Rediscovered (an occasional aria on some forgotten favorite)

For a long time I thought Gerald Crabb was a poor man’s Bill Gaither, but I’m pretty sure if I listen to “Not Even a Stone” a few more times I’ll change my mind (I discovered the tune first on a compilation called A Crabb Collection). When it comes to writing songs, Crabb hoes a wide row and seems to value high yields more than prize fruit, as opposed to writers such as Diane Wilkerson or Mark Mathes, who carefully cultivate a few hot-house orchids at a time (or at least their songs are released with far less frequency than Crabb’s). And “Not Even a Stone” is no “The King is Coming.” But it’s an example of working within a fairly strict set of stylistic conventions and coming up with something simultaneously reassuring in its familiarity (which is not the same as predictability) and flabbergasting in its subtle originality. Compositionally, the tune proves Crabb’s intimate knowledge of southern gospel song forms: this one, I think, belongs most rightfully in the country ballad category. Technically, it’s unsurprising but also pitch-perfectly assembled: the abrupt modulation immediately preceding the second verse, for instance, is the kind of understated flourish that only an accomplished writer sure of himself and his abilities (and so without the need to flaunt himself through ornamental tricks like showy modulations) feels comfortable enough to pull off so gracefully. But what really distinguishes this piece is Crabb’s knack for nailing a lyric. Consider the second verse:

If you journey to Jerusalem,
To the grave that held Jesus,
You’ll find that his body is gone.
But if there’s still an echo,
It shouts to the devil:
“You’re defeated; Christ Jesus has gone …”

A few things to notice: first, the sibilance of the first two lines. “Journey,” “Jerusalem,” “Jesus,” establishes a soft consonance that contrasts gently with the harsher, more definitive, just slightly jarring hard “g”s in “grave” and “gone.” Second, the verse’s closing image – of an echo that may still be there – pivots the song’s lyrical force away from the objective description of the scene (which would by itself, without the assurance of resurrection, portend unrecoverable loss) and toward the listener, who is implicitly invited to discover the victorious response for herself, if not literally in Jerusalem, then figuratively, symbolically in the personal experience of the mystery of Christian faith. Finally, the delivery of the last line itself (this, you’ve just got to hear) – the harmonies expand with the elongation of “Christ” to achieve the song’s emotional, dramatic climax. This is fine stuff that rewards a second (and third, and fourth) listen.

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