American VI: Aint No Grave is coming

January 13, 2010 at 8:10 pm (Uncategorized)

Well, there’s now finally a release date on Johnny Cash’s final American album, VI: Aint No Grave. Feb. 26th. Mark Your Calendar.

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Three things about God and country music

August 7, 2009 at 5:02 pm (Uncategorized)

God and Country are Local+

God and Country are Extremely Personal+

God and Country are Truthful and Daring (Remember the game “truth or dare”?)

________________________________

God and Country are about People rather than systems.

Imagine that.

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Music that should be on your radar this year

August 7, 2009 at 4:58 pm (music criticism)

Buddy & Julie Miller “Written in Chalk”

Sam Baker “Mercy”

Ha Ha Tonka “Buckle in the Bible Belt”

Gurf Morlix “Last Exit to Happyland”

Slaid Cleaves “Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away”

Deer Tick “Deer Tick”

Lucinda Williams “Little Honey”

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Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction reviewed

June 16, 2008 at 9:56 pm (books) (, , , , , )

Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of a Nation

by Rodney Clapp

Westminster John Knox Press,

192 pages, February 2008, $16.95

Reviewed by Chris L. Rice (cross-posted at ADKF)

It is with a polemical flourish that Rodney Clapp introduces Johnny Cash as a man of American contradictions. His new book finds in Cash all the sentimental attachments and serious tensions associated with the American spirit. How could Johnny Cash be so profoundly Christian and patriotic, and yet so this-worldly, provocative, and controversial at the same time? Clapp finds answers in America’s music, poetry, history, politics, and social reality.

Country music, according to Clapp, is a culture of adaptations. Its instruments are multinational in origin, and “not as insular and provincial as its detractors think—or as it might imagine itself to be.”(pg. xv) I’m impressed with how well-versed Clapp is with country music overall, and his employment of it for understanding loneliness and community. He is up to date with all the best sources for biographical and discographical information on Cash’s life and music. From train songs to Cash’s plunge into the Native American experience, Clapp draws everything we need most from the Man in Black today.

I would be remiss not to mention this book’s theological emphasis. Clapp says that America is itself taken with theological claims, employing them in ways that make it hard to be a Christian in public. He puts it quite bluntly:

“To instrumentalize faith or take the living God’s “name in vain” is a violation of the First Commandment, and chief among the sins judged harshly in Scripture.” (pg. 60)

Far from being a Christian nation, America tries to use faith language for its own purposes.

Clapp is not afraid of fiery rhetoric, albeit with sincerity, exploring the themes of lonesomeness and community, holiness and hedonism, tradition and progress, guilt and innocence, and violence and peace. These pages are full of weighty ruminations, employing Walt Whitman one moment and Hank Williams the next, Johnny Cash again, and then pulling away to a brief history of southern democrats and the rise of the New Right in politics. One of my favorite sections is on the way the locomotive changed everything, from the way we eat to the way we mark time. His reading of Hermann Mellville’s Moby Dick in order to understand the American experience is priceless.

My deepest impression from this book is that there are profound implications to Christian faith and practice. The final chapter, “On Baptism, Patriotism, and Being a Christian in Public”, contains one of the best metaphors I’ve ever seen for being Christian and patriotic at the same time. Clapp says that nations are much like parents. We don’t choose them, but we love them. We may not approve of everything they do, and yet remain committed to them. (pg. 124) With the final paragraph, Clapp surrenders himself to the knowledge that his way of writing is not Cash-like. “He was a poet and not a critic.” (pg. 132) He says he is certain however, that they both are Christian and American. With this book, Rodney Clapp loads both those words with so much more meaning.

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Blind Willie Johnson, Trouble soon be over

March 26, 2008 at 7:50 pm (video)

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Mother Maybelle Carter-Wildwood Flower

February 14, 2008 at 4:12 pm (artist profile)

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one touch of nature

November 24, 2007 at 4:36 pm (lyrics, music criticism, songwriting) (, , , , , )

They just don’t write songs like “My Mother Was A Lady” anymore. Published in New York City in 1895 by Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern and first recorded by Jimmie Rodgers in 1928 as “Mother Was A Lady”, the song tells the story of a waitress, who having been insulted by two drummers in a fine restaurant, turns on her tormentors to let them know just who she is, who her mother is, and who her brother is. Here are the lyrics:

Two drummers sat at dinner in a grand hotel one day,
While dining they were chatting in a jolly sort of way;
And when a pretty waitress brought them a tray of food,
They spoke to her familiarly in a manner rather rude.

