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Recently, my family and I went to see a local production of “Frog and Toad,” a dramatization (featuring dozens of local kids) of children’s stories that are popular here in the United States.

(Here is a claymation version from the 1980s)

As the show concluded, the cast, still clad in their various animal costumes, took the stage to a cranked-up Three Dog Night’s now-famous chant-song-declaration: “Jeremiah was a bullfrog!” And as the grade-school-aged actors sang along with the words and free-danced all around the front of the stage, the audience of hundreds of parents, siblings, and grandparents joined right in, yelling out the lyrics, clapping, and arm-waving.

On the thinness of that association (“bullfrog”) between the play and the song, the audience willingly went along in a celebratory mood. And why not? It is a friendly, rollicking tune with a Baby Boomer-ish shout-out to the innocence and oneness of all creatures (“Joy to the world / all the boys and girls / joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea / joy to you and me” — which is only one environmentally-aware step removed from that era’s classic philosophy “Free to Be You and Me“), and accessibly singable verses and choruses. One evidence for this song’s quasi-secular-liturgical status  is the way that focused attention to the meaning of the words gets backgrounded. For example, the straightforwardly sexual (and 1970s mustachioed machismo-ish) lyrics of the original (“and make sweet love to you”) were muted nary a decibel by kids and adults alike.

Here is Three Dog Night laying it down:

I wondered how this all came to pass. What is it that makes of a particular tune, born in 1971, a hymn-like experience for an otherwise secular event like a children’s play in a public theater? I can assure you that, in the States anyway, this song would merit more or less equal enthusiasm were it played at a sports event, a bar mitzvah, or a roller derby. Do not say (post)moderns are not religious. Such songs (and one could establish an entire cultural catalogue of them) bring out, with hardly any prompting, a shared spirit as contagious as it is short-lived. We have little robust theological research on these realities, but with such moments are people’s emotional and spiritual lives today increasingly peppered.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

A Song to Sing, A Life to Live

Posted in: Recommended Reading by Michael Iafrate on December 16, 2010

One of the first musical acts that got me thinking about the complex relationship of “rock” and “theology” — beyond the world of “Christian rock” anyway — was the Indigo Girls. Recently the online multimedia journal of practical theology Practical Matters featured a video interview/conversation with Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls and her father Don Saliers who teaches liturgical theology at Candler School of Theology.

The interview, titled “A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: A Conversation about Musical and Liturgical Imagination with Don and Emily Saliers,” includes discussion of music and the theological and moral imagination, the relationship between “sacred” and “secular” music, the role of music in movements for social change, music’s place in the “liturgy wars,” the relationship of musical analysis and musical practice, and much more. And they even play a little music together.

The interview also gives a good introduction to themes apparently taken up in their co-authored book A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice (Jossey-Bass, 2006) which has now made its way to my “wish list.”

Michael Iafrate
Parkersburg, West Virginia

Further on Making Theological Sense of Younger Generations

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on December 15, 2010

Over at the blog of the Jesuit magazine America, I’ve put up a post dealing again with the “moralistic therapeutic deism” research and its place in helping or hindering theology from being situated today in Western experience.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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Recently I have had several spirited discussions with a colleague about what constitutes  community.  My colleague stated that she did not feel she could agree with the idea that community can occur within a secular event, like a rock concert.  However, this weekend I attended the Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds show at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas and had an experience that confirmed for me that community can occur within such an event.  It was different from the traditional DMB concert in that there was no band, it was just Dave Matthews, his good friend and guitarist for the band, Tim Reynolds, and two guitars.  The evening was very laid back and the audience stayed in their seats most of the show and enjoyed the music.

There were a few things that I noticed about the audience.  First, that the music crossed boundaries and united people of different ages, genders, and ethnicities.  The crowd ranged in age from teenagers to retirees and while the audience was largely caucasian, there were fans of multiple ethnicities and races present in the crowd.  Throughout the concert people sang together and demonstrated their passion for the music.  However, it was towards the end of the evening that something happened that I thought was quite remarkable.  As Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds performed the song “Tripping Billies,” the audience moved to their feet, and while belting out the song along with the performers, they held hands with each other.  Perfect strangers of varying ages, genders, and ethnicities came together at this show, holding each others hands, and singing together as a celebration of life.  I have to ask, if this is not holy community, then what is?

Christmas Songs You’ll Never Hear at Midnight Mass

Posted in: General by Mary McDonough on December 13, 2010

Perhaps it’s the six straight weeks of frigid, icy weather. Possibly the annual Christmas marketing frenzy is finally getting to me. Or maybe I’ve just completely lost my mind. Whatever the reason, I decided to make a list of the top ten Christmas songs you’ll never hear at Midnight Mass. So stoke up a fire, get out the eggnog and rejoice that you don’t have to incorporate any of these songs into your yuletide celebrations.

