Just Sing: Sometimes I Cry
I’ve kept the Jason Crabb song of this name on speed dial this week, in no small part because its portrait of an earnest soul that struggles for (and regularly fails to achieve) spiritual buoyancy has been an apt summary of my post-NQC state of mind and feeling.
Roger Ebert laments in his recently released memoir that so much of his life “has been devoted to such large part to films of worthlessness.” I confess in my darker moments to fearing something not dissimilar about so much of my time and energy spent listening to and thinking and writing about gospel music. And then he writes this:
Hollywood dialogue was once witty, intelligent, ironic, poetic, musical. Today it is flat. [I]t sometimes seems as if the movies are more mediocre than ever, more craven and cowardly, more skillfully manufactured to pander to the lowest tastes instead of educating them.
I scrawled a note to myself when I read this: Replace HW dialogue with sg and movies with songs and you just about have the measure of things in southern gospel today.
Well, I don’t know if I really believe that all the time (and one might be hard pressed, even if one is an academic in one’s day job, to make the case for much irony in southern gospel, ever). But to say it and take it back captures something of the spirit of lamentation that has followed me back from Louisville.
A friend of mine and I (h/t, KC) have been exchanging old clips of vintage sg all week, a way, it seems, of constructively mourning, I guess. Watching these clips (like this and this) is like watching the brilliant climb of a mighty rocket … the ever more glorious ascent guaranteeing the harder fall to come.
Go back to the Rambos in their prime or the Kingsmen at the height of their power and you won’t have to look hard to find the origins of today’s default reliance on overproduction, mawkish showmanship, outsized personalities and styles. It’s always been there, just in different proportion. When people yearn for the good ole days, at least in southern gospel, I suspect many of us, whether we know it or not, are speaking in sentimental shorthand of a time when the music seems to have held its self-discrediting tendencies in a more productive tension with artists’ native talent than one encounters today.
In other words, southern gospel hasn’t become something different than it was. It’s more unsavory tendencies - long latent for lo so many years - have just come over time to predominate.
Except when they don’t, and that’s the other reason why I’ve been returning to the clip below of late:
The next time someone asks me to describe or explain southern gospel, I think I’ll just send them this song, for it seems to be just about as close as one could hope to come to the perfect example of what today’s professional southern gospel can be, at its best. Here, there’s the classic southern-gospel personalization of theology and the translation of religious belief into a narrative of self-embattlement in the context of divine relief.
Yet also notice how the song reimagines this tradition: typically, the verses lay out the problem of personal insufficiency or failure of some sort, and the chorus solves the dilemma by reestablishing the always-already overcoming power of divine relief in salvation and grace. But here, it’s the verses that lay out the orthodoxy of God’s faithfulness and grace, of abiding by the practices and customs of a normative religious culture (those verses brilliantly describe culturally southern evangelicalism in a carefully crafted language that keeps the song - and us - on the knife’s edge between respect and risibility), while the heart of the song is a melodic and lyrical celebration in the chorus of spiritual frailty and the the necessity of acknowledging, even embracing, one’s own fallibility. The chorus is still the emotional center of the song, as per southern-gospel usual, but there’s an emotional inversion to it - a subtle resistance to the typical restatement of orthodox pieties - that has the effect of making something totally familiar seem like a new mercy.
The song isn’t just about being religious or speerchul. It vividly conveys the way a particular religious vision is lived in a particular part of the world, a world of Chevys and Jesus fish and cross decals and bible studies and tv preachers and self-consciously manly men who weep openly at the altar of their own insufficiency. The song manages to document the banalities of bubbas in pickup trucks and the plastic iconography of modern piety and the televised universe of latter-day Elmer Gantrys without becoming another silly exercise in folksy pandering.
It is, it seems to me, the gift of gospel when a song reaches out this way from within its own world and speaks directly to us with a plain, palpable power animated by the particular truths of an individually lived religion.
I suspect the rarer that gift becomes, the harder many of us will continue to search for it.Email this Post