A Musical Exploration of the American Dilemma
“When I’m laid to rest beneath the trees, from sorrow then retire, I’ll rest in hope of the bright morn, I’ll awake in the old church yard.” Heartfelt, mournful melodies like these, taken from the bluegrass song, “The Old Churchyard,” were long the primary cultural expressions of rural America. The whine of the harmonica and mournful twang of a steel guitar arose in the Southern heights of Appalachia. A deeply religious, rural, hardworking, poor, and largely white group of people formed one of America’s distinct forms of music. Similarly, gospel music, with its running melodies, vocal complexity, and soaring tones comes from the Deep South. This time a deeply religious, rural, hardworking, poor, and largely Black group of people form a distinct American cultural expression. Music like bluegrass, gospel, and folk helped comprise the original cultural contributions of the American people. Compare these musical ingredients: Christian, impoverished, and rural. Religion is its vitality, and its erosion, evidenced by a loss of the language of scripture and piety in music and literature, signals a further erosion of what it is to be American. The glue that held Americans together, what James K.A. Smith calls “cultural liturgies,” is peeling apart, leaving behind not a nation but a mere political expediency, polarized, combative, and morally bankrupt. As old forms of life pass away we should examine folk music and literature to ponder the causes and consequences of this fraying.
An American Language
Why has folk music, from the sacred to the secular, settled so deeply in the American soul? “A tune,” as Roger Scruton describes this type of melody, “is bounded at each end, contains a distinctive and recognizable internal order, and is regarded as a complete individual, to be memorized as a whole,” all of which arises from setting, dance, and “the harmonic relations of the tones that they contain.” Folk music contains all three sources of tune, and “the American songbook” showcases “a tradition of popular music centred on the tune,” as the sacred hymns have influenced the profane. Think of how quickly the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was adopted into the American psyche. Employing the imagery of salvation, the song bellows forth:
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat.
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat;
Oh, be swift my soul to answer Him.
This Union Army marching hymn sanctified the bloodiest, bitterest period in American history. This civil struggle initially over slavery and the union was recast as an epic biblical tale of God’s righteousness and His triumph over evil, with Abraham Lincoln as His chosen hero. Crucially, the song informed Lincoln's thinking of the war as divine punishment on North and South for the sin of slavery. Such theological understanding was ubiquitous. “Both” sides, Lincoln said, “read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other.” North and South understood their respective fights in fundamentally Biblical terms. Julia Ward Howe's poem, paired with a melody from “John Brown’s Body,” was widely sung in Union armies after Gettysburg. Its unrivalled status linked the war to abolition via theology, beginning with martial glory yet ending with Calvary and emancipation: As Christ died to make men holy, let us die to make men free. Having “helped transform the war’s meaning into a moral crusade for freedom,” Harry Stout notes, “the American song to emerge from the Civil War” turned “the war into something holy, hence beyond moral critique” with an Old Testament call to arms. Crucially, the song has been so influential in American history precisely because it is a tune. It shares the features described above by Scruton. Just as it is so easily remembered, often even stuck in our heads, so it is easily embedded in our cultural understanding of the war.
This union of scripture and civics through song is not exclusive to the United States. “Folksong traditions of Europe and America are similar,” Scruton notes, as “are many liturgical traditions.” Consider the hymnbook: it shows clearly why tunes are needed. The strophic tune is the companion of the strophic verse form. And whether the verse tells a story or praises God, it can be easily memorised only if it has a repeatable pattern: and this pattern is most easily memorised when it is sung. This paradigmatic use of a tune occurs usually in songs, with or without chorus. Its beginning, middle and end mirror the beginning, middle and end of verse stanzas. It has a form analogous to a sentence—a clear statement of our progression through the narrative, which advances by rhythmic and sentential repetition. A tune can bear being repeated many times without variation. And if it is so rarely varied, this is partly due to its solid and repeatable character, which resists the attempt to dissolve it in a narrative larger than itself. The tune shelters the point of each narration, emphasizing it by insulating it. This fostered the formation of cultural liturgy.
These grassroots melodies, by their very structure, tend to a common liturgy that informs the public square. Scruton gives the Book of Common Prayer, the Psalter, and later the English Hymnal, as examples of music edifying civic life. The role of folk music in the United States is much the same. It tethers and civilizes a people. Its scriptural inflection inspires calls for greater public virtue. As these traditional American anthems have regressed from the public square, they have been replaced by a popular culture void of universal popularity. Mark Steyn notes the transition: “hardly any individual examples of popular culture are that popular.” Contemporary styles are “not as popular as Puccini was ninety years ago, or Franz Lehár a century ago, or Offenbach. Popular culture has dwindled down to a bunch of mutually hostile unpopular popular cultures. The only thing about it that’s universally popular is its overall undemanding aesthetic.” Such aesthetic miseducation, without the grassroots of traditions, low and high, local and cosmopolitan, form us, yes, but into what? Allan Bloom had an apt phrase for the consequence: “souls without longing.”
