.

It seemed that no sooner was Christmas over than we were preparing music for New Year's day which fell on the following Sunday. As usual we chose music which spoke to the theme of the service, was singable for the congregation and was playable for the musicians. Red Team's lineup changes frequently -- this Sunday we had two guitars, two fiddles and piano/accordion.

This question of "singabilty" is at the heart of a recent (somewhat grumpy) reaction to the poor state of congregational singing by Grove City professor T. David Gordon.   Gordon summarizes his book Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns (P&R Publishing, 2010):
I attempt to locate some of the cultural forces that have caused hymns to sound so foreign to this generation that they feel they need to replace them with something contemporary. I also express misgivings about this circumstance.
Gordon argues that our immersion in pop muzak means that the average person doesn't recognize other forms of music as good music. I am not sure I agree with this thesis. In an article in Christianity Today, composer Lawrence R. Mumford points out that "the simple truth is that our culture has not eliminated all other styles. . . the pop song genre is certainly not the only music that any churchgoer hears, absorbs, or even enjoys between weekend services." Mumford points to symphonic film scores and even computer game soundtracks as one counter example.

But even if I don't buy Gordon's thesis, he make some interesting and useful observations along the way--particularly on the need for church music to be singable. Here is an excerpt from a recent interview he gave in Christianity Today.
Sacred music has special demands beyond aesthetic demands. Some musicologists argue that hymnody is actually a subcategory of folk music—distinguished from classical music because classical music is performance music, beyond the capacity of the average person to produce. But folk music, by name, suggests music produced by the people. It's the way a people join their heritage, and it's participatory in its very nature. Therefore, I don't think hymns should strive to compete with Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem or the solos in Handel's Messiah, because a congregation wouldn't be able to sing them. A hymn shouldn't be beyond the capacities of a good, intelligent church to sing. Now, some people are willing to work at singing well, and others …
Like me? Those who can't read music but enjoy singing hymns?
Hymns should be easy enough to learn for people who do not read music, so people can pick up the melody quickly. When I was a young child and we'd take drives, the family would sing folk music or hymns. If Mom or Dad started singing "Fairest Lord Jesus," we sang along, and before long we were harmonizing. And we couldn't read music. Hymns aren't too difficult to sing; most of them are easier to sing than the contemporary stuff.
I find it ironic that if I'm attending a blended service, the hymns will have the full musical score, though they don't need it, while the contemporary stuff, which is unfathomable without the musical score, doesn't have it. It's just lyrics up on the screen.
Many would disagree, saying modern tunes are easy to catch on to.
They are not really easier to learn than hymns (unless they are profoundly simplistic). They seem easier to some people whose sensibilities have difficulty with anything that is not pop. But musically speaking, they are not, as a genre, substantially easier; they just sound more familiar to our culture. When people describe them as "easy," what they mean is "familiar-sounding."
I like the idea of thinking of congregational singing as "a subcategory of folk music"-- music written by the congregation for the congregation to sing. It keeps the focus on the activity of congregational singing and allows us to avoid arguments over the relative value of particular genres of music and lyric writing. Congregational singing as a type of folk music allows us to value the old traditions while at the same time pointing a way forward to discover and create new traditions: traditions which enable God's people to sing God's praise. It avoids the creation of hegemonic church music cultures, it embraces all the musical gifts and preferences of a congregation, and it offers a simple standard to aspire to and measure one's efforts against: can the congregation sing the music we are playing and are the songs a testimony of our faith?

Here are a couple of examples of the subcategory of folk music Red Team dished up this Sunday (click on the links to listen):

Hail to the Lord's Anointed is straight out of the hymnal. Libby arranged the rocking strings. It could probably stand to be a little slower.

Now Let Us From this Table Rise is a Red Team favorite. We took this Methodist post-communion hymn and joined it to the rollicking SUSSEX CAROL. In doing so we needed to find a refrain, and so we took some lines from the doxology. The foot stomping gets a little out of hand on this one (my right foot of praise is joined by Adam Baker and Jacob Slade's (aged 5) feet). By the last verse we sound like a staggering bunch of dutchman in clogs.  . . but the congregation is singing and no one used microphones!


