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I’m sorry to add to the sorrows of anyone who didn’t wangle a ticket, but I’m very excited: we are going to see Hamilton in July! Around the time we got tickets, my mom asked what she should give us for Hanukah, so I said the cast recording, and I’ve been listening to it virtually non-stop since then. And when I listen and think about something a lot, I want to write about it. Ergo, this song-by-song analysis.
It’s tempting to start with my favorite song (if I could choose!), or the first one I heard, but I’m determined to take them in order. “Alexander Hamilton” is an opening song that does what an opening song should: sets the stage, the scope, and the tone; tells you, “This is what to expect,” even if some of those expectations are being set up deliberately to be tumbled down later. It leaps onto the stage with the fanfare-like seven-note motif that will be repeated whenever it’s time to set the scene. (Elizabeth Ayme points out that this motif’s rhythm is that of the key words, “Not throwing away my shot.” I’m getting ahead of myself; that’s song 3. But isn’t that brilliant?) All of the main characters are onstage, except as made impossible by the doubling of roles (much more on that later).
The rest of the play is going to cover almost 30 years of Hamilton’s life, from age 19 to his death at 47, so this song tells his life story up until that point, establishing several expectations right away. First, Aaron Burr is the narrator of this biography, and we’re going to get a sympathetic portrait of him as well as of Hamilton: “Me? I’m the damn fool that shot him.” Spoiler alert? Which brings us to the second point: false suspense about commonly-known facts will be cleared away from the start. In case you walked into the theater not knowing even the few things I knew about Alexander Hamilton—one of the founding fathers of the country, the guy on the ten-dollar bill, from somewhere in the Caribbean, died in a duel with Aaron Burr—you know them now. This lets us get right into the story that will unfold, of how two fine men came to point pistols at one another, an act of folly that would doom one to death and the other to ruin. (That’s my editorializing. Lin-Manuel Miranda himself is never so heavy-handed, telling the story with attention to the psychology of the duel, and letting us draw our own conclusions about the ethics.) The bullet sound that will be repeated frequently is introduced right here.
Third, we’re introduced to the mix of musical genres we should expect: in “Alexander Hamilton,” mostly rap and musical theater; British pop circa the 1960s, R&B, and jazz will be added further along the way. The rapping (which morphs into singing) is slow and steady here, easing us in, but we can already see that Miranda and the medium he’s chosen have a great capacity for condensing a lot of information into a few lines, artfully. Four years of Hamilton’s life are encapsulated in ten lines that move so effortlessly between casual lingo of our time (“woulda,” “scammin'”) and vocabulary befitting an 18th century genius (“astute,” “restitution”) that we can already tell this whole rap-about-the-first-Treasury-Secretary idea is actually, improbably, going to work:
There would have been nothin’ left to do
For someone less astute
He woulda been dead or destitute
Without a cent of restitution
Started workin’, clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord
Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and all the things he can’t afford
Scammin’ for every book he can get his hands on
Plannin’ for the future, see him now as he stands on
The bow of a ship headed for a new land
In New York you can be a new man
Other commenters have noted more resonances with musical theater and rap than I can do; I enjoy both, but don’t have enough breadth of knowledge to pick up on all the allusions. I hear similarities to some of my favorite songwriters, like the rhyme-by-enjambment of Tom Lehrer or Roy Zimmerman, the reveling in cleverness of wordplay of Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter, and the richness of rhyme of Bob Dylan, but I don’t know which of these Miranda would name as influences (except for Dylan, whose albums he buys the day they’re released). I just know this: if I want to hear wordcraft like “It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s delectable, it’s delirious, it’s dilemma, it’s de limit, it’s deluxe, it’s de-lovely,” or “I love all the many charms about you, / Above all, I want my arms about you,” Hamilton will oblige.
Although, again, the tempo has not yet ramped up to the rapid-fire pace it will reach in later songs, their richness of rhyme and internal rhyme are already here. Never mind ABCB or even ABAB rhymes; Miranda writes AAAAAAAA, and even then he doesn’t stop:
This ten-dollar Founding Father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter
By being a self-starter
By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter.