At first she did not notice them or make the least reply,
But one remark was passed that brought the teardrops to her eye;
And facing her tormentor, with cheeks now burning red,
She looked a perfect picture as appealingly she said:

“My mother was a lady like yours, you will allow,
And you may have a sister who needs protection now;
I’ve come to this great city to find a brother dear,
And you wouldn’t dare insult me, sir, if Jack were only here.”

It’s true, one touch of nature, it makes the whole world kin,
And ev’ry word she uttered seemed to touch their hearts within;
They sat there stunned and silent, until one cried in shame,
“Forgive me, Miss! I meant no harm, pray tell me what’s your name?”

She told him and he cried again, “I know your brother, too,
Why, we’ve been friends for many years and he often speaks of you;
He’ll be so glad to see you, and if you’ll only wed,
I’ll take you to him as my wife, for I love you since you said:

“My mother was a lady like yours, you will allow,
And you may have a sister, who needs protection now;
I’ve come to this great city to find a brother dear,
And you wouldn’t dare insult me, sir, if Jack were only here.”

In the chorus and the following verse the songwriter does two brilliant things. The waitress confronts the men with the realization that, far from being an object for them to use, she is a daughter, a sister, and a stranger in need of protection.

“My mother was a lady like yours, you will allow,
And you may have a sister who needs protection now;
I’ve come to this great city to find a brother dear,
And you wouldn’t dare insult me, sir, if Jack were only here.”

It’s true, one touch of nature, it makes the whole world kin,
And ev’ry word she uttered seemed to touch their hearts within;
They sat there stunned and silent, until one cried in shame,
“Forgive me, Miss! I meant no harm, pray tell me what’s your name?”

This “touch of nature” that “makes the whole world kin” seems largely alien to today’s songwriting. In our own day and age I wonder whether a hotel waitress would dare revealing such personal information, or whether two men today would even “get” the truth before them.

After this beautiful scene, the drummer who was ashamed immediately turns to wanting to help the young woman—by proposing marriage. Would this really work? Social structures have changed so much today, it’s hard to relate to the characters’ appeal to family and protection. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe persons are not completely autonomous and detached. Maybe it could happen again that a waitress would happen into a new city in search of her brother, and find him through a lewd drummer ashamed of himself, repentant, and helpful at the same time. In any case, the appeal to human community, to an original basis of relation, to respect and dignity in a disarming and enlightening way is refreshing to this listener’s ear.

I was first introduced to it through Johnny Cash’s version in the album “Personal File.” Cash slowed it way down from Jimmie Rodger’s version in 1928, emphasizing each tender moment. I gather from Jimmie Rodger’s recording that the original music had a livelier rhythm through out, that slowed only for the chorus and verse I highlighted.

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“That’s where Jesus Is” lyric

July 3, 2007 at 5:44 pm (lyrics)

 

Chris writes:

I heard this song last week performed live. There have recently been many politically tinged songs surmising Jesus’ take on White House decisions performed by folks like John Prine, Eliza Gilkyson, and Wil Kimbrough. Rarely will such songs surface within the Evangelical Christian subculture itself. So when I hear the Lost Dogs, a band made up of members of Daniel Amos, The Choir, and the 77s (all bands known as “Christian” bands) singing this song I feel you should take note. This is a band that’s well known and respected within churches and not as well known to the wider country music world, but I think their musical and lyrical ability warrants wider attention.

Song: “That’s Where Jesus Is” by the Lost Dogs
Album: The Lost Cabin and the Mystery Trees

He’s not sittin’ up in the White House

Not subject to your big debate

Keeps His hands completely off Wall Street

Don’t own stocks, bonds or Real Estate

He ain’t up droppin’ bombs on people

Or workin’ on a college degree

He tunes out all them radio blowhards

Can’t stand the networks and religious TV

Chorus:

That’s Jesus in the homeless faces

With the junkies in their livin’ hell

That’s Jesus with the drunks and in

The lonely places

The rest homes and prison cells

That’s where Jesus is

That’s where Jesus is

He don’t hug trees or kill ‘em

Or drive a particular car

Won’t help you write a big hit song

Don’t care how good lookin’ you are

And Jesus won’t be voting

He’s not your party crashin’ dog in this fight

Not a fan rootin’ for your home team

Don’t insure that your future is bright

Chorus:

