Sonic Salvation: A Story of How Listening Can Change Over A Lifetime
By the age of six, I could circumscribe my world in song. I was not particularly precocious — my world was just small. Ultimately, it would be fractured by its own rebellious genesis.
Two genres of folk music marked out the poles of my preciously tiny planet. Heaven’s jubilee rang in one ear: a cappella gospel, sturdily founded upon the biblical injunction to make melody in the heart. In the other ear, however, was the music of the devil himself: alcohol-drenched, two-stepping, hell-raising honky-tonk, enticing one to sin not just in the heart, but with the entire body. Together, they formed an eternally reciprocal refrain: Saturday night sin prompted Sunday morning renewal. There was little room for anything else, particularly dissent.
Sunday morning resounded with four-part harmony based on a shape-note system of musical notation, widely referred to as Sacred Harp. We sang again at our Sunday evening and mid-week services. Throughout the year, we also hosted regional “singings,” bringing together folks from other congregations, swelling our own sound by double. It was an easy form of music to learn by design, with its origins in early 19th-century America. Its strongest base was in the American South, and I inherited at least two generations’ worth of experience. It set the tone for my interactions with the world for the first three decades of my life.
Musicologists have documented and analyzed Sacred Harp thoroughly, with Alan Lomax having had a particular fascination for it. He considered it as not only an extension of four-square Anglo forms but also as the crossroads where the Reformation met the Democratic Experiment. In Lomax’s view—expressed in a 1982 interview at the Sacred Harp Convention at Holly Spring, Georgia—European migration to colonize America broke the established authority of the church, leaving every person to forge a singular relationship with God. This supposition harmonizes perfectly with the views of the congregational church I attended. We had no hierarchy, no choir, no piano. Every man, woman, and child added their voice, as best they knew how, to raise an egalitarian song of praise. Songs such as “This World is Not My Home,” “The Glory Land Way,” and “Blessed Assurance” exemplify the form: simple rhyme schemes; closely-yoked shifts in harmony and rhythm; and southern gospel’s initial shunning of poly-rhythms or syncopation.
For me, Sacred Harp music created an immersive and experiential soundscape; emotionally and spiritually motivating, it was the sound of temporal and eternal life. Like our singing style, our church service presented a model for our lives outside the sanctuary. “Trust and Obey” was a frequently sung hymn—and it summed up our approach to life in all matters. Obedience was expected, deviation discouraged.
Worlds away from my sheltered existence, leaders of the Civil Rights Movement embraced a cappella singing as a powerful means to encourage, motivate, and activate. In the 2009 documentary Soundtrack for a Revolution, U.S. Representative and civil rights icon John Lewis said, “It was the music that created a sense of solidarity.” His a cappella community was connected to the church and the streets, challenging the status quo, and seeking greater brotherhood. Mine was by the book, increasingly authoritarian, very narrow in scope and population.
To us, the New Testament authorized one and only one instrument for offering songs to God: the unaccompanied human voice. The root of this belief was a concise motto coined in the early 1800s by Alexander Campbell, a leader in the Second Great Awakening: “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” Applying this principle, then, the apostle Paul, in his epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians, encouraged Christians to sing. But nowhere did he or another New Testament writer suggest using an instrument. This silence equals prohibition. It sets its own reality, ignoring abundant biblical evidence to the contrary: the Old Testament presents many examples of instruments used in worship, as does the New Testament’s Book of Revelations.
Our a cappella song service was, therefore, more than a sound—it was a belief system, a worldview in which other sounds or ideas were alien. We applied Campbell’s principle across-the-board, backing ourselves into corners: slaves were to obey their masters; wives were to submit to their husbands; children were to be fully subject to their parents. Questioning authority, let alone defying it, was strongly condemned by Paul in his letter to Christians in Rome: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”
Alternately, classic honky-tonk’s twangy resistance seemed to defy the innovations and complexity of modern life. As I was growing up, the sinful songs of Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce, and George Jones flowed like wine from my family’s record collection and radio settings. Songs of murder, drunkenness, alienation, revenge, adultery, and the workingman’s blues are staples of the honky-tonk catalog. Its celebrated ethic of “three chords and the truth” favored a rural do-it-yourself ethic. My church’s music was both challenged and validated by this unlikely and unruly roommate; honky-tonk was a matched bookend for Sacred Harp.