He’s not done!
And every day, while slaves were being slaughtered and carted
Away across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up
Inside he was longing for something to be a part of
The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow or barter.
Twelve, count ’em, twelve rhymes. A lot of popular music composers use ABCB because it’s so much easier; they also try to “rhyme” a word with itself, a cringe-inducing dodge Miranda never employs except, for emphasis, once (tell you about it when we get to Act II). Even in a long string like this, each rhyming word is a new one; when he uses a word twice, it’s for a purpose, such as the irony expressed by “Founding Father without a father.”
And fourth, since rhyme, assonance, meter, and other technical brilliance are all hollow unless pressed into the service of a grand vision, “Alexander Hamilton” gives us the grand vision: the themes of time, of who tells the stories of our lives, of the way history is written and re-written and forgotten, of the immigrant making good and making the country to which they’ve come, of the turning point that one life and one moment in history can be: “The world will never be the same,” the company sings. We’ll hear that again. And we’ll know it, gut-deep, by the end of the play.
As Hamilton himself might say, “One more thing.” The play informs us from the very first sentence that it is going to celebrate his being “a hero and a scholar.” American history celebrates military heroes, athletic heroes, heroes of love, and occasionally scientific heroes whether born here (Edison) or immigrants (Einstein), but “scholar” is not a word that is usually uttered with patriotic pride. But Hamilton was a thinker and political theorist who, as a mere child, orphaned and broke, started “readin’ every treatise on the shelf” in his cousin’s house. He was a writer, who “put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain / And . . . wrote his first refrain” of a voluminous, erudite and influential oeuvre. He was a self-educated finance wonk. In short, Alexander Hamilton was a highly pragmatic and creative intellectual. And his intellect, even more than his considerable military accomplishments or his way with women, is what this story celebrates.
Yesterday a very brief announcement came out of Stockholm: “The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 is awarded to Bob Dylan for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The Nobel is given for a body of work, which in Dylan’s case spans 54 years and counting. From the response of both detractors and enthusiasts, however, one would think that this particular prize rewards a few songs written over a few turbulent years–or worse, that it is no more than a recognition of a symbol of a particular period in U.S. history. One can debate whether song lyrics are literature, a debate which is not my topic here. But to peg Bob Dylan immovably to a few years known as “the sixties” is an insult to him and a disservice to all who might be transformed by his work.
The detractors say “Will the Baby Boomers just get over themselves already?” and “He wrote one good song.” (I don’t know which song it is, nor whether the Swedish Academy is dominated by Boomers.) The supporters, such as the authors of an approving article in the New York Times, cite the same old few songs: “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963), “The Times They Are A-Changing” (1964), and “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965), as if nothing he has produced in the past 50 years is worthy of notice. Even the Swedish Academy used the dread word “icon,” though it went on to note, more relevantly, “His influence on contemporary music is profound, and he is the object of a steady stream of secondary literature.”
One can prefer someone’s early work without injustice. Ursula K. LeGuin is one of my favorite writers; I have read almost all of her fiction and a lot of her poetry, and await each new publication with excitement, but it is true that my favorites remain two books she wrote in the 1970s. But she has continued to create marvelous literature, and I would dispute any attempt to label her a 1970s writer. Bob Dylan has written great songs right into the current decade (I listed some of my favorites from 1962 to 1997 here on the occasion of his 70th birthday). As Dylan fan Barack Obama said upon hearing the news, “All these years later, he’s still chasing that sound, still searching for a little bit of truth.”
