The Song Journal

Miscellaneous news and writing by Bob Franke, mostly about songs as a portable art form, and the process of creating them and enabling them to do their work in the world.

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Location: Peabody, Massachusetts, United States

from Bob Franke began his career as a singer-songwriter in 1965 while a student at the University of Michigan. Upon graduation in 1969 with an A.B. in English Literature, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has since made New England his home. Bob has appeared in concert at coffeehouses, colleges, festivals, bars, streets, homes and churches in 33 states, four Canadian provinces and England.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Stolen voices

I had a strange "It's A Wonderful Life" kind of experience this morning. I visited a local church; it being the feast of All Saints, there was a baptism, in this case of infant twin girls. I was glad to see the joy in the faces of parents and godparents, and gratified that the supply priest (the rector having been suddenly taken ill) preached eloquently on baptism and the meaning of the event. I was a bit taken aback by his reading the bishops' request to tone down the passing of the peace to eliminate the possible sharing of pathogens during this flu outbreak. I noticed that some heeded this warning and some, including the children in the pew just ahead of me, didn't. I responded in kind.

I was a stranger in this church. That is a relatively unusual experience for me, and it was instructive. I began to feel like Jimmy Stewart's character George, who is shown in the movie what his town would be like had he not lived in it. My ritual greetings were acknowledged sincerely, and I could see genuine warmth and support between various members of the congregation, but never got the feeling that any of it extended to me.

The thing that shocked me, though, was that nobody in the congregation sang. I may have caught a few tentative voices, but that was it, and my voice, tentative as it tends to be in the morning, was still more noticeable than any of them, to the point that I caught some folks' attention just by raising it. The other thing that shocked me was, my own voice was for a moment the only "Amen" heard in response to the baptism.

It was as if the voices of the congregation had been stolen. To be sure, the church was of the old fashioned kind, lots of stone or brick and the layout one that discourages participation or intimacy. Row on row of straight pews; I was in the front half of the church and still felt far from the sanctuary.

The organist was competent for the most part; there were supplemental hymnals with very simple hymns in the pews. But the congregation just did not sing. Even the choir seemed intimidated by the space. I began to wonder who had stolen all their voices.

"American Idol" came to mind, and the inner Simon Cowell and his legions of allies in the music business that tell people that their own songs and their own voices don't cut it. I recalled my experience at Harbor Sweets listening to my co-workers talk about that show, co-workers who just wouldn't imagine going to the wonderful open mic at the Pig's Eye pub just a few blocks away. The best music in the world arises out of communities, but communities are continually told that the real music is the stuff that's packaged and sold to them. That's idolatry indeed, and it pained me to think that in some Christian churches, where, if anywhere, people should be aware that their own voices are the ones that God wants to hear, it's idolatry that has made great headway. I was among people who are struggling and broken in various degrees, as I am struggling and broken, but who, unlike me, do not understand what a wonderful tool for healing and restoration singing together can be.

I went downstairs to the coffee hour and stood next to a couple of pillars, feeling more and more like Jimmy Stewart's character caught in a strange world. I escaped to my car and went home.


Blogger Bob Franke said...

I sent a link to this post to the contact email on the web site of the church in question, offering it as honest feedback with the sympathy and respect of a fellow Christian. The message bounced back to me.

3:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Utah Phillips said, " Today, revolutionary music is music you make yourself. Welcome to the revolution!" I live that quote.

Mike Taub

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I meant love, but I do live it.


12:22 PM  
Blogger Mel said...

How often does one feel that reluctance to make a peep in a place where rejoicing and giving thanks to a higher power is appropriate? At times like that I realize that singing and the occasional gift that is passed down to us by a parent or by one's genes is a gift meant to be shared, and where better than in a place of worship? And even when one "can't sing", so what!

6:03 PM  
Blogger Janet B said...

Bob, this reminds me of an editorial I wrote for "Pass it On!", the journal of the Children's Music Network. I'm going to send it to you, hope you don't mind. Also, this is what we learned in my Music Together teacher training, as I mention in the editorial. Music Together is a wonderful early childhood music & movement program, and children and parents are both encouraged to let their voices be heard.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Pastor Kris said...

Thank you so much for this post. I fully agree. I am a Lutheran pastor (which denomination has a rich tradition of singing) and yet these days the singing in our congregations is often puny. Luther said "he who sings, prays twice" and I fully agree. Singing can lift your spirits and ease your mind like nothing else (even preaching). Thanks. Pastor Kris Franke Hill

5:14 PM  

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