This collections of tunes is going to be both more challenging and eclectic than yesterday's electric/rock and roll songs of the spirit - for two reasons. While I was driven to learn to play the guitar after seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in February 1964, I have mostly played acoustic music over the years. (BTW here is the song that set it all up for me: a true rock'n'roll Pentecost!)
So, first of all, there is a tension going on when it comes to songs of the spirit: I LOVE electric songs - everything from Garth Brooks' "We Shall Be Free" and Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" to the work of Tears for Fears, Talking Heads, Gil Scott Heron, the Allman Brothers, the Dead, the Police, the Stones, the Clash, the Kinks, Cinematic Orchestra, Clapton as well as Springsteen and the E Street Band - but I mostly PLAY acoustic country blues.
In fact, while the Beatles set my soul on fire, it was sitting in a small New Haven coffee house in 1968 listening to Mike Cooney play a version of Dave Von Ronk's setting of the Rev. Gary Davis', "Cocaine Blues" that pushed me over the edge into serious guitar playing. (I couldn't find a youtube version of "cocaine," but this song, "Sunday Street," is pure genius and my preferred go to doodle...)
So, there is this real gap between my practice and my experience (something the liberation theologians have a lot to say about) no matter how many garage and rock bands I've played in over the past 40 years. That's the first thing - and the second is that while I LOVE rock - and play it LOTS - I am really probably better at the softer acoustic stuff. That's why most of my own arrangements end up more like CSNY or James Taylor than the Dead - although this Dead set-up is almost perfect to my ear cuz it's got EVERYTHING I need in an arrangement.
Ok, that's a waaaay to long set up, but as the liberation folk also teach: context is half the story! So let me give this a try...
TOP SEVEN WOODEN SONGS OF THE SPIRIT:
+ Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen but performed by Jeff Buckley: this is the killer interpretation that speaks of depth, grace, suffering, God's presence and absence all at the same time. And Buckley takes the organic beauty of Cohen's poetry and marries heaven to earth in both his guitar playing and anguished singing. I can not think of a finer secular song that exposes God's still speaking voice better than this... it brings biblical imagery into real life, it exposes human brokenness without judgment and always points towards the Lord's grace just beyond our vision and grasp. It is perfect.
+ Angel by Sara McLachlan: there are many incarnations of this song - from the movie version to the way it was done at the Lilith Fair - and each one is deeply moving to me. At the heart of this song is what it feels like to ache for God's grace - it is about longing and trust - as well as the sweet assurance of God's presence every now and again "in the arms of an angel." Sure, it is a love song, but as George Harrison noted all earthly love songs also point to a higher love. (please forgive the dualism for what I take from this is that the spirit and flesh are connected rather than divided.) I would add Jewel's "Hands" to this type of song - brilliant in its own way - along with a ton of Leonard Cohen songs, too.
+ Woodstock by Joni Mitchell: both Joni's original version and this stellar remake by Eva Cassidy capture what is for me a prayer for healing: listen to the longing in both the lyrics and the music. A child of God is aching to get back to the garden - to a time of innocence - to a life without sin. This isn't a celebration of the naive dreams of hippies, rather it is a sober song that sadly confesses we cannot be restored to wholeness without a love greater than ourselves. Into this category of song I would add the work of Carrie Newcomber as she carries on the torch and also much of the work of Bob Franke. (I was going to give him a spot by himself but ran out of space. Check out "Thanksgiving, Eve," "Hard Love" and "Beggars to God." Brilliant - and a fun blues player, too!)
+ Peace on Earth by U2: there is not a more honest prayer of despair in all of contemporary music than this little song from the Irish rockers. Written after the cruel and cowardly bombing in Omagh, it begs God for a healing: Jesus can you spare a dime or throw a drowning man a line? It simultaneously mocks the sentimental and elusive Christmastime promises of peace on earth while making it vividly clear that fear - not God - is driving us to destruction. Another weeping prophetic lament.
+ We Shall Overcome by Pete Seeger: how could I not include the grand daddy of folk music? This song has changed the world - and created 3 or 4 generations of singers who are also committed to deepening the change! What I think is important here is the use of very old African American hymnody - with its symbolic calls for freedom - in a contemporary context. Seeger makes the song REAL both by changing the words to fit the civil rights struggle of the 50s and 60s, but also giving future singers the ability to keep the change happening by doing likewise. (I would want to include most of Dylan's 60s tunes here, too, especially "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A'Changin'.)
Two brilliant derivatives of what this type of singing can do include Richie Haven's reinterpretation of "Motherless Child" at Woodstock 40 years ago and Springsteen's reworking of his own material during the "Seeger Sessions" tour. The story goes that after all the rain and traffic congestion, the opening acts at Woodstock were unavailable so Richie Havens was encouraged to go out and play for the crowd - and he did for 90 minutes. When he left the stage, they still needed more music so... he went back and improvised this rendition of an old gospel tune with some new twists...
About 40 years later, during a tour dedicated to introducing some of the great gospel and protests songs to a new generation, Springsteen took "We Shall Overcome" to a whole new level. And what is fascinating to me is that in doing this he found another layer of creativity and passion for his own music. Just listen to the way he reinterprets his own former sparse New Jersey lament, "Open All Night," into something close to a beat poet rant for the 21st century with the benefit of a killer dixieland band to top it all off! This is all about overcoming... finding your true voice... living into God's image!
(OMG do I LOVE that song... I got to do a version much like this in our Tucson band's farewell before we moved to our new gig in Massachusetts: a whole big band with GREAT women singers, too boot!)
+ Blackbird by the Beatles: a gentle love song written to the Civil Rights movement by Paul McCartney that countless people sense is an invitation from the sacred to live into their best selves. Pure beauty - and beauty, truth and compassion are the ways God is most clearly encountered - so this has to be included. I am particularly fond of the Gaelic resetting of the Beatles' tune by Julie Fowlis. Again, this is perfect.
+ Fire and Rain by James Taylor: is a prayer and a story and an invitation to grace done with finesse and tenderness. There are a hundred other songs - by Dave Matthews, Lucinda Williams, Arlo Gutherie, all the great southern blues guitarists as well as Dylan - but Taylor seems to bring them all together with care and respect. He borrows from them all but never steals - and I think mostly brings his humility and humanity to God much like we sing in "Just As I Am" or even "Precious Lord."
Well, that's a lot of music - and a lot of rambling - but I think it cuts to the chase for me. Two additional notes: over the weekend I will try to summarize how I evaluate these tunes given a theological context I've been working with in Harvey Cox's Feast of Fools. I haven't even brought up the whole realm of meditative music - mostly instrumentals - that are soul healing, too. But here's one of my favorites to bring this to a close.
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