The Rhythms of our Souls

It took living in Texas for me to understand Country music.

It’s still not my preferred ear candy, but at least now I can tolerate it and even sort of enjoy it, which might as well be a vital survival skill here in cowboy country.

Driving through the leafy, green countryside of my native Britain, it’s about as alien as HG Wells’ Martians. You’ll probably be able to find someone that likes it – there are people that like all manner of exotica – but it doesn’t fit the natural rhythm and melody of the place.

Having grown up there, I find the rhythm of my soul much more attuned to U2, Queen, Madness, or even Coldplay than to any random Country music artist. Or in terms of Classical music, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches make me come alive in a way that Copeland’s Fanfare For The Common Man just doesn’t quite match.

Interestingly, I was apparently in the former Soviet Union long enough that Slavic composers also tend to make my soul come alive. About my favourite piece of Classical music of all is Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave. Apparently part of my soul grooves to a Russian rhythm.

What brings this up is that one of the foremen on my jobsite is Cuban, and constantly has his radio set to one of the Hispanic stations, and that stuff is even more alien than Country music in Britain. For a start, I don’t understand more than about three words of Spanish, particularly sung, but I could get over that. It’s the rhythm and style which is so totally alien that I cannot imagine it being what my soul grooves to.

The chief instrument appears to be the accordion, which is probably my least favourite instrument in the world and usually scrapes across my soul like fingernails across a blackboard. However, since I actually like the bagpipes, you can feel free to dismiss this with words involving “pot”, “kettle” and “black”. Nothing is invested in my musical preferences except my musical preferences. The whole rhythm and lilt of the music (I guess it’s what is called “Mariachi”) is obviously underpinned by another culture and place – witness the fact that almost all Hispanics seem to love it. It’s apparently the rhythm of their souls, even if it’s not of mine. If it took moving to Texas for me to get Country music, it would probably take moving to Mexico to get Mariachi.

Given the dangerous situation for foreigners in Mexico at the moment, I’m really sure I do not want to do this.

In a related vein, my church is quite into the style of hymn that my wife calls “camp meeting songs”.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it sort of comprises the hundred or so years of Christian songwriting between about 1850 and 1950, taking in the era of the American Great Awakening and the travelling revivalist and tent meetings.

I guess we might have had the same sort of idea in Britain, and for all I know a lot of these songs were written by Brits, but it’s alien music to me. I mean stuff like “Victory in Jesus”, “There’s a New Name Written Down in Glory” and the dreadful “Sunshine in my Soul”. And I’ve now probably named the favourite hymns of several people in my church. Oh well.

It comes from a different era, and while I can remember some of these from the earliest days of my childhood, we stopped singing most, if not all, of them before I was ten. I have no nostalgia about any of it. I don’t call most of the stuff “camp meeting songs”, I call it “barrel-organ-and-monkey music”, because that’s what it all sounds like to me. The sort of noise generated by an organ grinder at a Victorian fairground for a trained monkey in a red coat and hat to caper to. I’m not a monkey; this isn’t the rhythm of my soul either.

Part of it is the words. The story of how I came to faith is rather different from the sort of “come to Jesus” moment depicted by most of these songs, and I find it difficult to relate. Then, too, I think the imagery used in a lot of them has become so hackneyed and stale that it’s effectively lost all meaning for me. If this is what your soul grooves to, I have no problem with that, but I personally don’t find it all easy to like. All I can say is that sometimes “they don’t make ’em like they used to” is a good thing.

The thing is, if you want a church in America that sings the great classic hymns of the English-speaking Christian world, and I do, it seems you’re going to get a church that sings barrel-organ-and-monkey music as well. In America, the two go together. Which means that I have to learn to at least tolerate it, even if I never actually like it.

An interesting question is how this music could completely disappear from Britain but still be around in America as the beloved traditional hymns of much of the church.

From discussions with my wife, and comparing the hymn books we grew up with, I’ve noticed that while American hymns have all of these songs right alongside the old classic hymns that Britain and America’s churches both sing (but often to different tunes), old British church hymn books don’t.

From my early childhood I can remember other song books in the backs of the pews alongside The Baptist Hymn Book. Books with titles like Golden Bells. If my memory serves me correctly, all the barrel-organ-and-monkey songs were in those; they never made it into the hymn book proper, because you couldn’t sing them to the tune of a completely different number hymn.

I remember doing this. “We will now sing hymn no. 127, but we will sing it to the tune of no. 54”. That was part of what made a hymn a hymn; tunes and lyrics were separable, and even though you always sang “Blessed Assurance” to its normal tune, you were dimly aware that you could sing it to a different one. This, incidentally, is why hymn books have indices arranged by poetical metre: anything with a syllabic metre can be sung to the tune of anything else with that metre.

The barrel-organ-and-monkey songs didn’t do that. They were one song, one tune, just like we are used to today. Undoubtedly the music was cutting-edge contemporary when it was written, but the past, too, is another culture, and they don’t do things quite the same there.

But somehow, in order to sing the old hymns that I do like, I have to learn to like these as well.

Maybe learning about the circumstances in which they were written might help, but I actually sort of doubt it. The problem is musical more than it’s lyrical, and my soul simply doesn’t groove to that rhythm at the moment.


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