More Rediscoveries: Road to Emmaus

In my gospel music course this week, we spent a good deal of time covering the question of whether one has to share the values and vision of a performer in order for the performance to create genuine experiences - religious, spiritual, emotional - for an audience or an individual. Longtime readers of this site know that I’m firmly on the side of seeing artistic creation - including gospel music performance - as something that, to quote myself, “exceeds the limits of orthodox culture to control what it means or to put limits on the work it accomplishes.”

Later this week, and mostly by coincidence, work on my book included a passage in which I was discussing The Steele’s popular polemic, “We Want America Back,” which in turn led me to the clip below of “The Road to Emmaus.”

And gosh, I had forgotten how fond I am of this song … the trenchant rhythm, the fully voiced chords created by the fifth part doubling key elements of the harmonic structures, the way Troy Peach inflects the front-end of his phrases with that little melismatic ornament and sings for the life of him like he’s right there on the Emmaus Road himself … God, grant that I may walk with thee!

It was a useful convergence for me personally, having to live anew through the dynamic of enjoying - really feeling the affective force - of a song from a group that, in this case, cultivated a politicized persona and embraced cheap polemics that always left me cold.

It’s not that I don’t encounter some version of this on a fairly regular basis. Comes with the territory for the unorthodox and noncomforming gospel fan, and you get used to it after a while (or else you just go take a Hagee Refreshment Break). And I’m not asking for sympathy or complaining or anything. Quite the contrary actually. It’s a been a while since I have been brought up as a starkly as this against the paradoxical pull of loving a song and … the singers’ personae, on the other hand … not so much.

To be fair, it should be noted that Jeff Steele subsequently walked back his use in the song of what he himself called a “mean-spirited,” “heavy-handed,” and “rabble rousing” approach. He also claimed he still would have said “99 percent” of the same things if he it to do over again (I for one would love to know what the 1% is he’d leave out!). So it’s not clear, as this blog notes, how much his reconsideration reflects a change of heart or regret that the song created an enduring image of the Steeles as … well, mean-spirited, heavy-handed rabble rousers.

But no matter, and for my part, I appreciated the opportunity to confront this paradoxical experience, coming as it did so near the classroom encounter with this concept in the abstract. … at least for me. (My students, on other hand - most of whom are unfamiliar with southern gospel music and conservative evangelicalism - are already feeling and thinking and writing their way through this experience, thanks mostly to Peg and her preaching, and secondarily, to Hammil, who several students thought a crass bully and a showboat … and wildly entertaining and affecting.)

One of this blog’s core values has always been to take seriously the reality and legitimacy of gospel music and the gospel-music experience among those people whom I called early on in the site’s history “the rest of us.” And “Emmaus Road” helped reconnect me to one of the fundamental identifying dynamics of what it means to hail from that hearty remnant. Always a good thing, to have to live and feel, and not just rhetorically espouse, one’s values.

Update: Reader Janet boils things down a bit:

So…what you’re saying is that the songs are more about the message than the messengers? Wow - what a concept! ;)

I get that she’s mostly having some fun with my …. erhm, prolixity here, and that’s well deserved, no doubt. And anyway, she’s right about message and messenger. But only so far as she goes. My point above is also that “the message” is not fixed, but shifts and morphs and changes as different individuals encounter the same song, even when “the messenger” intends only to be communicating what in his or her mind and belief is a single, static truth transmitted from singer A to audience B. In”Emmaus Road” terms, I’m pretty sure what I’m liking in that song is NOT what the author of “We Want America Back” (even after his reconsideration) thinks the song means or wants its audiences to take away from it. But in any event, it doesn’t matter what Steele or other writers or performers intend their music to mean. Once it’s out of their mouth, it’s also out of their control to determine or fix the meaning of most music (a song like “We Want America Back” is an exception for another discussion). In addition to being a very good thing, this dynamic of musical experience is also particularly overlooked in southern gospel.

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  1. quartet-man wrote:

    I really liked that song at the time and video of it I saw on a gospel show. (Haven’t watched the You Tube yet.) My pastor liked it too as I used it during pre-service while he was preaching on it.

  2. John wrote:

    I appreciated this post on several levels.

    And, yes, watching the Steeles perfom this song moved me to worship. Every hair on my body is standing straight up as tears flow down my face.

    “Always a good thing, to have to live and feel, and not just rhetorically espouse, one’s values.”

    Amen and amen.

    I’ve enjoyed this post more than anything I’ve seen here in a while.

    Sure would love to be in a service with The Steeles one more time.

  3. Irishlad wrote:

    It’s the driving force of the melody for me that makes this song so hypnotic,or as Avery puts it “the trenchant rhythm”.They could been singing rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb to that beat and the wee girl in the back(in the yellow)would still be making that latent dance movement with her head.The words in this example are of course important but coupled with such an infectious tune in this case, one would have to agree that;”it exceeds the limits of orthodox culture what it means or puts limits on the work it accomplishes”

  4. Janet B wrote:

    So…what you’re saying is that the songs are more about the message than the messengers? Wow - what a concept! ;)

    Doug, I hope you keep us updated on your students’ reactions as the semester goes along. (I’ve felt the same way about Hammil at times - God love him!)

