Deeper thoughts on why making music matters to me: part one

For the past two nights I have found myself "full to overflowing" with tears of joy and gratitude for the people in my life who share making music with me.  It has been a little overwhelming, but profoundly true:  they bring me such joy, wisdom, encouragement, challenge, hope and beauty that I physically feel blessed.  And I am talking about a genuine, palpable encounter with all that is "true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse." (Philippians 4:8)

So, once again I've started to think carefully about what seems to be taking place in these musical experiences and I sense that there are three broad truths:  I experience music as prayer, I enter into music making as a community of support and I share music as one expression of Christ's compassion.  And here's what I mean by prayer - community - and compassion...

Music as prayer:  I still remember vividly the first time I saw the Beatles on "the Ed Sullivan Show."  It was Sunday, February 9th 1964.  Like Little Steven Van Zandt of Springsteen's E Street Band, this was the moment when the heavens opened for me and life began to make sense.  I have often spoken of this time as my personal Pentecost - a time when the Holy Spirit communicated God's love with me in such a profound way that I was empowered to communicate that love to other's too - for that's what "speaking in tongues" is all about.  Sharing the grace of God in ways that communicate with others outside your tribe, group or clan.  Music - specifically the joyful and creative music of the Beatles - opened my eyes, heart and soul to what was best in life.  And at the same time, it gave me a way to connect my experience of joy and creativity with others.

A child asked me this morning, "So how long have you been playing bass guitar?" and I was reminded that I've been working at this bad boy for 45 years!  And for most of the 45 years, playing and sharing music has been a form of prayer for me - a way of being in communion with both the holy and the human - that has five discrete but inter-related parts.

+ One is ecstatic communion with the sacred - like a Sufi dancer - where playing music takes me into "a zone." In that place I am at peace and at rest with myself and the world while  also being completely engaged with the world, too.  It is a form of mystical abandon that can only be pointed towards with poems and pictures because it is totally experiential.  Think Coltrane or the Grateful Dead or Phish or trance or some ambient music and you're getting close!

+ A second prayer reality for me in music takes place through lament.  As Bono once said, "The Psalms are the first blues songs and King David the original blues wailer" in our tradition. The blues have always helped me express and experience the pain of the world, the sorrow of my life and the wounds of creation. The blues also help me share this sorrow with others and enter their hurt, too because sacred lament is never privatized and always a shared reality.  Think Miles Davis, Eric Clapton, BB King, the Allman Brothers, Nirvana or Billie Holiday and you're headed in the right direction here.

+ A third aspect of music as prayer happens for me through songs that point towards a "prophetic critique" of the world.  Like Isaiah's alternative vision of God's peaceful kingdom or Hosea's challenge to let "justice roll down like waters," there are musical equivalents that pose a challenge to the fear, greed and injustice of the status quo. There are folk protest songs - the most obvious connection with the Biblical prophets - but also trickster songs - think Zappa, Beck, Gil Scott-Heron and the best rappers - as well as portraits of an alternative community as found in the works of Sweet Honey in the Rock and Holly Near, the best of Jewel and Sarah McLachlan as well as the Eels and Jefferson Airplane.

+ The fourth prayerful truth that I've discerned in music is best expressed by the word "playful" - it has something to do with becoming my best self - learning NOT to take myself (or any one else) too seriously.  There is an aspect of joy here - and rest, too.  Learning to incarnate my broken but beautiful body with dance grooves is prayer in this sense.  Laughing at my foibles, too is a Zen-like prayer - and this is often where rap and country music shines.  Eminem is brilliant - so is Brad Paisley and Garth Brooks - and let's not forget the "shake your booty" brilliance of Cameo and Sly and the Family Stone.

+ And the fifth way I find music prayerful comes in the clearly "spiritual" songs that break into culture from time to time.  "Day by Day" and "O Happy Day" cut through the darkness on popular AM radio back in the day like true and holy light.  Same with some of the songs of Brooks and Dunn and Martina McBride.  Again, country music isn't afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve and I have been blessed over and over again by this truth.  Just dig the way that old tough Southern white guy, Trace Adkins, sings about surrendering to God in "Baptize Me in That Muddy Water" while being backed up with a Black gospel choir. Talk about counter-cultural! Or the way Brad Paisley challenges 21st stereotypes with his songs and videos.

There is more to say, but that's enough for today. Tomorrow I'll explore a little bit of what I mean and experience in music as a supportive community as well as a way of sharing something of Christ's compassion.  For now let me just return thanks to God for those songs and musicians:  my life has been changed. (Thanks, too, to Ben Garver's camera work over the years!  You rock my man!)


Black Pete said…
This is very fine, James. It has also catalyzed me to reflect on my own relationship with music, which may appear in a certain other blog sometime.
RJ said…
I hope so, Peter. I will look forward to it.

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