I still can’t read music. Something in me resists that. But I can hear the song. I don’t think I am alone in that sensibility.
Specifically, I am talking about accordian lessons. An accordian is not your go-to instrument for someone trying to be cool. An accordion, (though it has been recently resuscitated as a respectable addition to an indie band) might be the very definition of NERD. You may need a pocket protector and thick glasses to qualify for lessons.
I recall vividly the day a door-to-door salesman arrived at the house holding a small case in one hand and a child-sized guitar in the other. My parents were intrigued and they invited the man in. He was selling music lessons of course, and the instruments were his prop. He would place the accordion and the guitar in the child’s hands and after a few awkward strains pronounce them a prodigy. The parents could choose to encourage this genius if they signed on for music lessons. My parents looked at each other and then they asked the fateful question. “Do you want to be famous with your brother and be on the Lawrence Welk show playing an accordion duet, or do you want to die in a ditch from drugs, as a hippie holding a guitar?” Of course I wanted the latter but was not allowed to say so. And so the accordion lessons began. They were group lessons, and they were on the other side of town. We financed an accordion over time.
It put a new face on Saturday mornings, and it added to the list of things already keeping us busy that I only much later figured out my parents invented so as to get some “adult time” in a large household of kids. We were the ones regularly promised off to help elderly neighbours gather leaves or shovel snow. I can still hear my mother’s chirpy voice on the telephone. “Oh yes, I’ll send one of them over. He will be happy to help. No, he won’t want any money for that….”
Saturday mornings now meant walking a big-ass accordion half-way across town. It was heavy and we were about ten years old. The walk was about two miles, and it meant trading off arms, and then swapping shirpa duty. My brother next closest in age took turns carrying the accordion. We had it timed out and there were stopping points along the way. One was a doughnut shop where we would share a honey cruller and a Coke for about the price of a dime. Then we would rub our achy arms and continue on our way.
The lessons had about a dozen kids lined up in a row. They were cheaper in bulk. The music was presented and the first kid had to play and so it went down the line. I became very stressed at that point with some kind of fight/flight mechanism kicking in. By the time they got to me, all I could see was a blur of dots dancing around on the page. I am not sure if this somehow relates to a form of dyslexia, but my survival response, was to just do what everyone else did. I never really looked at the notes. We would take the music home, my brother would learn the piece, and I would copy him.
All would be good until it came to the time to be tested in musical theory. They couldn’t figure out how I was learning the music if I could not read notes. Then they figured out that whatever mistake my brother would make on a weekly basis, I would faithfully regurgitate. Busted. I was full-on playing by ear. It might be a metaphor for my life.
The accordion did ultimately give me the gift of song, which I transposed later on to guitar, at my parents’ dismay. The accordion sat in the closet for years until it registered that no one particularly loved to play it. It was a relic of made-to-do that did not last. Still, I have a few things left over at the end of the day. An ear for music and a big dose of NERD.
I suppose the pain of having to learn polkas did stretch my musical tolerance to things not generally encountered in popular culture. My musical tastes therefore became somewhat eclectic. The particular joy of art class, was that we were allowed to bring in a 33 album of hot wax, to play during class. People brought in Led Zeppelin, Stevie Miller Band, Kiss and the like. I on the other hand brought in Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, and other unknowns. I was into Indie before indie was a thing. My classmates looked at me like I had two heads. But it did make me realize that music sometimes goes with the popular zeitgeist and sometimes is a protest against it. Folk music, music for the folks, could actually be a statement against the mindless pop that people deviated to simply because everyone else did. I have never been fond of copycat culture.
Music in the Church has proceeded along the same basic route. There are the established hymns we grew up with, that I actually love and have come to appreciate. Then there are choruses, which are mantra-like repetition premised on some kind of group hypnosis, and likely my least favourite. They are forgettable, and ever-changing. There is something about music for me at least, that speaks of things eternal, and in my mind the songs should not be so forgettable.
It brings me to something I have bumped into here and there, the stories behind popular hymns. They are sometimes soul wrenching. The music was bought with an earthly cost that rolls into the meaning of the song. Joseph M. Scriven, the man who wrote “What a Friend we have in Jesus” lived and ministered not far from where I grew up. He is buried in Bewdley, a little town on the western end of Rice Lake, and his experience has made me think the words of the song over. This guy was an itinerant self-styled preacher, whose target audience was the rough-and-tumble Irish Catholics who populated the area. The Irish were a tough relic of the Potato famine shipped over by Adam Scott, a practical developer of those times. Desperate people made good settlers. They dug in with what they knew, as a means to survive. Hence I am thinking the angst in that song comes from taking more than a few beatings for preaching at recalcitrant Catholics with a beer in one hand and a shillelagh in the other.
The point is that there is a precipice of experience where your life becomes a song. Think about it. A song is spontaneous, but it is also deeply distilled before it makes that spontaneous appearance. A song is emotionally boiled wisdom let loose into the ether. The best songs write themselves because they spring from life coupled with something beyond you, that you find when you reach out past yourself. As such all songs are inspirational.
David’s Psalms were songs that he first sung accompanied by his harp. Although the tune is long lost, the words remain recorded in the Bible. As sung praise, they had a tone and a depth and a reach that come with any expressive performance art. To write a song is to show yourself to God’s very heart, and in the process to see something of the heart of God. We often know the words and the tune because we recognize something the first time we sing along. Our own life experience can make a song relevant, in this age of everything in the Church always having to be relevant.
Songs express those deepest points of human experience. We range within all that life can throw at us and then give it up to God. There is an echo that comes from every human being before us who shared this common experience. In this way a good song is a way for the Church to come together and offer up their humanity to God.
There are many genres. Songs of hope, songs of lamentation, songs of exaltation, flat out rocking on just-because, and songs of introspection and searching. In Ephesians 5:19, Paul advises ust to come together, “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.” It’s a part of worship from day one, church songs.
There is something spiritual about making music that is beyond us. We all respond to a good song which brings people together as one heart and one voice. The songs slaves sang in the fields were an expression of hope and a lament, and their vision of freedom went beyond earthly bonds, as a spiritual quest. Those songs were called spirituals. I believe that such songs were placed in the human heart by God, the author of all hope. Spirituals remind us that God is Lord of the oppressed, and that the path of the spirit is one of emancipation. It releases you from human bondage, and from the shared bondage we all suffer from sin. Songs are a reminder of worthwhile and eternal things yet to be fulfilled.
Will there be music in Heaven? No doubt. What kind will it be? I expect it will be a collection that is a greatest hits of all the songs of the saints, old, new, rock and folk all hodge-podged together into one big hymn book.
There is that saying when someone has lost their song. Everyone knows what that means. I am happy to say I still have mine. The accordion is long forgotten, but at the end of it all, I can still hear the music. Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come. T’was grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home. I hope that I shall leave this earthly vale with a song on my lips and I hope it will be a song of praise.