Whenever Little Richard’s hollering and piano-playing grew too boogie-woogie rowdy for the church services of his Macon upbringing, some choir matron would swat him with her pocketbook. Those righteous blows, intended to enforce the old “play for the devil or play for the Lord” dictate, sent him reeling for the rest of his career between gospel and rock ’n’ roll.
However, sacred and secular music are not nearly as contradictory as they seem, argues the father-daughter writing team of Don and Emily Saliers in A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice, a mix of memoir and musicology published earlier this year by Jossey-Bass.
“If playing loud music in a dark, smoky dive late at night sends your soul to hell, then mine was lost a long time ago,” Emily says matter-of-factly. As one-half of the Grammy-winning, Atlanta-based folk duo, the Indigo Girls, she has enjoyed her share of neon-lit, dancing-fool fellowship. “Music is the language of the soul made audible, and it’s also a deep part of our physicality – our heartbeat, the sound of our breath, the tension and release of muscles, the tempo of our bodies. It’s the rhythm of life, moving within us as well as moving us from the outside. It doesn’t have to occur in church to be spiritual.”
Adds her dad, “Music can make us come alive, provided we bring our lives to the music.”
Both Salierses have done just that, noting that a joyful noise thrums in “our family DNA,” albeit to different beats. Emily is an out-and-proud lesbian engaged in a “lover’s quarrel” with organized religion; Don, a theology professor at Emory University, serves as a Methodist minister, organist, cantor and composer of liturgical music – an old-school psalmist who knows his Bach. Writing in contrapuntal harmony, father and daughter bring a “Saturday night and Sunday morning” appreciation to the “communion through music” that sanctifies juke joints and honky-tonks just as surely as cathedrals, as long as it “draws inspiration from honest encounters with the mysteries of life.” The resulting volume proves lyrical in every sense of the word.
“Music that moves toward the good, the true, the just and the beautiful often brings a sense of transcendence to hearers,” Don writes. “The plain fact is that the church can often hide from God simply by uttering the words of unreflective piety. The appearance of religious words is no guarantee of authentic praise. Some nonchurch music that truly expresses the heart’s torment, the soul’s lament, or the ecstatic joy we experience within the beauty of creation may be more religious than hymns with poor theology sung without conviction.”
Since strumming guitars together as Emory students more than 20 years ago, Emily and her Indigo Girls partner, Amy Ray, have attained Sapphic heartthrob status with a repertoire of hits – “Closer to Fine,” “Galileo,” “Shame on You” – that fall into that particular “nonchurch” category, emphasizing social justice and soul-burnishing introspection in a warbling lilt. During their early, pass-the-hat days, they reigned affectionately over bohemian Atlanta, packing the house at the Little Five Points Pub and scruffy Decatur taverns where the air hung thick with cigarette smoke and angst.
“When I was playing in bars every night, music really held everybody together, and it was a motley, ragtag crew,” Emily says with a laugh. “There were drug addicts and all kinds of hard luck stories among these novice songwriters and ‘freaky people’ – and me, the PK (preacher’s kid). But music made us a community. Everybody came, night after night, swayed to the music, shared a meaningful part of themselves, felt they belonged to something bigger. It was like a church, and the way music shaped our consciousness and made us want to go out into the world was like a benediction.”
Her grandfather probably felt the same way at times.
Don was the son of Hal Saliers, a Midwestern hepcat who moved to New York in the 1920s to play sax and violin with major acts such as Jack Teagarden and Paul Whiteman. By the end of his life, “he was a Saturday night and Sunday morning guy,” Don writes, explaining that as the high times of the Jazz Age gave way to the Great Depression, his father struggled with alcoholism and finally moved back to Ohio to work at a factory. Eventually, though, the elder Saliers found a redemptive sense of purpose when a Methodist pastor tapped him to lead a church orchestra.
“Taking on that responsibility somehow began to change Hal’s own self-image from that of a musically gifted drunk to that of a musically gifted Sunday morning fixture,” according to A Song to Sing. “Saturday night music had almost taken Hal away from his family, but Sunday morning music gave Don his father back.”
So Don, understandably, became a music scholar and theologian. He has written several respected books about congregational life, including Worship Come to its Senses, exploring the four “senses” of God: awe, delight, truth, and hope.
His most recent collaboration with his daughter contains references to philosophers such as Simone Weil as well as rappers like Notorious B.I.G. The authors muse about the creative tension found in the predictable generation gap in tastes; the power of a well-placed silence; a revitalized interest in chants, such as the ancient harmonies of the Taize community in France; and the use of music as a galvanizing agent for causes around the globe. When Russia pulled out of Estonia, a quarter of a million people joyfully gathered in a stadium to sing a setting of Mass in what became known as the “singing revolution.” And the solidarity of the American civil rights movement, of course, owes a debt to “We Shall Overcome.”
“Whatever people can say with passion and in heightened speech, they will end up singing in some form,” observes Don.
Consequently, music also can divide us. Richard Wagner’s stirring operas always will be associated with the Holocaust because of their use in Hitler’s propaganda. Don also recalls a skirmish in the so-called “worship wars” over modern church music. (Guitar-driven Christian contemporary or stately pipe organ? “Mankind” or “humanity”?) In the 1980s, his committee deleted “Onward Christian Soldiers” from the Methodist hymnal because of its militaristic overtones, but restored the song after a barrage of protest.
“We must make musical judgments but not in a judgmental manner,” Don and Emily urge.
Mostly, though, father and daughter marvel at the echoes and similarities, the ongoing dialectic of the sacred and profane, encompassing Elvis and the black church; “string theory” and faith (is that God plinking those vibrating subatomic particles like a Stradivarius?); and classic hymns that began as secular, if not downright bawdy, ditties. Bet you did not know that the Holy Week standard “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” was a 1601 rewrite of “Confused are all my feelings/A tender maid’s the cause.” Don concisely sums up that age-old “crossing over” impulse, which can drive salty bluesmen and rebellious rockers back and forth between the Baptist altar and the barrelhouse:
“The more one learns to express awe and thanks and to cry out for mercy to God, the more one is plunged into the depths of what it is to be human,” he writes. “At the same time, the more one sounds the depths of human experience, the more one finds the mystery of God unfolding.”
No wonder “the tremendous power and poetry of Biblical images have landed comfortably in many an Indigo Girls song,” Emily points out. The duo’s ballad titled “Everything in Its Own Time” contends that, in this mean, strife-torn world, “music whispers to you in urgency” and that one source of hope is to “hold fast to that languageless connection.”