That’s Jesus in the homeless faces

With the junkies in their livin’ hell

That’s Jesus with the drunks and in

The lonely places

The rest homes and prison cells

That’s where Jesus is

Where we ought to be

Here’s where Jesus works

Inside you and me

With the folks with AIDS

And the suffering kids

That’s where Jesus hangs

That’s where Jesus is

On the corner ‘round the prostitutes

Is where He’ll probably show

He gets invited to church sometimes

And sometimes He don’t go

Don’t care nuthin’ about your status

What you can or you can’t afford

Don’t care if you’re voted best actor

Not impressed with your big award

He’s not in the five star restaurant

Eating a six course meal

He’s not over on some golf course

Discussing the oil deal

He wants our voice (That’s where Jesus is)

That’s how He talks (That’s where Jesus is)

That’s how He walks (That’s where Jesus is)

And He wants our faith (That’s where Jesus is)

But there’s never enough

He wants our hearts (That’s where Jesus is)

That’s how He Loves

Chorus:

That’s where Jesus is

That’s where Jesus is

That’s where Jesus is

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Review of Tex Sample’s White Soul, David Fillingim

May 14, 2007 at 2:45 pm (Uncategorized)

After months of (intermittent) searching, I managed to dig up the review of Tex Sample’s book, White Soul: Country Music, the Church, and Working Americans (Abingdon Press, 1996) that I wrote for Journal of Country Music 19/2 (1997). Here it is:

Tex Sample, a sociologist and theologian at St. Paul School of Theology in
Kansas City, has spent the bulk of his distinguished career as an advocate for the working class. In White Soul, Sample turns his scholarly attention to country music as a window through which to gain understanding of the thought-world of poor and working-class white folks, whom mainline Protestantism, like the rest of the American cultural and academic elite, has tended either to ignore or to impugn. Combining autobiography, confession, oral history, sociological analysis, literary textual criticism, philosophical argument, and theological reflection, White Soul is a book Sample has been working toward all his life.
 

Sample tells his own story of growing up during the Great Depression in a working-class family in Mississippi, listening to and loving country music until he learned from his third grade music teacher that country was “bad music”—that classical music was good. While studying philosophy at Milisaps College, then studying and teaching theology in Boston, sought to put his southern working-class past behind him, taking on the sophistication of a New England intellectual. During his Boston days, while distributing fliers at a George Wallace rally as a white liberal political activist, Sample was converted. He recognized the disparity between his blue business suit and the blue collars of the folks he was trying to persuade, and came to the shocking realization that he no longer knew his own people. And when one fails to know one’s people, one fails to know oneself. One of the ways Sample has sought to make right his path since the early 1970s is by co-teaching a course on country music and working people. Sample’s thesis in this book is that country music embodies “white soul,” the values, struggles, contradictions, and yearnings experienced by the white working class—”the ‘essence’ of white working life,” he puts it. In country music’s irony about love and other ordinary tragedies, in the joyful abandon and moral defiance of the honky-tonk, in the “aggression” of a Hank Williams Jr., Sample discerns a stance of resistance toward a dominant order that dehumanizes working people, He sees the politics expressed in country music as “traditional” rather than “conservative”; i.e., working- class people tend to feel that government is unrelated to their daily lives. Country music, then, is best seen as apolitical— it expresses a “populist anarchism.” The working people Sample describes. prefer “to be left the hell alone,” desiring neither the large and potentially intrusive government of political liberals nor the free-market capitalism of political conservatives, which serves only the rich.

Sample notes in country music the protests of working people as they face dismal socioeconomic conditions—their resistance taking various forms. In Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” for example, Sample sees the biblical strategy of lament in the midst of hardship. And in Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time,” Sample analyzes humor as a device used to express the eschatological wish of beating the system. The emphasis on romantic love in country music is traced by Sample to the fact that, when economic prospects are dim, other areas of life have to be the locus of hope and joy. A song like “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” then, comes to be seen as a desperate yet courageous cry of hope for a better tomorrow when even love offers sparing possibilities.

Sample’s philosophical discussion of elite vs. working-class taste provides ammunition for those country music fans who feel a need to defend their aesthetics, and serves as the basis of his call for the church (read upper-middle-class mainline Protestantism) to open its ears and doors to the working class. I share Sample’s distress at the ecclesial (and cultural and academic) elite’s arrogance in matters aesthetic. But I have some problems with his discussion of church life. First, there’s no discussion of working- class Christianity. The rural and mill-town Baptists, Pentecostals, and others (even some Methodists) who share the socioeconomic and cultural milieu of country music’s traditionally working-class audience are virtually absent from Sample’s book. Clearly Sample’s aim is to convict and perhaps convert his mainline peers. But surely the working-class churches have something to teach us.

