Here’s what I read from informally on Saturday night.
Some of you may have had the thought cross your mind, “What is spiritual about tragic death songs and why on earth would we at Jesus People want to celebrate them in a coffeehouse like this?” My friend David Fillingim of Shorter College in Georgia writes in his book on country music as theology that:
“Good country songs—especially “pain songs”—have the effect, ironically, of relieving pain. Setting one’s pessimism to music becomes a kind of optimism. Country music functions like the Psalms of Lament, providing a framework for raising or deepening misery and despair to the level of ultimate concern and then releasing them.” (pg. 155)
What we’re really enjoying here is a literary device common in folk and popular music that finds lessons in the tragic way that life often pans out. Two themes you might immediately see tonight are extreme apocalypse narratives (the End of one’s Days) and the tendency “to place all responsibility for virtue on women.” In many nineteenth century murder ballads “a young woman is usually killed by her lover for no clear reason, but perhaps for simply failing to uphold her virtue.” (p. 39) Those examples are just a taste. If you listen close and let the stories sink in, hopefully you’ll experience (maybe for the first time) the story telling power that previous generations of our people enjoyed in their popular music. Maybe we can learn a thing or two.
But why is this spiritual? How are matters of ultimate concern like love and death spiritual? Well, look at your Bible. Isn’t it full of grace in the midst of tragedy? How can we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus without the pain of His cross? These songs remind us not to be so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good. The characters in these songs are like you and me—capable of both terrible deeds and redemptive stories.
If nothing else you should come away with the appreciation that your life is not as bad or as short as it could be!
David Fillingim, Redneck Liberation: Country Music as Theology, Mercer, 2003.
You may also be interested to know that the evening was recorded for “research purposes”. Knowledge of that sure made me nervous. If I ever get a CD of it (and permissions) I’ll try to make some samples available. Oh, and David posted his 1997 review of Tex Sample’s book White Soul today.