For in the background of many of those honky-tonk sounds, whether they were about larceny, war, or revenge on the boss, I heard the same harmony that filled my church. In the 1950s or so, southern gospel groups such as the Jordanaires, Blackwood Brothers, and the Statler Brothers, began backing country music artists including Johnny Cash, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Gary Stewart. Their sonic presence lent an almost holy sanction to the commission of sin, as if Jesus and Satan met after-hours to share a drink and balance the books.
This sonic emulsification of sin and salvation formed my youthful identity and bracketed a very small existence. My world consisted of very gendered personal struggles: man vs. temptation; man vs. alcohol; man vs. boss; woman vs. womanizer. The solution provided for these struggles was always the same: the efficacious grace of God. All failings and victories were personal, not structural or systemic. The fight against personal sin was the only fight.
Southern gospel music and honky-tonk have enjoyed an institutional relationship since the founding of the Grand Ole Opry in 1920s, sanctioning the blending of reprobation and redemption. Though initially politically ambivalent, the Opry listed towards social conservatism during the 1960s—Johnny Cash’s nascent social awareness notwithstanding. In 1970, however, the Opry and the industry it represented found itself an unlikely accessory to Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy.” He declared October 1970 to be Country Music Month, and a few years later blessed the Grand Ole Opry with its first presidential visit.
Politically conservative messages had entered country airwaves during the late 1960s, epitomized, if not pioneered, by Bakersfield stalwart Merle Haggard. His “Okie From Muskogee” ridiculed hippies, dope smokers, draft dodgers, long-hairs, flag burners, and college activists, all within a 3-minute single format. Though ostensibly written as a joke, it struck a chord among conservative, Christian, country music fans. Sensing a market, Haggard followed up with the flag-waving “Fightin’ Side of Me,” wherein he further shames pacifists.
These songs contained the truth as I believed it in grammar school: protestors, adulterers, and dope smokers were all in defiance of God. Haggard’s refrain in “Fightin’ Side”—“if you don’t love it, leave it”—made sense to me, and was safely non-challenging. Conveniently, the religious body of which I was a member had, a generation prior to me, actively opposed pacifism.
A world composed only of personal demons, however, leaves little room for social issues. Being so long accustomed to seeing the sin in man left me unable to recognize the sin in the system. Sam Cooke’s great risk in recording “A Change is Gonna Come,” for example, was lost on me, even though we both shared a battle between religious and secular personas.
I never heard his call to address greater systemic problems such as racism, audibly or socially. Even as I entered my 20s, my white patriarchal religious sonic defense system kept the freedom struggles of people of color at bay. Even if dissenting sounds managed to sneak through–Marvin Gaye’s struggles in “Inner City Blues” for example—I quickly dismissed them as exaggeration or the natural outcome of personal sin. I could not process a sound which conflicted with my God-given world view. I saw only men and women avoiding their duty and surrendering to temptation.
My mother frequently said that the lives portrayed in honky-tonk songs were not her life. But in another sense, those desperate lives, and the more hopeful ones portrayed in gospel music, were our lives collectively. We were part of a greater social identity: Southern, white, Fundamentalist, change-averse, full of latent conflicts. Those sounds, rich with heritage and lived-in context, formed us. In other words, our vernacular limited our hearing. Our world was formed within a fixed sonic boundary, and we ignored, resisted and sometimes even combatted discordant sounds.
Within this soundscape, I had never heard of any march from Selma to Montgomery, not from church, family, the radio, or, sadly, even school. The larger movement of which it was a part—perhaps the biggest social movement of the 20th century—was inaudible and therefore irrelevant to me. When I did begin to hear of protests against white racial violence, I could only condemn anyone who defied authority. I did not know what to say about authority which abused the people. Raised to function in a law-and-order world, I could only repeat the Apostle Paul’s instruction that we all must obey authority or incur the wrath of God.
But thankfully, sound travels in subversive ways, such as through the transmitters of listener-supported community radio.