10. “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”: Believe it or not, this dumb little tune actually won 3 Grammys in 1958. The competition must have been pretty thin that year. I challenge anyone over the age of 8 to listen to this song in its entirety. Granted I have hyper-sensitive hearing but, with its shrill lyrics and ear piercing tones, I can’t get past the first 20 seconds.

9. “All I Want for Christmas is a Real Good Tan”: This song was recorded by Kenny Chesney and released in 2003 on his album by the same name. His voice is lovely, music’s kinda nice but the lyrics are … well … better than the redneck song (see number 5) but not by much.

8. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”: Originally recorded by The Irish Rovers in 1979, the song tells the story of how a grandmother gets drunk, forgets to take her medicine and goes outside into a snow storm where she gets run over and killed by Santa’s sleigh. The next day her widower is drinking, watching football and playing cards. Enough said.

7. “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”: Written by John Rox, this song was released in 1953 and sung by Gayla Peevey whose voice is so grating that I’d rather listen to someone scrapping their fingernails across a giant chalkboard. Whatever happened to pleasant little kids’ Christmas tunes like “The Little Drummer Boy”?

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Hallelujah Chorus: Rocking Versions

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on December 10, 2010

In time for the Christmas season, here is the rockingest version I know. I only wish there weren’t that ‘commercial’ in the middle of it. (If only Sister Rosetta Tharpe could jump out for a solo instead.)

And for a lovely bass treatment, see this:

And now that I can’t help myself, listen to this beautiful (and mind-blowingly dexterous) version on guitar by Tim Thompson:

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“Ave Maria” from Bono, Pavarotti, and Pink

Posted in: General,Secular Liturgies by Tom Beaudoin on December 8, 2010

Fans (of U2, anyway) apparently seem divided on whether this was a good idea, but after many viewings, I’m still intrigued. This is from 2003. From the crumpled sheet of paper Bono brings on stage with him, and at which he glances occasionally, I take it that he penned the words to this version.

And while we’re on the topic, here is Pink, trending more than a little liturgical, with her own rendition.

Somatica Divina 70: Jimmy Eat World, “Sweetness”

Posted in: Somatica Divina by Tom Beaudoin on December 7, 2010

Now, part three of a theological discussion of the musical and film “Passing Strange.” Part one is here, and part two here. I will discuss the Pilgrim’s deconversion from “ontological blackness” and the black church in the next post. In this one, I want to talk about his conversion to a life of desire more bracing than he had found in religion, even as it transmogrifies some elements of the black church in which he was raised.

After he leaves Los Angeles, he is off to Amsterdam, and the narrator Stew tells us:

“The pilgrim crossed both land and sea to find a cathedral home / Then two girl Jesuses colored him Lazarus and rolled away the stone”

Below are three clips featuring different relevant scenes from the show:

[1] The first is from the musical, when Youth/Pilgrim meets Marianna in Amsterdam, who gives him her keys.

[2] The second is from a special 2008 performance at Webster Hall in NYC, featuring an inaugural sexual encounter with Marianna and Renata and then, with two Dutch men (comparatively quite understated, or is it a joke?) Joop and Christophe, followed by Marianna’s giving him her keys.

[3] The third, from the musical, shows the breakdown of the relationship between Youth/Pilgrim and Renata. Here we see that the thrill of awakening to the patterns of his own passions is not enough for Youth/Pilgrim to carry him into “the real”, and he is peeling away from her “right when it’s starting to feel real.” These women have understood something of the real that he has yet to learn, but the conversion is underway. (That desire just needs refining, rehearsing, and much more dispossessing — which he will find in Berlin as he confronts more deeply the desire for blackness in his life.)

Here are the three clips:

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Following on from Part One of this brief series of meditations on the musical “Passing Strange,” here are a few further thoughts with respect to the “pilgrim’s” conversion to music.

When the “youth” (or “pilgrim”) goes to church with his mother, the skeptical, freethinking young man is taken up, as if for the first time, by the tornado-ish uplift of the black church at rhythm, rock, and roll. As the pastor remonstrates, the choir gesticulates, and the instruments articulate, Stew sings “Cruisin’ up and down that fretboard like it was the road to Damascus / If you don’t know the way, you better ask us / It was a mind expanding revelation” …
Here we are already made aware that the guitar is the agent of a sacred coming, the band the willing or unwilling place of a happening with a permanent meaning.

And then as the youth becomes taken up in the heady funnel of gospel groove, we hear the annunciation of the mutual and simultaneous submersion and subversion of “God” and “rock”:

“Music is the freight train in which God travels / Bang! It does its thang and then my soul unravels / It heals like holy water and it fights all my battles / Music is the freight train in which God travels”

Check out part of the scene here:

And then further down this “fretboard” that is the “road to Damascus” (Acts 9) the phenomenology of the pilgrim’s conversion to the healing (salvific/holy/graced/fundamentally claiming and compelling) dimension of rock:

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