I’m not denying that he is seen as an icon–who could? He is widely regarded as “the voice of a generation” (another phrase repeated frequently since the announcement), and unfortunately, that means that many people’s opinion of him is shaped by their opinion of that generation. So what if he was the voice of a generation? So was Wilfred Owen, I imagine. And yet I encountered Owen’s poetry 60 years after he died, and it spoke to me and for me. I didn’t have to be a young British man born around the turn of the 20th century, I didn’t have to have been to war, to be transformed by his piercing vision. If we consign Dylan to a basket of sixties memorabilia, we are cheating ourselves of that kind of transformation.And we are dismissing art when we decide out of hand that it has no value beyond its historical moment. Icon though he might have been, Dylan kicked over the pedestal that that term placed him on, and resisted being pigeonholed from the get-go. Hailed by the folk music scene, with its attachment to acoustic instruments, he deliberately embraced electric music in 1965, knowing full well that it would rile the establishment that had made him famous. (One former fan famously yelled “Judas!” at the Albert Hall, to which Dylan responded by telling the band, “Play f—ing loud!” They did.) Called a political prophet, he stepped away from political themes with the album Another Side of Bob Dylan, and he declared with Bringing it All Back Home that his roots included surrealist poetry, rock, and the blues (which the white folkies of the time often did not consider folk music). For that matter, he has always been a blues singer, and guess what? His high school yearbook predicted he would be, not the next Woody Guthrie, but the next Little Richard. Once he had established that poetry belonged on rock albums, he went on to challenge himself and fans by converting to evangelical Christianity and preaching the gospel from three albums and the stage in the late 70s and early 80s. Then he challenged Christian fans by rediscovering his Jewish roots. All along, he has written great lines and immediately crossed them out because they were too much like something Bob Dylan would write. Anyone who goes to his concerts hoping to hear their old favorites reports bitterly that they are unrecognizable; he keeps finding new ways to perform songs he’s played literally hundreds or thousands of times, fearful, it seems, of falling into a rut. He has defied categorization, whether imposed by others or himself, and made and remade himself. In short, he is a truly independent spirit: an artist.
The Nobel pick is generally judged by whether the honored artist’s work can be said to transcend their place and time. By that measure, the Academy chose a good one.
It was 1984, and it felt like it. I was in high school, trying to be a radical. Out in the world, the Soviet leader du jour and Ronnie (the other one) were playing at who could bring us closer to the nuclear brink. As a hostage situated midway between New York City and Electric Boat in New London, I figured it was likely that the means of my death would be nuclear war and the time would be within the following 20 or 30 years, probably even sooner. The United States seemed to be on the wrong side of every struggle for freedom: backing apartheid in South Africa, funding rape, torture, and murder in Central America just like the bumper stickers said. I carefully lettered “War is Peace / Freedom is Slavery / Ignorance is Strength” below a photo of Reagan looking jubilant, and glued it to the front of my notebook. I split my school days between my suburban high school, in Hamden, and ECA, the New Haven arts magnet that served surrounding towns as well as the much grittier, much cooler city. I was a member of my high school’s only left-wing political group, Students for Nuclear Disarmament, and making a list of colleges known for activist students.
Ronnie Gilbert and Holly Near were coming to New Haven to play at majestic Woolsey Hall, but in between the booking and the performance date, the clerical and technical workers of Yale had gone on strike. Woolsey Hall was part of Yale University. And there was no way these two were going to cross a picket line to sing. So they found an alternate venue a few miles north: the gymnasium of Hamden High School.
When the night arrived, there I was, in a room redolent of the unhappiness, if not the actual sneaker stench, of gym classes, gazing up at these two icons of subversive activity. An entire lineage was there: Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers, who’d sung with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC); Holly Near of the next generation, her protegee and spiritual heir; and, another generation along, us.
I did not grow up on this music the way some of my friends did. I barely knew who the Weavers were (my friend Seth had been appalled to learn that I didn’t know “Goodnight, Irene”). I don’t know how I even came to have tickets to this event, and I didn’t anticipate how gloriously incongruous it would be to hear this concert at my high school until they started singing. “Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida,” “Two Good Arms,” “Harriet Tubman,” “Mary Got a New Job,” “Perfect Night.” Heroes and martyrs, rabblerousers and activists, lesbians, even, were being sung and celebrated right there in our gym!