  5. JulieBelle wrote:

    Irishlad—I believe that’s Amber Nelon Thompson you referred to as the “wee girl in the back in the yellow”. I would venture she knows a good beat when she hears one. :)

  6. Bones wrote:

    We want the Steeles back.

  7. Marty Funderburk wrote:

    Jeff Steele is one of the finest writers in Gospel music. He knows where all the buttons are and he pushes them artfully. And The Steeles were, and are, a vocal powerhouse of a group. But beyond their obvious talent, they are some of the kindest and most loving people I’ve had the privilege of knowing. I sure miss hearing them regularly on the radio.

  8. Revpaul wrote:

    This weekend I was a judge for the talent contest at the big two-day sing in Fitzgerald GA. There was a prolonged standing ovation after one of the contestants sang “We Want America Back.” The artist was very good, won 2nd place, but the ovation was for the Jeff Steele song.

  9. Jake wrote:

    It was neat to see Anthony Burger playing the piano for them. Man, I wish he was still here!

  10. Irishlad wrote:

    #5 yea JulieBelle,she’s a big girl now.I saw her couple of years back on a “passing the torch” taping from the nqc,she was probably around 17 or 18 then and sounded great.

  11. Janet B wrote:

    Well…duh. What you’re describing, Doug, is the human experience. We see everything through the prism of our own, individual lives. This is why different couples have different “songs” - and why we have the worship wars.
    I don’t want to be argumentative here, but…you’re dilemna, if you will, is that you don’t like Jeff Steele because his beliefs collide & conflict with yours; yet, you really like this song that he wrote. How do you reconcile that? Again, your question is not unique. The answer is to be secure enough in your own convictions to be able to separate the art from the artist.
    For example, I can enjoy a Barbra Streisand performance without subscribing to her ditzy political rantings.

    Oh, and I love the word “prolixity.” Bravo!

  12. Irishlad wrote:

    It’s a funny thing or rather should i say strange or odd thing that when i play a song such as “on the road to Emmaus” to some of my non-christian friends and by that i don’t mean necessarily atheists or agnostics,just folk who haven’t been brought up in or exposed to an evangelical tradition or background that initially they may be drawn positively to the song only upon realizing its content that they in their on words are “turned off”. This is a hard phenomenon to explain,could it be that such meaningful and scripturally accurate words are somehow incongruous with the swingy, head-nodding upbeat tune? Is it that the words are too right-wing or opinionated or narrow-minded or selective or esoteric or….too whatever for the mainstream listener?Personally i doubt the same crowd would be remotely put off by Amazing Grace or Swing Low or The Old Rugged Cross or……maybe it’s not so much what you say as how you say it.

  13. Irishlad wrote:

    #12 should read “own words”

  14. weber wrote:

    Lucky for Peach this was not his demo to get the Perrys gig, I havent heard so much throat singing since I listened to snipits of the Jason Crabb Solo debacle, Im just sayin..

  15. Wade wrote:

    weber…and just how many Gaither videos have you been on much less been featured on???? His wife is better looking than your too if you have one.

  16. Part-timer wrote:

    I’ve always loved this song too. But I’ve also been slightly annoyed by the fact that for the life of me, I can’t tell what the actual melody is. No matter whose part I follow, it sounds like a harmony part. Perhaps each singer has the melody for a brief time, but usually when that happens, it is still fairly easy to tell which note is the melody. That’s not the case here, and it makes this song hard to sing along with. Bummer.

  17. wackythinker wrote:

    I’ve always had the same “heavy-handed” opinion of Jeff and “We Want America Back”. Loved the group’s singing, though. My parents saw them in concert and LOVED them. They bought me a dvd, and I DIDN’T. And this song always left me puzzled. I loved the recording. Wayne Haun did a terriffic job, but I felt the composition itself was less that wonderful. I thought the same thing on the last Steeles’ cd I heard, too. Actually, musically, I liked Jeff’s writing, but was less blown away by his lyrics.

    I know he’s a well-respected and much sought-after writer, but I just never got it. Just MHO.

  18. weber wrote:

    #15, I didnt know that appearing on a Gaither video meant that one had impeccable vocal ability. I can think of many singers that have graced the gaither stage that lack quality. I personally have been on the gaither stage many times, does that make me a great singer? no, I think not.

  19. observor wrote:

    You should have heard them practice this song during sound pratices and how Peach “rewrote” some of the lyrics. I will leave that alone.

  20. Soli Deo Gloria wrote:

    In a Hebrews 5 context, southern gospel is skim milk that expired yesterday. Sometimes it’s tolerable, and other times you can’t consume it without holding your nose.

    For that reason alone, I pray I don’t need a commonality of interest with southern gospel “artists” in order to do anything, particularly worship (or, have a “religious experience”).

  21. Cheryl wrote:

    If you want to hear a great version of “Road to Emmaus” look up Canada’s “Sweet Presence.”

  22. Glenn wrote:

    Sorry, walked out first time I heard them sing “We Want America Back”, and have never looked back.

