There hasn't been much action on the blog. I have been spending more time videotaping sermons, apparently. To remedy that, here is a sermon (adapted somewhat to fit some semblance of written rather than spoken word) about "Folk Sunday" which was this past week. Obviously with the sabbatical coming up I am thinking about the place of Folk in our culture. Anyway, it is short (we had a lot of music to play and a service project to attend to) but it is an attempt...
Music is a tone of voice, the sound life uses to keep the living alive. They call us back many times a day from the brinks of torture—the holes of superstition. There never was a sound that was not music—there's no real trick of creating words to set to music—once you realize that the word is the music and the people are the song.
Now, I know we don't have much time right now. We have a service project to attend to. But it seemed to make sense to take a moment to explain why we go through this exercise [of Folk Sunday] every year. It isn't just for fun, you know, although I certainly think it is. No, what we are doing today (gathered together in our amateur, non-professional condition in order to sing and hear songs) is taking back something vital to human expression; taking it back from the corporate culture that wants to put a price on everything. This includes art, itself, to the point of judging its quality based on how much it can be sold for.
I think most of you know that I take music pretty seriously. I don't play it well, but I enjoy it a great deal. Over the years I have built up a pretty solid collection of the recorded variety. I have recordings of music produced by professionals both famous and not so famous. I have mix-tapes from my youth, bootlegs, CD's and itunes. I even possess a small collection of vinyl records, too. Also, like many of you--I know this because we have gone together--I have invested a good deal of money and time with the objective of attending live concerts. Some of them have been here at the church, of course. However, I also regularly seek out bands at clubs in Boston and in other towns. Of course, I can also be found music festivals around New England and in upstate New York. So I listen to and enjoy a wide variety of styles with various levels of artistry.
However, I have to say that folk music--which in this case means not the acoustic music marketed as “folk” by record companies (which I also enjoy) but actual folk music played by people like us for little or no money--is just as important, just as relevant as any other form. In many ways it is even more relevant. Folk works with a broader topical palette than commercial popular music does. At its heart it reflects the sounds and feelings that come from people's actual lives. It frequently reflects sounds and feelings from areas that many may not see as worthy or worthwhile topics when economic gain is the primary filter.
A song about the assassination of a president like we heard today would be one example. There are others too. Songs about a public works project or about an unpopular war, or gun control or civil rights would have (and has had in the past) a hard time getting air play in the midst of the constant wave of semi-romantic and self-referential songs that have usually made up the bulk of commercial forms.
Folk songs live in a way that most recorded popular music does not. When a song goes through the process of becoming a more general part of the human sonic landscape, it changes. Folk singers (which is to say people like you and me) don't worry so much about getting the words right or the tunes and the meter just so. What is important is the intent, the message, the feeling it produces as it is passed from hand to hand over generations. In folk music, as in life itself, our limitations frequently provide the catalyst for inspiration as much as our strengths do.
Also--just as we do in church With our readings both sacred and secular--we apply those songs to new contexts and new situations. So over time a church song like “Eyes on the Prize” can become a protest song. Or--perhaps more telling--is that story about “This Land is Your Land”. This is a song that began as a protest song, survived the second Red Scare as a children's song, was rediscovered as a patriotic song, and is now in the process of becoming a protest song once again.
This is a cycle that is as old as music, as old as humanity. Woody Guthrie tells us that “there never was a sound that was not music”. In fact, it is a cycle that has been part of all creative forms for most of human history. If you wanted a story, a song, a painting, a chair, or a sermon you wouldn't go out and buy one, or find other more passive means of acquisition. You or your friends and family would have to make one, or share one, modify one, grow one. For most of human existence, art was just like everything else that people made. It required numerous individuals with numerous ideas. It required collaboration, of course, and time. Time to develop and nurture those ideas into something with structure and order and grace.
For most people the closest they would get to a concert was sitting around with their friends, everyone contributing to the process in some way. Performers today still try to reproduce that participatory element. They seek out some of that connection in shows and concerts. Here at Eliot we also seek that connection. We don't just do this on Folk/Service Sunday. We do it on every Sunday with volunteer musicians and readers; coffee hour contributors and raised bed planters. We are a community, a family, a congregation bringing what we have to make something together.
Folk music--like folk art and folk worship--us an act of resistance Against the forces of uniformity and conformity. Therefore it is holy. Therefore it is sacred.
Now, the time has come for us to move this service along. We have one more song to sing. Then we have to grab our coffee and go do some planting. However, as we prepare ourselves for these tasks let us strive to remember the special sound that we make. It may not be as polished as we might like. It may not reflect all that we want to say or dream but it is ours. It is special, unique, and good.