Holly and Ronnie led us in “Singing for Our Lives,” the first time I heard that song, and the tears rolled down my cheeks. We were, we were singing for our lives–they understood! They set our struggles to music! Right under the noses of the assistant principals and all the other petty tyrants of Hamden High, who–if they did not actually endorse the dictators and juntas whom we’d recently discovered and vowed to oppose, and if they didn’t even vote for Ronald Reagan (that HUAC toady)–seemed to be arrayed on the side of repression. Most of the authorities in our world wanted us to be good little students, sit tight, date straight, not stir up trouble, not have any opinions. In the midst of political repression and standard adolescent turmoil, imperfectly and self-righteously, but with earnest hope, we were trying to sing our own song. And here were our convictions, my convictions, being given harmonious voice by these two tough, joyous women.
We sang “Goodnight, Irene” and went home. The concert was over. But the music played on. It’s never stopped, and it never will.
RIP, Ronnie Gilbert.
Before “world music” experimenters like Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, and Paul Simon incorporated explicitly African sounds into western popular music, there was Miriam Makeba, a South African singer who had her biggest hit in the US in 1967 with “Pata Pata.” It reached #12 on the Billboard Top 100.
Makeba wrote the song with another South African singer-songwriter, Rhodesia-born Dorothy Masuka. Both were civil rights activists and were exiled for it for decades. Makeba suffered a second exile: having come to the United States (helped by Harry Belafonte), appeared on the Steve Allen Show, signed a recording contract here, and made hit records, she became too controversial for American record companies upon her marriage to Stokely Carmichael. They canceled her contracts and the couple moved to the Republic of Guinea.
She was born on this day in 1932 and died in 2008.
It’s said that Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations to help a nobleman with insomnia get to sleep. I can’t imagine a more counterproductive sleep aid. This music makes the heart flutter, the toes flex, the mind fly, the diaphragm speed up until one is breathless, the eyes well with tears of ecstasy, the whole soul come alive and wide awake. If I could bring only ten recordings to the fabled desert island, one would be the Goldberg Variations, and I wouldn’t dare listen to it right before bed.
(Sorry for the misfire. An earlier version meant to be saved as a draft got published instead.)
The San Francisco Chronicle poses a fun question: given that some bands took a while to hit their stride, which are the bands that didn’t? What are some great debut albums?
I don’t know their answers, but I’d love to know yours: whose debut albums blew your mind?
Suzanne Vega. Every song is so good.
The Roches. Ditto.
GP, Gram Parsons. He’d done a lot of recording already, but this album is more exciting than anything he did with the Byrds or Flying Burrito Brothers, in my opinion.
Talking Heads: 77. It’s not even my favorite Talking Heads album–Remain in Light and Little Creatures are particular favorites of mine, probably because I listened to them constantly during high school–but it’s a hell of a debut.
Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, Bruce Springsteen. Again, immediately topped by The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle . . . but “Blinded by the Light”! “For You”! First album!
Horses, Patti Smith. Her utter confidence as a singer is even more amazing when you realize this was her first album and “Gloria” was her way of introducing herself to listeners. She just gets right out there and in your face.
Over to you. Remind me of the 20 great debut albums I’ve forgotten.
I’d been braced for Pete Seeger’s passing for years, but I was still very sad several weeks ago when the news came that he had died, at age 94. I was a little stunned when, within 24 hours, a stern warning came over social media from a colleague: if we sang too many Pete Seeger songs in church that Sunday, we’d be alienating Generation X and Millennial congregation members.
The author, who is just about my age, has since stepped back from that rigid recommendation, acknowledging that the 140-character limit of the format she’d chosen had cost her message some nuance. We all know how that is. (A warning to the Twitter generation?) But I was no longer concerned only with that one statement. The chorus of agreement that met it—mixed, to be sure, with many younger-than-Boomer voices protesting that they know and love Pete Seeger’s music—showed how badly these generational concerns can deepen the ruts we get into. We UUs clearly aren’t ready to move beyond our brother UU, Pete Seeger. On the contrary, we’d better run if we’re ever going to catch up with him.