Local traditions, such as bluegrass and gospel, educate and inspire virtue, regardless of racial identity or economic status. They embody a common ritual and language, shared by all, but rooted in a particular experience of American life. It is important to note that the development of the variegated American culture often occurred in the rural parts of the continent. The lines between what was the United States and what were unsettled lands imprinted themselves on the American public imagination. Here, Frederick Jackson Turner notes, is where the human spirit was driven to its absolute limit, and the nation’s spirit was found and cultivated. Many books later defined as canonical to American literature did not come from urban wealth (though these exist as well). The Grapes of Wrath, As I Lay Dying, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and O Pioneers arose from the dirt floors of sod houses. They were written in the deeply religious language of America’s rugged agrarians. The depths of suffering experienced by these sojourners, especially by the enslaved, could only be described within the thematic dramas of Christian belief. In depicting the fear of a hurricane, Zora Neale Hurston, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, writes:
The wind came back with triple fury and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.
Note the God-fearing language. Such American vernacular was used in literature and music alike. The music of the American tradition is composed of poems of brilliant description, unmatched emotional intelligence, and common vernacular. The shared religiously-inflected language is the defining feature of American bluegrass, gospel, and folk music alike. Historically, when American people speak about death, about being left behind, about losing everything, they were talking about God. American language uses Christian themes and vocabulary to situate itself within the drama of salvation. Consider one of America’s most famous sermons from John Winthrop. On the occasion of New England’s founding in 1630 he stated, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city on a hill.” The sermon likens the founding of the colony to the establishment of Jerusalem, the resting place of the Tabernacle in the Old Testament. The same holds true in America’s folk music. If the listener is going to feel the words, “why wait for me for I’m anxious to go to that haven of rest,” then they will need to know that grammar. They will need to be born and bred in these churchyards with old simple headstones. They will need to know the lonely cry of the wind running through whitewashed wooden church doors. One will need to know men and women made hard by years of poverty, of strife. The same men and women who return to those old graves, who fill those churches. Their music helped form their souls. Scripture informed music, and the music did its own preaching.
A common, if unwieldy and innovative, religiosity tethered Americans for several centuries and manifested in a deeply held, devoutly practiced Christian faith. Early observers of an infant America acknowledged the same. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that America seemed held in a strange battle between virtue and vice. A complex, shifting image of the country’s identity was forming from its very beginning. This pull among power, politics, money, and Christian morality held each American in its grasp; these secular drives were held just at bay by better angels. In some cases still it served as the impetus for dismantling our demons. What power do slavery, racism, poverty, and war have against the Cross and its lessons of humility, sacrifice, and love?
Therefore the American vernacular was not only a cultural touchstone, but also a rallying cry to oppose injustice. Visionaries such as Martin Luther King Jr. clearly knew it was this tradition that could be called upon to right the nation's historic wrongs. If justice would roll down like mighty waters, then Americans would respond to Christian virtue. But it was a religiosity that came from the people, maintained not by kings and bishops but by the people—hardworking, kind, if otherwise unexceptional people. This was the gamble they made: that America could be kept alive in the unassuming faith of its people.
Consider the example of Fannie Lou Hamer. In August of 1962, eighteen local people from Sunflower County, Mississippi, including Mrs. Hamer, traveled by bus from Ruleville to the courthouse in Indianola intending to vote. With armed white men milling about the courthouse, the group entered the registrar’s office to complete their voter registration forms. Mrs. Hamer was the first to enter. When the group began heading home, the bus—an old school bus then used to transport cotton pickers to the fields—was pulled over by the Indianola police at the edge of town. The driver was arrested for driving “the wrong color.” Fear rose among the passengers. In the midst of the fear and uncertainty, however, Mrs. Hamer began to sing, raising her powerful voice first in church, then movement songs. The well-known melodies calmed the other passengers. Mrs. Hamer’s voice continued to be a source of mobilization in Mississippi and across the South in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. She embodied what some of the American Founders desired, yet never envisioned: her music inspired by scripture to claim due justice for all.