Second, there’s no discussion of the “sacred” music of the white working class—Southern Gospel. Granted, the academic neglect of Southern Gospel is almost universal: one can scour the literature of musicology, hymnology, ministry, theology, and popular culture (including country music) studies and find very few references to Southern Gospel music. But Sample’s position as a sociologist of religion and of the working class would seem to demand that he not repeat other scholars’ sins of omission in this area. Could Southern Gospel be too lowbrow even for Sample’s rural Mississippi Methodist heritage?

Sample includes an appendix entitled “A’Pickin’ and A’Singin’: A Short History of Country Music,” in which he follows and enlarges upon Bill Malone’s liner notes for the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Country Music. One should probably read the appendix first, because it shows both Sample’s grasp of country music’s history and his perspective on the voice of the working class. The appendix also hints at an apologia for Sample’s failure in the body of the book to distinguish the voices of those artists who more fully embody country music’s traditionally working-class social location, such as Hank Williams, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, etc., from those who represent country’s more recent catapult into the musical and cultural mainstream, such as Garth Brooks. Sample echoes Malone’s contention in Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers that it is a music’s use by the “folk” rather than the purity of its production that determines its authenticity.

Despite its minor flaws, White Soul is a highly valuable resource both to ministers and to others concerned about churches’ relationships with working class folks, and to country music scholars grappling with the music’s (and its surrounding culture’s) deeply rooted religiosity. Sample’s readings of individual songs and his anecdotes about the music’s functions in the lives of people he has known help to flesh out Curtis Ellison’s suggestion in Country Music Culture: From Hard times to Heaven that country music is inherently theological. And Sample’s own theological ruminations are, of course, informed and insightful. Sample also provides sociological support for what most interpreters of country music know—that country has traditionally held a mostly southern rural and working-class social location. White Soul is well-researched, well-reasoned, and well-written. It combines good scholarship with the author’s passionate involvement in his subject matter, resulting in a book that is a joy to read and, at times, downright inspiring. After reading Sample’s concluding story of a revelatory moment at the Starlite Club, one might be moved to believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is a honky-tonk.

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Musings on Folk Music, David Fillingim

May 11, 2007 at 1:37 pm (connections, music criticism)

I just finished reviewing the book Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie by Mark Allan Jackson (University Press of Mississippi, 2007) for the journal Studies in Popular Culture. I heartily recommend it to any Woody Guthrie fan and to anyone interested in learning more about the history of the American working-class in the first half of the twentieth century.

 

The book also tells the story of an important chapter in the evolution of American popular music. Guthrie’s career spans the period of the origins of the recording industry, which corresponded with the origins of music copyright laws. Guthrie was a transitional figure—the last of the breed of folksingers who functioned as documentary historians and even journalists. Before the rise and explosion in popularity of the mass media, news of catastrophic events like floods, storms, mining accidents, train wrecks, shipwrecks, etc., was often preserved and disseminated by traveling troubadours who told the stories in song. Such “Event Songs” were common in early recorded country music. Guthrie was a compiler of songs as well as a songwriter, and the folksongs he collected in his travels include numbers later attributed to A.P. Carter and Hank Williams

 

Though Carter is credited with the copyright for most of the Carter family songs, he probably composed very few if any of them. Because copyright laws were new, the first to register a song owned it. The treasure trove of traditional songs free for the picking is part of what inspired Victor Records to send Ralph Peer on his talent search through the deep South, during which both the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers were discovered in Bristol in 1927. Late in his life, when Carter was criticized for what was by now considered plagiarism, he replied, “I may not have wrote all those songs, but I wrote them all down.” This response not only shows the humor associated with country music culture, but also reflects the oral nature of traditional folk music. Writing the songs down was indeed a major turning point.

 

Guthrie also wrote many songs down—both songs he himself composed and songs he collected in his travels. Sometimes he combined the two activities by adding to traditional songs new verses that express Guthrie’s sympathy for the travails of working people, or by borrowing a traditional tune to tell a new story.

 

Guthrie’s best known song, of course, is “This Land is Your Land,” which he wrote as a protest song—an effort to deconstruct the message of sappy patriotism in Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Guthrie’s conviction was that the blessings of America were built on the backs of the working class, who weren’t exactly sharing in the benefits of those blessings. Guthrie was frustrated that most of the protest content was dropped from the song as it spread and grew in popularity, and that “This Land” became almost as much a patriotic anthem as the song Guthrie was trying to protest. The irony of singing about “the dust clouds rolling” in the third verse of the popularized version of “This Land” as if the dust clouds were part of America’s bounty has apparently been lost on millions of schoolchildren and their songleaders.

The story of “This Land” teaches another important lesson about folk music—a category that sometimes includes country music. The measure of folk music is not in the intentions of the artists/producers, but in the music’s appropriation and use by the folk. 

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