The Reading Room

Writing about writing about music.

Henry writes about music and music books for ND, The Bluegrass Situation, Country Standard Time, Publishers Weekly, and more.

The Reading Room

Writing about writing about music.

Henry writes about music and music books for ND, The Bluegrass Situation, Country Standard Time, Publishers Weekly, and more.

Stop, Hey, What's That Sound; or, How Do We Read Music?

Interesting essay Henry. As a born again atheist I don't listen to religious music. I was raised Christian with mandatory church attendance at least twice a week and church camp in the summer but around 1968 when I turned 18 and continued discovering a world beyond Christian belief, Christian mythology became irrelevant to me. So I can't listen to Christian/gospel music because I can't relate to the message even if the music is good like in a lot of gospel music such as that of Mavis Staples.

I'm a Dylan fanatic and although I admit his "Slow Train Coming" is one of his better sounding albums I never listen to it, again, because I can't relate to his proselytizing and so I never even bothered getting his other blatantly Christian albums--about the only ones of his oeuvre missing from my collection.

So I do draw lines in the sand but it becomes more difficult for artists I respect who release mostly secular music with occasional Christian perspectives thrown in--people like Peter Case, Eric Bibb and even Tonio K. I can still respect them and enjoy their music but I really dislike their religous songs. 

I believe this intolerance of mine is because religion was forced on me which I accepted without question until I completely lost my faith at which point I resented the (in my view) brain washing.

As I've noted before Dennis, while I don't share your aversion to music with a message that could be interpreted as faith based or religious, Religion to me is simply another man made attempt (and I do mean men...women typically have little voice in any of it, and in fact most religion deigns to catagorize women as subservient and akin to "property") to explain and quantify that which is otherwise not explainable.  Having faith in an afterlife or not or being spiritual is a different thing than the practice of religion and going to church...the former is likely necessary for many people to live out the remainder of their mostly inconsequential lives without constantly contemplating their inevitable demise...the latter, and the practice of it, has precitpated most of the mayhem and violence of human history...religion is benign in and of itself, but many of it's practitioners and followers are reprehensible...

Brainwashing is what it was...ironic that "intolerance" is the by-product...not the outcome a real person of faith would hope for...

Like Michael McDermott in "Folksinger"..."bet that even Jesus, would give us all what for"


Very nicely written essay Henry!

Thanks for your responses, Dennis and Jim. Dennis: I appreciate your sharing your own experiences since they illustrate the questions I raise here. Can you listen to an artist if the message in the music doesn't reach you? I realize, too, that I could have made this piece even broader by talking about music and politics. One of my favorite artists is Bonnie Bishop; love her newest album and think it's very soulful. I learned late last week that she was playing at one of the inaugural balls, and my heart dropped a little. Really?, I thought; why? So, I had to ask myself, is this going to color my listening to her music? Will I listen to her new music if I know she's been a part of that event? Same happens with authors, of course; am I going to stop reading Flannery O'Connor because she grew up in a South very divided among racial lines and implicitly embraced some of those ideas? Even more to the point, should I stop? Should I not read Plato since he advocates slavery? Ah, you know how this goes, but I do think that many folks stop listening to music they might have once loved because they can't agree with or support an artist. This is especially the case in the religion world, anyway, where folks often tend to draw solid lines of demarcation.

And, Jim: I agree with you about the nature of religion. This is why Bonhoeffer is so important: his key phrase, "religionless Christianity" expresses this deformation the meaning/message/spirit of Christianity by religion (doctrine and denomination and such; in his case the state church of Germany in the 1930s deformed the message of Christianity). 

Thanks for reading; I didn't know how this column might be received. 

Thanks for the Bonhoffer reference...a little reading on that is on my radar now...

While watching the Trump gala I reflected on the extent to which the music chosen looked and sounded like his voters. I see the musical choices many people make as being tribal in nature. Thus Christian rock has always seemed to me to function in response to those Baptist preachers in the South burning records and preaching against the dangers of Elvis Presley during the fifties and early sixties. As churches have sought ways to attract younger and more diverse audiences (excuse me....uhh...congregations) to their services, they've developed “contemporary” services filled with music that sounds like what's popular with the target congregation, even if in, mostly, a muted form. They also offer a “traditional” service for the older, staider people they want to keep, and whose support they must have to survive. So it's always about audience as much as it is about ART.