I found Dallas’ KNON completely by chance. Commuting to work through the city’s legendary rush hour, I’d get fidgety. While searching the dial, I heard a familiar song in an unfamiliar arrangement. I don’t recall the song now, but do remember its force: a honky-tonk classic played through a stack of Marshall amps, turned up to the proverbial ’11.’ Perhaps it was Leon Payne’s Lost Highway as rendered by Jason and the Scorchers—anarchistic, upending, challenging, it still carried enough familiarity to keep me listening. I stayed tuned in for the next song, then another. When the DJ, Nancy “Shaggy” Moore, signed off her show, I gave a listen to the next show—at least until they said something a bit too dissonant.
But the next day, I tuned in to Shaggy again. And I listened a bit longer when the next show came on. And even longer the day after that. Dallas at that time was wracked by racial strife, some of it focused on the politicized deaths of two police officers, one white and one black, in separate incidents. I had tuned out the duplicity, but KNON gave me reason to reconsider. City council member Diane Ragsdale, an African-American woman representing one of the city’s most trod-upon districts, refused to let the issue go. KNON provided the venue for her to express her outrage unmitigated, and to explain the inconsistencies in a way that an entitled white male suburbanite, such as I, could understand.
Tim Rice suggests that we are not free agents in the creation of our identities—but given the right stimuli, we will resist, to the point of rebellion, the personhood prepared for us. The latent heretical ethics of Sacred Harp and Honky-tonk finally responded to the sonic stimuli flowing through the breach, triggering an insatiable devil’s advocacy: “Prove yourself to me,” I said to everything I had once believed, religious faith included. St. John wrote in his First Epistle: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God.” This was to be the last biblical directive I would follow.
My radical shift in musical listening also greatly impacted my political, and cultural beliefs and listening practices, something which continued throughout my life. For example, I ended my professional career as well, having understood the devastating effects that high tech industries have on the environment and workforce. I traded a six-figure salary for minimum wage in foodservice. Not once have I looked back.
Kitchen work comes with immersive sound: machines hum and sometimes roar; the radio blasts through the static; humans must shout to be heard. Working throughout the western US, in a variety of independent restaurants, I learned to understand and speak Spanish. I participated in defying a language ban placed on my colleagues by an overbearing owner: I noted that she forbade speaking in Spanish, but not singing in Spanish. So sing we did, about needing a potato peeler, taking out the trash, and what we were going to do over the weekend.
As I worked my way up the ranks and crossed the country from California to Manhattan, I listened to the stories told me by immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Dominica, Morocco, South Africa. They shared their music with me, via radio, iPod, cassette, or any object we could plug into an overcooked boom box. Every song and conversation has pulled me into greater participation in their lives and the systemic issues faced by most of the world around me.
Dismantling one’s identity, regardless of how deliberately it is done, happens amidst lots of noise: illusions shatter, idols crash to the ground, walls tumble into rubble. Dissent comes in myriad expressions, and for me, it has come via my own three-chords-and-the-truth and through a multimedia socially-progressive dining event which I call Peace Meal Supper Club. Its very raison d’etre is to illuminate dissonance on issues such as the right to sanctuary, our diminishing seed supply, the plight of the rural poor, and other devastating threads of intersectionality. Music is a critical component of each event, as Otis Taylor, Lila Downs, and Caetano Veloso share playlist space with Manecas Costa and Majida El Roumi Baradhy. Old favorites like “Sixteen Tons” get their say, as well—for behind that song’s well-earned swagger is a system of devastating intersectional oppression that demands our action.
Featured Image: Image of a Stained Glass Crosley Cathedral, Image by Tubular Bob
Kevin Archer is a multi-media artist who left corporate security for a DIY life as a farmer, activist, educator, and chef. He’s planted gardens coast-to-coast, and washed his own sauté pans from Denver to Mendocino, Santa Fe to NYC, and random locations in between. Kevin’s current project is Peace Meal Supper Club, a series of immersive dining events which explore ecojustice, human rights, the capitalistic conquest of the seed and soil, and the power of progressive movements. He has written for Civil Eats, No Depression, Secular Web, and the Museum of Animals & Society. He has spoken on the intersection of food and social issues at numerous conferences within the Eastern US.
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