I understand the exasperation with Baby Boomer domination of our culture, especially UU culture. I think the phenomenon is real, and I appreciate people’s reminding us that there are other generations, and not to get stuck in nostalgia for the boomers’ heyday, that is to say, the 1960s. And there are other people who have died in the last month who deserve our honor but don’t get much attention, such as Amiri Baraka and Chokwe Lumumba.
Still, not to lift up Pete Seeger’s work and life would be to cut off our nose to spite our face.
First of all, it’s important to remember that Seeger was not a boomer. He wasn’t even just a bit older than the boomers, like boomer icon Bob Dylan (born 1941). Seeger was born in 1919 and served in World War II. My colleague Dan Harper pointed out exactly why Seeger began playing the college circuit in middle age: because his thriving career as a performer and recording artist was throttled by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) when it blacklisted him for insisting on his, and his associates’, First Amendment right to the freedom of assembly.
Which brings us to another reason we need to memorialize Seeger. No U. S. citizen can understand their country without knowing about the Red Scare. If you don’t know much about HUAC, reading the transcript of Pete Seeger’s testimony is a good introduction.
Seeger was a die-hard union supporter, and we don’t pay much respect to the labor movement in Unitarian Universalism. My congregation has its old lefties of Seeger’s generation, bless their rabble-rousing souls, but on the whole, we UUs have settled into a comfortable liberalism. The demands of the labor movement—now as in the 40s and 50s when his Almanac Singers and (to a lesser extent) Weavers were singing its songs—aren’t liberal, but radical, and they’re not comfortable. They shake up the system. It needs shaking up. Remember working 9 to 5? Weren’t those the good old days? In this and so many other ways, working people are going backwards, and Pete Seeger was one who kept pushing against that tide.
Another trend Seeger’s example helps us buck is that of receiving (consuming), rather than making, music. His concerts were always participatory and he never missed a chance to remind us that we are born to be music makers. He once said,
Once upon a time, wasn’t singing a part of everyday life as much as talking, physical exercise, and religion? Our distant ancestors, wherever they were in this world, sang while pounding grain, paddling canoes, or walking long journeys. Can we begin to make our lives once more all of a piece? Finding the right songs and singing them over and over is a way to start. And when one person taps out a beat, while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.
I mostly listen to music; my guitar languishes in a closet and my fingers have lost their calluses, and I rarely gather with friends to make music, except in church. I want to change that. He’s a gentle prophet nudging us to make that change.
The most chilling comments in the wake of Seeger’s death were the ones dismissing music of 25, 50, and 75 years ago as ancient history. One way that Unitarian Universalists are totally mainstream, completely in the sway of U. S. American culture, is in our disdain for the past. We revel in our refusal to look back, as if focusing on the future is the secret to being progressive. I don’t buy it. I still think that those who will not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. We’re repeating it now, as those who have been thrown into poverty by others’ mismanagement of the economy are reviled as lazy spongers, as were those of Seeger’s childhood, the Bonus Army. We’re fighting battles that labor organizers of two generations ago thought they had won for us (workplace fatalities, for example, have plateaued after years of welcome decline). We’re struggling to keep our rivers clean—Seeger worked with the Clearwater efforts on the Hudson for almost 50 years—and maybe if we want to prevent poisonous spills such as we’ve seen in West Virginia and North Carolina in the past couple of months, we should look to the environmental strategies of 50 years ago, instead of trying to start from scratch every time. Maybe we give up so easily because we don’t know that we stand in a long heritage of struggle for true progress. As another UU singer, Utah Phillips, said, “The long memory is the most radical idea in this country” (Thanks, Dan Schatz, for that timely quote.)
Pete Seeger never stopped raising his voice, even decades after he insisted that he couldn’t sing anymore. It was never about the quality of his voice anyway—it was about heart and commitment. We still need them, and when I find someone who devoted himself to making a better world long after most people retire or give into cynicism, I’m really happy for his example. So as soon as the news of his death came, I scheduled a Pete Seeger Memorial Singalong Celebration, and we’ll be raising our voices tomorrow, March 8, at 6 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.