An Identity on the Edge
Times have changed. Look to the vociferous news cycle or our relentless Twitter feeds and see a very different picture. Angry Americans stormed the Captitol to smear feces on the walls, deface monuments, threaten the lives of our duly-elected leadership, and directly cause the deaths of five people. This being the latest and most grotesque of a year littered with public spectacles of violence, it is fair to ask how it happened. Some will undoubtedly answer that America has always been this way. We have always been violent, racist, selfish, and, most of all, angry. I agree. We have a history of slavery, legal and extralegal discrimination, wars, and keen interest in self-determination. Yet we also have a history of denouncing injustices, committing to higher ideals, remembering a uniquely Christian call to humility and reconciliation, and speaking to one another in a common Christian language.
Our American-ness has always been balanced between our virtues and our vices. It was our faith that called us to these virtues. It was our faith that allowed us to overcome our national sins. When Martin Luther King told us that he had a dream, it was from Scripture he quoted on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In his 1968 speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” a title drawing on Moses’ assent to Mount Sinai, he spoke on behalf of the city sanitation workers in Memphis, stating: “Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.” He ended his final speech with the line, “Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord,” alluding to the Civil War tune, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In this prophetic call for social justice, he continued a political tradition stretching back before the Founding.
When George Washington spoke to us about the institution of a national day of thanks, it was the God of Biblical faith who merited our thanks. As he told the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, alluding to Micah 4:4, “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.” Yet at this moment, this civil religion is waning. The United States, like most nations of the West, is experiencing a decline in belief. More and more people have a loose and undefined belief in some higher power that has few views on much of anything save the virtue of “niceness.”
We have forgotten the Christian faith which calls us to love our neighbor, to pray for those who persecute us, to love our enemies, to confess our sins, and to lay down our lives for our friends. In forgetting this faith, we forget who we are. Our shared identity was molded in the songs of churches, now museums. We could speak to one another through allusions from a shared Bible, now gathering dust in attics and storage units. Our music and literature certainly testify to this shift. Books sitting at the top of bestseller lists are largely political exposés and screeds detailing why the other side is wrong. In forgetting the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob we lost the God who informed the works of Hawthorne and Melville, Steinbeck and Faulkner, Hurston, Cather, and O’Connor.
We now lack the scriptural language that inspired our forebears to sacrifice for posterity, sojourn and innovate in new lands, cherish their neighbors, and seek justice tempered by mercy. We have rejected our inheritance of shared songs, part of our stock of stories with ennobling truths. Without scripture and music, there goes, not just the neighborhood, but the Capitol as well. The ties that bind are withering and we are reaping the consequences of our religious decline. Protestors storming the Capitol with signs saying “God Bless America” believe in a god who does not object to violence, murder, or racism, an idol of their own creation. Our culture has teetered on the edge of a knife. I concur that we have always been a young, zealous, and politically volatile nation. However, we have not always been morally bankrupt and culturally vacuous. That is the new state of the union, one with disastrous consequences.
Still, things are not entirely so bleak. There are whispers of recognition of and dissatisfaction with this vacuum, seen in the recent contemporary interest in folk music. When movies, literature, or music harken back to these hymns of American identity, they are evidently popular. The movie, Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), impacted folk with effect akin to the Dueling Banjos scene in Deliverance (1972), which renewed interest in Southern stringed instruments and Georgian culture.The popularity of the Coen Brothers' film, especially its soundtrack, “had a major impact on the bluegrass world,” says bluegrass composer, Dan Tyminski. Concert tickets sold more while venues enlarged, tours began, as “the movie’s wild popularity cracked open a place for bluegrass, folk, and other acoustic music in the mainstream.” Similarly, Kanye West’s 2019 album, Jesus is King, won the Top Christian Album and Top Gospel Album awards at the 2021 Billboard Music Award, received nominations for the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards, and stood at the top of the US Billboard 200, topping charts in many other countries as well. Described by West as “an expression of the gospel,” the album features gospel choirs, quaking demons, and moral injunctions. The rapper confused his reviewers and appealed to his listeners with lines like: “Get your family, ya’ll hold hands and pray.” The popularity of these movies and songs illustrate that they appeal to something desperately wanted and needed. They remind us, namely, there was something we shared across our divisions.
Despite these contemporary interests in folk music and Christian themes, there is no doubt that these themes, which once permeated music, literature, and popular culture broadly, have receded. Their erosion, evidenced in a decline of scriptural language, a loss of folk music, a lack of public religious dialogue, and remnant interest in a largely bygone cultural expression has left the American people lacking one of the very things that united them. This house stands divided, a division rooted in American irreligiosity. So long as this loss continues, our divisions will deepen. Those who hold to Christianity will find themselves pitted more and more against those who do not and even against others who do. These two sides will vie for power and influence with little consideration for what serves the common good. Yet, we should not despair. So long as there are some, even a few, Americans who remember those old church songs and, above all, their teachings, hope remains. These lessons can rejuvenate our common identity and remind us of the many things we owe to our neighbors. We may yet sing: Let’s go down in the river to pray.