  1. Interesting thoughts got me thinking about how much of a particular genre's "singability" may be more culturally driven than we might think; take this exerpt from above, for example:

    "Many would disagree, saying modern tunes are easy to catch on to.
    They are not really easier to learn than hymns (unless they are profoundly simplistic). They seem easier to some people whose sensibilities have difficulty with anything that is not pop. But musically speaking, they are not, as a genre, substantially easier; they just sound more familiar to our culture. When people describe them as "easy," what they mean is "familiar-sounding.""

    It made me think about what "singable" might mean to someone from India, or China, or the Appalachian mountains. Or Harlem. Or London. Or Kenya. It might be very difficult to argue that one particular genre is more singable than another. So much of that depends on what is familiar; and what is familiar can be completely arbitrary depending on so many cultural factors. I'm guessing a good early American hymn would seem very un-singable, at least initially, to a Chinese person. Just as it likely would seem to a non-churched 21st century American...

    It might be interesting to compare the "folk music" of our culture with that of others, to see what people from other countries consider to be singable...I sense in Gordon's writing (at least what is referenced here) a particular preference for a certain type of folk music-one might argue that contemporary pop music is itself a kind of folk music, in that it is the music of the vast majority of American people...

    I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on cultural context and singability...

  2. I agree with your assessment of Gordon -- he wants us to sing the old hymns of his childhood (though elsewhere i remember him admitting to liking "How Deep the Father's Love for Us."

    I think 'singability' is is closely associated with familiarity -- though I can be very familiar with an operatic aria and still be completely unable to sing it myself!

    I do find Gordon categorizing congregational singing as a folk music to be (perhaps unwittingly) helpful. It legitimates -- even demands -- incredible diversity in congregational singing across the global church.

    Thinking of congregational singing this way subverts what I called in my blog "hegemonic church music cultures."

    It also qualifies my own controlling question "can the congregation sing the music we are playing." For example, I have been in black congregations in the Deep South that have sung the "Dr. Watts" -- lined out hymns with incredibly slow and rich ornamentation. I have even spent an afternoon with a group of church ladies from Louisiana at the Smithsonian Festival in Greenville, Mississippi, who tried to explain the principles to me-- and I still can't get it right. See how you do!

    But just because I can't sing it doesn't mean it isn't 'singable' in a different congregational context.

    A couple of other thoughts:
    There are ways to familiarize a congregation with new ways of singing -- we all do that in a simple way when we run through a song before asking the congregation to join in.

    In calling congregational singing a type of folk music I don't wish to imply that we should all play Folk Music (the genre). This is a little confusing as Red Team does often sound very folky. That is mainly because that is what our musicians (particularly Mary and I) naturally play and it is a style we have developed/slipped into over the last four years.

  3. and to your final point "contemporary pop music is itself a kind of folk music."
    To use Gordon's definition of folk music (not necessarily mine) as "music produced by the people. It's the way a people join their heritage, and it's participatory in its very nature," there are clearly some types of pop music which are "folkier" than others. U2's anthemic rock ("I still haven't found what I'm looking for") works better for group singing than say Whitney Houston's "I will always love you." :)

    I wrote about something similar back in June ("U2, Glastonbury and Congregational Singing")

  4. True, thanks for this thoughtful reply. I like your musings much better than Gordon's. What would you say about historical church music movements that have veered toward the "hegemonic" (the Genevan Psalter, the Wesleyan hymns, the Vineyard, etc)? Didn't the church in the last 30 years just transition from one sort of hegemony (hymn-based congregational singing) to another (CCM-based congregational singing), and is that necessarily a bad thing, or just the natural evolution of a church culture?

  5. Krista -- good point. This deserves a post of its own. Watch this space!