In a great addition to our Sunday services, our Associate Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, is going to be doing something special in the 9:30 service three Sundays a month. This past Sunday morning he led a chant, a quasi-call-and-response called “Have You Got the Spirit?”
Have you got the spirit? / Oh yeah!
Let me see it in your head!
He drafted our music director to stand beside him and lead the congregational part, and we all shook our heads and waved our arms as called upon. As in education, there are theories that worship should engage the whole person–you want elements that use different modes and appeal to different aspects of ourselves. This one had laughter, using our bodies, music (rhythm), camaraderie, and definitely lots of spirit.
Return engagement is this Sunday, 9:30 a.m. Oh yeah!
Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of my heroes, Woody Guthrie. My family and I celebrated in the most appropriate way, by singing lots of his songs, thanks to a sing-along at Reach and Teach, a local company devoted to peace and justice education. Our singing was led by the duo Folk This! and punctuated by occasional passage of Caltrain, as the store’s yard backs onto the train tracks. Since Guthrie spent plenty of time riding the rails with other hoboes, wrote many songs about trains and popularized Goebel Reeves’s beautiful “Hobo’s Lullaby,” the clack and rush of the train seemed very appropriate, though it would have been even more appropriate in the early morning when the freight trains come through.
The scope of what his songs mean to me is beyond my ability to say, so I will go smaller. Certain phrases in Guthrie’s songs have woven themselves into the fabric of my life, the way words will when they shape our thoughts or express something we’ve long felt.
Oh, the gamblin’ man is rich an’ the workin’ man is poor (“I Ain’t Got No Home”)
I don’t think he’s talking about Las Vegas. Guthrie turned 17, a working man, the year the stock market threw the country into the Great Depression. The Glass-Steagall Act not having been passed yet, bankers and investors could speculate wildly with people’s deposits, as they can again today, and I think those were the gamblers he had in mind. What the line always makes me think about is how we tax the income earned from work at a higher rate than the income from investments, which is to say, bets placed on the market. If we valued work the way Guthrie did, I don’t think we would set up the tax system this way.
– – – –
I’d like to dream my troubles all away
On a bed of California stars
Jump up from my starbed and make another day
Underneath my California stars
They hang like grapes on vines that shine
And warm the lovers glass like friendly wine
“California Stars” is one of the hundreds (thousands?) of songs Guthrie wrote but never recorded; his daughter Nora wanted some of them to be set to music and performed, and Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco wrote the music. It’s my favorite song on the first Wilco/Billy Bragg collaboration, Mermaid Avenue. It has a place in the soundtrack of my life, since I was listening to this album a lot at the time I moved to California and danced to it often in my first weeks here, which were lonely and full of promise. I just love that image of the stars hanging in the sky like grapes. What a wine they would make.
– – – –
Since our daughter’s birth we’ve had Guthrie’s Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child, which all sound like songs an astoundingly prolific songwriter might spontaneously invent while taking care of his children. They are full of nonsense and endearments, and talk about topics like burping a baby (“You’ll fly up so high / In the clouds and skies / If you don’t make a blubble . . . Blow a bubble soon”), taking a bath, picking up toys, and this one about the incessant questions in a houseful of young children (“Why Oh Why”):
Why, oh why, oh why oh, why?
Why, oh why, oh why?
Because because because because
Goodbye goodbye goodbye
To know why a mouse can’t eat a streetcar, why a cow drinks water, why your grandpa ain’t your grandma, etc., you’ll have to click above and read all the lyrics.
– – – –
I’m moved by “The Unwelcome Guest” (another set to music posthumously, by Billy Bragg), and its paradox of “I’ll still be here after I’m gone.”
