Tuesday Evening Melody: Saturday Night Tavern Storytelling with Over The Rhine’s “All My Favorite People”
by Marcy Bain, guest contributor
As a Presbyterian minister I spend a great deal of time in sanctuary spaces, but I confess that my favorite spiritual music is not always sung by the Sunday morning choir. Often it’s sung in Saturday night taverns by mainstream folk artists like Over The Rhine, Patty Griffin, and Jennifer Knapp. Other artists shuffle in and out of my iPod rotation, but when I seek spiritual comforts, to these musical mainstays I always return.
The other day I was trying to locate that thing, that ineffable quality in their music that draws me into sacred space, and it proved a daunting task. Like a flash of creative insight, or a burst of beauty that wrecks the senses, I can’t really put my finger on the pulse of such mysteries; I can only receive them when they come to me. And so it is with these artists and their songs.
However, if I endeavored to speak in broad terms, I would say that these artists hold a few key characteristics in common. They make music that strikes a spiritual chord in me without being doctrinaire. They each pursue excellence in their craft. They defy labels and simplistic categorizations. Folk music at its core is story tellin’ music; each of these artists sings out their stories from the deep-seated wellsprings of spirit and soul. None of them make music specifically geared towards the Christian marketplace, but all of them have deeply nourished me in my journey of faith.
For those of you with New Year’s resolutions to expand your musical palette, start with Over The Rhine’s “All My Favorite People,” dive in to Knapp’s “Mr. Gray,” and let Ms. Griffin take you to church with her stirring rendition of “All Creatures of Our God and King.” If the Saturday night tavern happens to be your favorite sanctuary, who knows, you just might get to see a preacher overcome by “a juke box altar call” (to borrow a lyric from another OTR song) as she sits in the corner putting the final polish on her Sunday morning sermon.
Marcy Bain is an ordained Presbyterian minister from Dayton, Ohio. She believes that there is a special place in heaven for girls with guitars, and she is ever so grateful for all that they’ve contributed to her life.
Want to recommend a song for our Tuesday evening melody? Submit your suggestion and a little bit about the tune. We’ll take a listen for possible publication on the On Being Blog.
Leonard Cohen in a 19th Century Vernacular
Alda Balthrop-Lewis, Production Intern
Last week I took a microphone to a “singing” that happens regularly at the University Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where a group gathers to sing four-part a cappella spirituals from a book called The Sacred Harp. We’ve had several listeners over the past few months write in to suggest producing a show about this folk singing tradition (and we have been looking for a music show). Developed in the southern United States in the late 19th century, it’s called Sacred Harp singing, after the title of its song book, and there are now groups all over the country who meet weekly to sit in a square and sing together.
The sound clip here is of the University of Minnesota Student Singing last week. Each singing begins with an hour of song, followed by brief announcements and a short break, then another hour of song. Any of the participants can propose a song, stand in the middle of the hollow square (the name for the square sitting formation), and direct the rhythm. There is no official leader. The first thing you’ll hear on this recording is preparation for the song: a woman announces the number, 455. You can hear silence as people find the page. A bus goes by outside. Then they begin to tune, deciding where the pitch of the song should be. They raise the pitch. They sing the first chord together, then the whole song once through on the syllables fa, sol, la, mi. Then, finally, they sing the song once through on the words, “I want a sober mind, an all sustaining eye.” After the song is over the next song is proposed, and they begin again (though, as you’ll hear, there is no rule against a joke in between).
I am fascinated by this tradition, in part because of its unusual musical notation, which you can see in the image above. More deeply moving, however, is the enthusiasm these songs inspire in the singers and the communities that grow up around the songs. Small groups are proliferating all over the country. The Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association lists singings in 35 states. From Hoboken, Georgia, where there is a group of singers (mostly family, mostly Baptist) who have been singing together for so long that they don’t know how long, to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where the singing takes place above a bar, people in many parts of the United States are finding connections across the hollow square.
I am moved by the joy and kindness these people demonstrate to each other, and I am excited about one woman’s project to arrange Leonard Cohen for her Sacred Harp group. Maybe there, some day, we’ll find our music show.