Because I like to think my approach to music, and to life, emphasizes finding connections between things rather than ways to differentiate them, I think that genre is less important to me than it may be to some others. I think, perhaps, that because your knowledge is so much deeper and wider than mine, your analysis is, too. I catch a lot of flack from bluegrass purists, many of whom argue that it “ain't bluegrass is if don't fit the template” established by Bill Monroe during the Flatt & Scruggs period. Too much of a single genre tires me out. My listening continues to be pretty broad, but, honestly, I don't take a scholarly approach to the music itself. My reading in the history of music often informs me without the specific depth that comes from close reading of individual songs or collecting and memorizing the details. Thus, writing reviews of albums is the hardest part of what I do.

If a singer or song-writer's personal life calls into question the depth of his conviction, why has the Evangelical community fallen so deeply in line with Donald Trump? Thanks for the thinking and writing of Russell Moore chair of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptists. Once, in another life, I was teaching at Texas Eastern University in Tyler, TX. I sometimes conducted workshops during evening Sunday school, so I attended services both as a courtesy and out of curiosity. I spent my childhood in a Unitarian Church and my high school was a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania. As I sat in the congregation, I saw my first total immersion baptism in a glass-fronted font floating over the alter. Then the pastor issued an invitation to come to the alter and be saved. Although I understood the words and knew the theology, the experience was one that I resisted with both mind and spirit (and still do). However, the invitation was accompanied by the throbbing tones issuing from the large organ the church owned. I knew, almost immediately, that the power of the bass, the sheer physical impact, was carefully calculated to bring the faithful to their knees and then to raise them up and pull them forward to join with Christ, and soon after to change into white robes for the immersion. It was a powerful experience!

I had a similar experience, but for me more alien and thus less powerful, when I attended, as a part of a weekend workshop in the Philadelphia ghetto, a worship service at Daddy Grace's House of Prayer for All People. With a rousing sermon and fervent testimony along with some glossolalia and dancing in the aisles, the music provided by piano, drum kit, and some kind of wind instrument (maybe a sax, but I truly don't remember) had an urgency and faith I couldn't connect to, but found fascinating. All this from a kid who cut his musical teeth on Gilbert & Sullivan, Paul Robson, The Almanac Singers, and Burl Ives.

At age 75, No Depression has given me the opportunity to take a new look at the music I never really looked at before. Meanwhile, our sons have introduced me to music I never much listened to as a teen or a young man. The mature Bob Dylan, Springsteen, the Dead have entered my consciousness. I somehow missed so much through being interested in other things. Maybe I was too busy classifying and judging to listen and enjoy. I listen more and better now, and for that I'm grateful. As I am for your having written this piece, which I'll read again, and maybe respond to again.  

Thanks for this fine, thought-provoking piece, Henry.

Interesting discussion.  The questions posed seem to get at a nagging issue I have had for many years:  why does a "no musical talent" person like me like to listen to hours of music (many styles) each day while other folks are watching sporting events, reading, or catching a Netflix series?  I'm sure there are psychologists who would love to pontificate endlessley about the meaning of music. For me it is simple:  certain songs make me feel good and I'm sure keep me sane.  Maybe cataloging thousands of songs in my mind (and at local public radio station as a volunteer) will keep my mind sharp as I approach 70. I grew up in a religious family also and have avoided church since I left for college but I still like a lot of types of gospel music.  One of my joys a couple of years ago was hearing a public radio deejay do a tribute to Sam Cooke, including his early years with the Soul Stirrers.  The gospel stuff was simply amazing in the same way as the Stones new blues album, a Stanley Brothers bluegrass song, a celtic jig or reel, or some New Orleans funk.  I don't care about most jazz and classical because they seem to be intellectual music.  I just want something that stirs my soul or moves me.   I'm pretty unmoved by politics so the public stance or views of a particular artist are not important to me.  As to why one Margo Price song gets played over and over in my head and many others are ignored-I don't know.  

When I was a kid, my dad played Gospel music frequently, though Jazz was his favorite form...Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward Singers...there was a radio station in Indy that played soul and R&B, WTLC...for years the night DJ there closed his show with "If God Is Dead" by the Mighty Clouds of's just great uplifting music...I went to the New Orleans Jazz Festival a couple of times...the gospel tent was full of incredible talent, the Zion Harmonizers were maybe the most breathtaking act I saw there, and you can imagine a festival with the Nevilles, Meters, etc...there wasn't a moment when the music wasn't you said Dave, I think Gospel music connects the same way any other music does, it moves you some way...I don't care about the artist's political leanings or religious me the music either moves me or it doesn't...a friend of mine played with and opened for the Louvin Brothers a few times...they were always passing the whiskey bottle before they hit the stage to sing all that hell fire and brimstone gospel music...for some of the audience that would be total hypocrisy...but whiskey can help a singing also takes the edges off for guys who were raised to believe that God is want to think about burning in Hell or an eternity in torture all the time?   Probably not...