Yes, they´ll catch me napping one day
and they´ll kill me
And then I´ll be gone but that won´t be my end
For my guns and my saddle will always be filled
By unwelcome travellers and other brave men
Guthrie uses a similar trope about absence, presence, and immortality in “Tom Joad,” when Tom says goodbye to his Ma and says, “Wherever people ain’t free, Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights, That’s where I’m a-gonna be.” And of course it shows up in Alfred Hayes’s song “Joe Hill,” which Guthrie surely knew. It seems to have been the kind of immortality that was most important to Woody Guthrie, who suspected by his 30s that he had the same disease that killed his mother at age 42. It’s the kind of immortality he has achieved, and a kind that’s available to any of us, if we choose to live that way.
I wrote about inclusive lyrics and their limits a few days ago. Some further thoughts on music, based on the vibrant music at General Assembly (GA) last week:
A song leader should use the mike when teaching an unfamiliar song or giving a soloist’s riffs over the congregation. Otherwise, they should back off the mike. When they sing right into the mike, we in the congregation hear them instead of ourselves and each other.
Rock makes people move. Not everyone, of course, but we have a few generations in services now for whom rock is the beat of our bodies. In any case, if you want people to move their bodies, play the music they dance to.
Let the congregation do the interesting stuff. A disappointing aspect of music at last year’s CENTER Institute (continuing education for UU ministers) was that the role of the congregation was that of backup singers to a soloist, and backup singers with a pretty monotonous part, at that. We, the congregation, would chant an uninteresting part over and over while the band would go nuts. I started to feel like wallpaper.
On the other hand, letting the congregation sing the same thing over and over can be really powerful. Too often, we sing something two or three times and just as we’re getting brave about harmonies and really feeling the music, it stops. Repeating a chorus many times lets us in the congregation begin to get creative, and get into that meditative place where a chant can take us. Jason Shelton did this really well with “Wallflower,” a Peter Gabriel song he sang immediately after Karen Tse’s sermon in the Service of the Living Tradition. She had ended with a story about prison and an exhortation to “do the one thing you can do,” and the song (how did Jason think of that song? Stroke of genius!) began with images of prison and ended with the refrain, “I will do what I can do.” He kept us singing it for a long time, allowing it to rise as a prayer and a promise from each of us. For me, in the midst of the campaign to raise UU awareness about slavery, every word of that service was about slavery and my commitment to do something to end it, and I am sure I was not the only person for whom singing those words evoked tears of hope and resolve.
Projecting words on a screen really helps people sing out. Proofread the words very carefully.
Don’t surprise the congregation. If you teach them a song, lead it the way you taught it to them. Small variations are okay–key changes, harmonies, etc.–but if you suddenly throw in a bridge, you have to warn us or we get confused and discouraged, and we don’t sing with the same abandon because we’re watching for further curveballs.
It’s worthwhile to teach songs before the service starts. Not everyone will be there, but those who were will anchor the singing.
The choir can introduce harmonies and rounds that embolden the congregation to join in, if the choir has a “y’all join in” attitude instead of a “be quiet and listen to us perform” attitude. Smiles and other signs of exuberance help. The conductor can transform the choir from performers into song leaders with one simple move: turn and conduct the congregation while the choir continues to sing. Conduct us as if we have never been in a choir, because most of us probably haven’t; keep it simple.
The choir members at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto have heard this from me before: the choir adds so much to the feel of the service when their attire is simple and undistracting. The GA choirs mostly wore all black, or black with bright stoles of various colors. One small ensemble wore shades of blue with various scarves, a mishmash of patterns that was pleasant because coordinated. Some of these groups had been singing together for only a few days, or even only a few hours, but they looked, as well as sounded, polished.
If you have a hundred-member choir, you need risers. Any choir, of whatever size, should have risers steep enough that you can see every singer’s face. It’s distracting to see just the top half of the back rows’ faces, and it has to interfere with their sound.
Having a band adds so much flexibility to congregational music. A trio of guitar, drums, and bass are all you need to make a huge difference. They won’t be called for on every song (not even the piano is used on every song), but they’re great to have.
Put more participatory music in the service. More. Now add some more.