  23. RF wrote:

    Though it has been ignored here, the artist’s politcal views, which should remain private IMHO, do influence me on whether I listen to a group or not. First of all, I dd not want to hear an artist’s political views. Secondly, it colors what I think of them. Not good.

    I avoid Legacy Five and the Steeles for that reason. “Want America Back” gives me chills and not in a great way. It goes over well with the white hairs that frequent sg concerts and follow the genre, but it’s looking backward instead of forward. America is a different place than it was in 1955 and will always be. But more than that, it’s a theme that simply demonizes any progress we’ve made over the years. We want America back, but we want a white America where everyone behave according to our standards, which is impossible in today’s society.

    I once had a cartoon on my refrigerator (actually, my wife’s since she stocks and watches it) which showed a preacher saying, “can a man really be saved and redeemed if they are a registered Democrat.” I thought it was clever since it makes no difference if you are red or blue or Democrat or Republican. It only matters if you are living right. And yet, the artists continue to push that image to everyone. Is that what hold sg back? Beats me, but as long as artists continue to push the political button, you can expect me and other Christians to just not buy their products. And isn’t that just of the opposite of what they are trying to do?

  24. apathetic wrote:

    Irishlad wrote:”#5 yea JulieBelle,she’s a big girl now.”

    Aren’t most of the females in Southern Gospel “Big Girls”? LOL

  25. JulieBelle wrote:

    #18–so who’s been on the Gaither stage that lacks vocal ability?

    #19–This was the Steele’s first time singing on a Gaither video…understandably so, nerves were on edge. Surely everyone’s gotten a lyric wrong every now and then.

    It’s a rockin’ tune…so what if a few words were not exactly right…I’d listen to it any day of the week.

  26. observor wrote:

    #23 I am no fan of “We Want America Back, but I must have missed the part about a “white America”. I hate when people put words in other people’s mouth just because they disagree with them. Stay with facts please…

  27. Wade wrote:

    JulieBelle… You beat me too it. I am wondering WHAT Gaither Stage weber has been on??? AND what lyrics where changed??? I am sure they will tell us but i doubt anybody REALLY cares.

    For all you folks that do not like the Steeles or We Want America Back…

    WHAT is it about the song that OFFENDS you so much???

    RF… what does L5 do that offends you???

  28. Tiger Tom wrote:


  29. A Friend Of A Friend wrote:

    #25 - Knowing Troy Peach’s sense of humor as I do, he was probably singing a parody during sound check.

    I wasn’t there at that taping, so observor may correct me if I’m wrong. But, I think that’s what he meant by “re-wrote the lyrics”.

  30. A Friend Of A Friend wrote:

    Tiger Tom, I’m with you. I love Jeff, Sherry and the kids, and miss seeing them ‘on the road’. But, they have been releasing some great, live cuts with their church choir lately. I do believe that they do still fill a few, select dates, here and there. I keep up with Jeff some on Facebook. I appreciated their staunch stand for ‘living right’, even if it meant NOT being ‘politically correct’. But, then, aren’t we as Christians suppose to “come out from among the world and be a separate people?”

  31. Soli Deo Gloria wrote:

    “It’s time for the army of God to arise and say ‘we want America back.’”–from We Want America Back as performed by the Steeles

    Nos. 27 and 28- This statement is completely inaccurate, both theologically and historically. It did, however, make the Steeles a pile of money.

  32. MM wrote:

    #31 - While I know where you’re heading with the theological and historical innaccuracy argument, the whole idea of the song is representative of a plea and desire for America to return to the basic Godly principles it was founded upon.

    Why does that seem to be a problem with some folks? (Especially considering the current economical and moral state of our country).

  33. Glenn wrote:

    I hope you guys “Get America Back”. I’m doing OK. Going spend next week at Bill Bailey’s winter convention. Going to travel from New Mexico. Get tired of you guys but still love the music.

  34. RF wrote:


    Scott’s political views (whether I agree with them or not) offend me. There is something about sg artists who use a politcal agenda in their performances that seems not quite right. Are we to make not only those who are sinful right with God, are we only to make sure they are Republicans? Good question.

    I say leave politics to the hacks and let those who profess Christ deal with the true meaning of the term “Christian.” It doesn’t mean who you vote for because in my lifetime (nearly 6 decades), it makes no difference.

  35. AnnD wrote:

    I’ve always loved this song….and suggested to Jeff beforehand the taping that this is THE song for them to sing…that Bill G would like it, and he did…and I do!! “I walk around the house singin’ it” kind of song!!!!

  36. AnnD wrote:

    Sorry….meant to say “beforehand” only :)

  37. Dan Hatcher wrote:

    I’ve known Jeff for about 35 years. He grew up in South Jackson and worked for years for a local gospel station. I remember the first time they got him to sing “Amazing Grace”, had to trick him to sing while they recorded because he didn’t want to be in the spotlight but seems he always is. He had a voice and a natural talent for writing music. Jeff is a good guy and I’ve seen him bend over backwards to help people. His brother and sister are nice people too. Press on Jeff—-Dan Hatcher

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