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April 2014
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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:

“and then the chilly church pews got suddenly warm
and the notes of the music began to swarm
and then bridges of spirit began to form
subjecting and connecting everyone to what they needed to feel
this is how a church made way for the real
waiting and vibrating for more than Christ’s sake
as the organ started doin’ that earthquake shake
sound like the speakers are startin’ to break
and time itself slipped into earth’s crack…”

and then the “pilgrim” declares:

“Mom, I can feel the spirit and it’s real! Check it out: Reverend Jones is singing the blues! And what we’re doing is call and response — we brought it over from the Motherland! Mom, we’re just a tribe of bluesy Africans and church ain’t nothin’ but rock and roll!”

As Stew will soon narrate:

“And so it was in church he began his search down a road that would not bend / In stained glass light the pilgrim went in search of a song that would not end”

Or as Stew states later in the show: “”You know like when music goes right over your head and straight into that part of you which is most beautiful? I mean when your mind can’t grasp the music’s math and your heartbeat has no clue, your pilgrim soul follows the melody’s path, looks back and says thank you, brother, thank you for this fugue. And it just is and is and is and is so much that whether you get it or not – it’s got.”

And in this “waiting and vibrating for more than Christ’s sake,” there need be no cancellation of anything traditional in the claim to a salvation in Christ, but to and through it is superadded a “more than”: a “waiting and vibrating” known in and as music, in what puts the pilgrim in touch with “the real.” Christ comes for the real, and so does the pilgrim, and so comes music. And thus “music is the freight train in which God travels.” Hence the conversion of the pilgrim to music as (his) “God.” But not without the deconversion as an ironic knowingness: “What we’re doing is call and response — we brought it over from the Motherland! Mom, we’re just a tribe of bluesy Africans and church ain’t nothin’ but rock and roll!” What emotional and relational passages of letting-go are contained therein, we are not really shown. But of such soul-deep shifts are deconversions made, and conversions initiated. What is worth living for is happening through the music that presents itself as only Christian. The pilgrim is learning otherwise.

More to come…

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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