Taylor, Marshall W. (1883). A Collection of Revival Hymns and Plantation Melodies. Marshall W. Taylor & W. Echols. ↩︎
McCray, James (1986). Developing Church Choir Director. The Choral Journal 26:8. ↩︎
Roach, Ron. (2014). "The Story of Bluegrass:" Carlton Haney,Bill Monroe, and Redemption Drama in the First Bluegrass Festivals. Journal of Appalachian Studies. 20:1. ↩︎
Koskoff, Ellen, Ed. (2003) The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada. (pp 629-636. ↩︎
See James K.A. Smith, Cultural Liturgies Trilogy, Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom, and Awaiting the King (Baker Academic Publishing), http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/books/cultural-liturgies-boxed-set/391540. ↩︎
Scruton, Sir Roger, (2018) “Chapter 1: What is a Tune?” Music as an Art London: Bloomsbury, reprinted at Roger-Scruton.com, www.roger-scruton.com/about/music/understanding-music/172-what-is-a-tune. ↩︎
Howe, Julia Ward (1862) “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” https://hymnary.org/text/mine_eyes_have_seen_the_glory ↩︎
President Abraham Linoln, Second Inaugural Address (1865), available online. See also Greg Weiner, “Lincoln’s Faith,” Encounter Books Feature, 20 June 2019, www.encounterbooks.com/features/lincolns-faith/. ↩︎
See James P. Byrd, A Holy Baptism of Fire: The Bible and the American Civil War (New York: OUP, 2021). ↩︎
Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), 115-116. ↩︎
Scruton, Sir Roger (2018) ↩︎
Steyn, Mark (2007), “Twenty Years Ago Today,” The New Criterion, https://newcriterion.com/issues/2007/11/twenty-years-ago-today. ↩︎
Bloom, Allan (1987), The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, forward by Saul Bellow ,New York: Simon & Schuster, 79-80. ↩︎
Jackson, Frederick Turner. (1893). The Significance of the Frontier in American History. Read at the meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago 12th of July 1893 during the World Columbian Expedition. ↩︎
Hurston, Z. N. (1969). Their eyes were watching God. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publ. ↩︎
Rodgers, Daniel T. (2018) As A City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press. ↩︎
Taylor, Marshall W. (1883). A Collection of Revival Hymns and Plantation Melodies Marshall W. Taylor & W. Echols. ↩︎
Tocqueville, A. D. (1994). Democracy in America. New York: Knopf. ↩︎
Tessitore, A. (2002). Alexis de Tocqueville on the Natural State of Religion in the Age of Democracy. The Journal of Politics, 64(4), 1137-1152. ↩︎
King, M. L., Jr. (2009). “I Have a Dream” (1963). African American Studies Center. ↩︎
Tessitore, A (2002). ↩︎
Meacham, J. (2019). The Soul of America: the Battle for Our Better Angels (New York, NY: Random House, 2018). ↩︎
King, M. L., Jr. (2009). “I Have a Dream” (1963). African American Studies Center. ↩︎
King Jr, Martin Luter (1968) “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” 3 April 1968, Memphis, Tennessee, transcript in “Martin Luther King's final speech: 'I've been to the mountaintop' -- The full text,” ABC News, 3 April 2013, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/martin-luther-kings-final-speech-ive-mountaintop-full/story?id=18872817 . ↩︎
Thanksgiving Proclamation, 3 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0091. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4, 8 September 1789 – 15 January 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 131–132.] ↩︎
George Washington, “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-06-02-0135.. ↩︎
Zuckerman, P. (n.d.). The Rise of the Nones. Theism and Public Policy. ↩︎
Allison Hussey, “Fifteen Years Later, Bluegrass Is Still Reeling from O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Indy Week, 28 September 2001, https://indyweek.com/music/features/fifteen-years-later-bluegrass-still-reeling-o-brother-art-thou/. ↩︎
Klikenberg, Brenden. (October 28, 2019). “Kanye West Reaches for Greatness But Falls Short on Jesus Is King”. Rolling Stone, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/kanye-wests-jesus-is-king-904921/ ↩︎
Kilkenberg, Brenden(2019). ↩︎
Featured image: Photo (1946) by Russell Lee via Wikimedia Commons.
Emma Mutch is a PhD Candidate in Animal Genetics at the University of Edinburgh. She is also a Researcher in Theology at the University of Glasgow. A native of Colorado, she now lives in equally sunny Scotland. She invites you to follow her on Twitter.