Dance of the Woolly Mammoths

My church, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, sings a lot of what I believe are called “camp meeting songs”. That’s the label I’ve most often heard put on the genre of American worship music that I mean: though there are outliers as late as the beginning of World War Two (like “Victory in Jesus”), most of the ones I’m talking about seem to belong to the half-century or so between the end of the American Civil War in the 1860s and the start of World War One in 1914. If that’s not the right label, I’d love to know what is.

My wife grew up singing these songs, and they are some of her favourite hymns. I didn’t, and I mostly can’t stand them.

The church where we worship is like her in that regard, not like me; we were both fed up to the point of disgusted with contemporary “intimate” worship and “Jesus is my Boyfriend” songs when we started attending, and both wanted some traditional hymns.

Alas, our ideas of what constitutes “traditional hymns” diverges somewhat, and though we both take in things like “And Can It Be” and “Blessed Assurance” and “Crown Him With Many Crowns” and “How Great Thou Art”, my definition of traditional hymns tends to stop short of the era in question.

I’m referring, of course, to the era of things like “Sunshine in my Soul” and “Love Lifted Me” and “When We All Get To Heaven” and all the songs of that ilk, that I struggle to find meaningful and whose music I cordially dislike.

My church loves these things, and they’re going to keep on singing them (nor should they stop just on my account). Leaving over musical differences would be incredibly petty, especially as it’s my problem, not anyone else’s. I’m not about to do something so foolish-seeming, particularly as the songs I don’t like seem to go hand in hand in US church culture with the hymns that I do. So I’ve been looking with increasing desperation for something I can like about them. Or at the very least, some rational reason for my irrational dislike.  What exactly is it that puts me off?

They do all share a certain set of features. The 6/8 time signature is fairly common, and I find that something about that in particular puts me off my stroke, but there are lots of other worship songs of that era that don’t have it, and I don’t like most of them, either. What they do all seem to share is what my wife calls “the walking rhythm”. It’s difficult to describe this in words, but it’s a sort of dompa-dompa-dompa-dompa that puts me in mind, not of people walking, but of woolly mammoths doing some sort of square dance.

Nothing can be done about my musical taste; in that sense it is an irrational dislike, and it doesn’t respond to reasoned argument. However, I find most of the lyrics at least as objectionable as the music, and that we can reason our way through. Why is it that I find this stuff so hard to like?

A great many of them are testimonial in nature. I was going to say that I always dislike testimonial songs, but that isn’t exactly true, because what’s “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine” or “Long my imprisoned spirit lay” or “I will sing the wondrous story” if not testimonial? Truthfully, it’s not the testimonial form, it’s these testimonial songs.

The problem is that I tend to find the words rather trite. Simplistic, black-and-white answers for a question that I was never asking, using hackneyed Christianese that those of us raised in the faith had to wean ourselves away from for the sake of saying something intelligible to unbelievers. Who’d love something like that?

Probably everyone in my church except me, apparently. So why am I the oddball? What is it that they get that I don’t?

Maybe, I’ve started reasoning lately, it might help if I looked at the background of that time period of American history. What kind of spiritual and social conditions could produce “Sunshine in my Soul”, “There’s a New Name Written Down In Glory” or any of these other songs (including the legendary song that my Grandad likes to cite as an example of how not to do it: “Where’s My Lost Wandering Boy Tonight?”)? What was going on in America that moulded its hymnwriting into something that I do not emotionally grasp and find so incredibly hard to love?

I think I may be beginning to understand.

This period in my native Britain was the Victorian era. Well, and the Edwardian, but the tone was set by the reign of Queen Victoria. It was an era of industry, steam and factories, of increasing British dominance in world affairs and the advance of science and engineering. And it’s a period of increasing urbanisation. Charles Dickens wasn’t writing Oliver Twist about country life; it was the city, and the spiritual and social problems were those of the city.

By contrast, America was amazingly rural. The 1870s and 1880s was an era in which large sections of the America we know today were still being settled and relatively empty of ethnically white settlements. It’s the era portrayed by the cowboy movie, the era of How The West Was Won, of Indian massacres (I’m afraid I struggle to call any extermination campaign that viciously one-sided a “war”) and steam railroads and stagecoaches and cattle drives. Massive proportions of the population didn’t even live in the small towns that were being founded on an almost daily basis; they lived on farms or ranches at a distance from even their closest neighbours.

We’re dealing with rural people, living in what would be villages if they were in the UK, but without the presence of the ubiquitous parish churches of the other side of the Atlantic. When your town only got started a decade or so back, of course there was not going to be a parish church whose building was rebuilt in 1387. There might not be a church at all.

What I’m beginning to grasp is probably something that’s instinctive to any long-time American Christian: these are plain folk, and their music reflects that.

One might say “simple folk”, but simple has connotations of ignorance and stupidity, and even at best seems rather condescending. I honestly do not mean anything negative by it in this context.

Looking at the historical situation, what I’m seeing is a social setting in which most people didn’t have the access to education that I tend to take for granted. If Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novelised growing-up saga is at all typical of the times, we’re talking people who probably wouldn’t have much more than an elementary-school-equivalent education. They certainly weren’t stupid, or no more so than people who did have access to better education, just uncomplicated. Plain folk.

The songs of the era, these “camp meeting songs”, are the earnest expressions of simple people who’ve found that Jesus makes a real difference in their lives.

They sound like simplistic black-and-white before-and-after songs because that’s what they are. That’s where the people were at. If you’re in a rural American tent meeting because you know you need to get rid of the drink but you can’t do it yourself, you’re probably not going to have much time for elevated sentiments and deep theological truths set to music, but “I was blind but now I see” or “I was sinking deep in sin” or “There’s a new name written down in glory, and it’s mine” might be scratching where you itch.

I’m probably never going to love this music. For better or worse I’m an educated man, and my tastes are those of an educated man. That’s no better or worse than having the tastes of an uneducated man, it’s just different, by the way; but since I am an educated man, the simple, uncomplicated notes struck by most of these songs probably aren’t going to find a lot of deep personal resonance.

My musical taste, similarly, is what it is, and isn’t that amenable to being reasoned with. Try, as my other grandfather did, telling a child that hates peas that “they’re lovely” and that he’s being silly to not like them.

But though I’m probably not going to gravitate to the lyrics, nor particularly be enamoured of the music, I can appreciate the heart of them. I’d be the first to point out that just because it doesn’t match your experience doesn’t mean that it’s wrong; now I get to practice some of what I preach. Again. Who am I to say that just because my growing up with the faith in Britain didn’t look the way it’s portrayed in most of these songs that the faith behind them is somehow lesser? Unworthy? Rudimentary?

Of course it isn’t.

Still, I do continue to find the lyrics simplistic and the music mostly annoying. It’s a work-in-progress here; I’m still doing the research and trying to find out, still letting the understanding seep in.

I’m probably not going to wake up tomorrow just loving the Dance of the Woolly Mammoths. What I’m trying for, initially, is appreciation, and I think I’ve made a start.

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2 thoughts on “Dance of the Woolly Mammoths

  1. You know, it’s fascinating, I’ve always had something of a fondness for that genre of hymns, but I think it’s more to do with nostalgia. I’ve had very little regular exposure to them outside of when I was a toddler, so they just strike the “Aww, I remember my parents singing that” chord. For actual practical prayer purposes, I’m more of a “Holy Darkness” or “Ave Maria” kind of guy.

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