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Music as a Weapon of Choice

Some years ago, I got brave and volunteered to do a sermon at the UU church I attend.. During the summer months, the minister is on vacation, so congregants and guests take over the pulpit. We even have a full-time committee that makes sure something is lined up each week, to include preacher, service leader, Board rep, hymns, musicians, sound techs and a story for the kids.Usually by October or November, the entire church year's schedule is filled in, along with contingencies for no-shows.

I wrote the piece below, and it was more or less in place a week before, when we learned that a homicidal wingnut had gone into a UU church in Knoxville and opened fire, killing two people and wounding seven. Because this incident was so fresh for us the day I spoke, and because the shooter had concealed his rifle in a guitar case as he entered the church, the title was changed to "Music as a Healing Choice."

For ease of reading and effect, I've made a few changes in the wording to accommodate the videos I'm inserting.

Very few of us can go through a single day without hearing music.  I think most people probably wake up to a clock radio or an alarm that plays a chosen tune.  While coffee is brewing, we listen to the perky theme music on the morning news shows and catch the latest commercial jingles in between segments.  Or, perhaps we get reminded that “Barney” loves us, and we love him!

Music often gets us ready for the day by lifting our mood or cuing us to prepare for something to come.  Here at this church, even before the prelude begins, we hear another pleasant sound [chime] that  signals the beginning of worship.

Even a single tone is composed of many sounds, with a fundamental frequency and overtones.  We hear and appreciate a sequence of tones and the relationship between them.  Music and language both involve rhythm, tempo, and anticipation.  Music can be generated internally, much like internal thought. 
Both our right and left brain hemispheres appear equally able to process pure frequency tones, but in non-musicians, the right hemisphere is dominant for appreciation of melody and harmony, and the left for rhythm.

Music and language communicate.
There is no doubt that music can get people’s attention like nothing else.  Sometimes, music makes such a statement, it is used for the opposite effect – to make people go away.  Certain public places such as office buildings and apartment complexes have experimented with playing classical and “easy listening” music over the speakers to discourage teenagers from congregating … and it is said to work!
It is surely no secret to anyone that when services are planned here, the music is taken into careful consideration.  Music can be almost a shorthand way of communicating a mood or a message.  “Enter, Rejoice and Come In” is a far cry from “Rank By Rank.” 
Anyone who grows up in a religious tradition also grows up in a musical tradition.  Those of us who came from Catholic families know “Ave Maria,” or in a more contemporary vein, “Let Us Break Bread Together.”  In a Jewish household, there’s “Adon Olam,” “Hava Negilah,” and “Hatikvah.”  Protestants are familiar with “The Old Rugged Cross” and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  Right now, I’ll wager some of you started hearing one of those songs in your head as soon as I mentioned the titles. 
Quite a few of us also grew up as a member of the Scouts.  That afforded us camp-out weekends and field trips by bus, in which we all helped the miles roll by a little faster by singing “This Land is Your Land” and “Puff the Magic Dragon.”  At least, that’s what we sang during my Girl Scout days.  On high school field trips it was more likely to be “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

“This Land is Your Land.”  Woody Guthrie wrote that in 1940.  The lyrics, that is, not the melody.  The music was originally attached to a song by the Carter Family and was already familiar to Baptists at tent revivals and baptisms.    It’s a catchy, up-beat little ditty, isn’t it?  The words remind us of picture postcards with those "endless skyways" and "golden valleys."…  But when Guthrie wrote those words, despite his years of wandering, he wasn't thinking about a travelogue.  He wrote it in direct response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, which Guthrie considered unrealistic and complacent. Tired of hearing Kate Smith sing it on the radio, he wrote a response originally called "God Blessed America for Me."
Guthrie varied the lyrics over time, sometimes including more overtly political verses.  Here’s one:

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

Happy music.  Sad lyrics.  A potent combination that has lent itself over the decades to such artists as John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Janis Ian.

Certainly, through World War II, music was used to rally the troops, and to acknowledge the personal sorrows of war while at the same time managing to gloss over them.  Songs of social protest, that questioned whether war was the answer, quite often suffered from bad timing.,,4027529-10057126,00.html

The Ballad of October 16, which questioned the wisdom of a peacetime draft, had no sooner been released than Hitler invaded the USSR.  Our direct involvement in World War II began a few months later. 

It is, perhaps, our very success in Europe and Asia in 1945 that made us focus all the more on the challenges that faced us back at home.  With the threat of war briefly quelled, we had more time to reflect and ponder certain other unresolved questions.

This song gave hope and inspiration during the struggles for Civil Rights during the 1950s and 1960s.  Pete Seeger, a contemporary of Woody Guthrie, had a deep understanding of how music, joined with words, could persuade as words alone could not.  In fact, he referred to the Civil Rights movement as "the singin'est movement I've ever known." 

Pete Seeger, approaching his 90th birthday, recently gave an interview on National Public Radio.  Almost casually, he dashed off what he called “four things that will save the human race.”  After hearing the interview I did some research and was not terribly surprised to hear that Mr. Seeger’s forebears were New England Unitarians.

The first thing we can do to save the human race, he says, is participate.  Get involved – rather than being a spectator, watching others go out and take action for something they believe in, try getting in on it.  Whatever it may be.  Write letters.  Walk across a bridge.  Attend a rally.  Make your opinions a practice, rather than a theory. 

The second thing, Pete says, is ask questions.  That was the one that sent me over to Google to unearth those Unitarian roots.  But it makes sense.  You hear something on the news, you check it out.  Why is it on the news?  What’s the rest of the story?  You can pick any news story at random, even something you hear on the radio on the way home, and probably come up with a dozen spontaneous questions to ask.  Who, what, when, where, and why are a good start.  Try to guess whether this will still be a big story -- or even "the" big story -- a year from now. 
It’s true that when we ask questions, we learn how that news item affects us.  But what we may forget is that it also gives us an opportunity to find out if there’s a way for us to get involved and have an effect of our own.  If we want to, we can vote 365 days of the year.  Not just the first Tuesday of November.
The third thing Seeger recommends is, learn how to give a report.  How many times have you listened to the news, felt you had a good understanding of an issue, and then tried to convey it to someone else?   “I heard the most amazing thing on the news!” you start out.  But then, you get stuck.  Who was that guy again? Was it in New York or Washington?  How did it start? Then, if you’re like me, you head back to the internet. When do you feel you really understand something?  When you can summarize it just as neatly as Paula Zahn. When you want others to know what’s important to you, it’s essential that you can package the information and pass it on accurately.  Music often gives us the best means of doing just that.
The fourth way we can save the human race is by learning how to work with people.  It comes back to participation.  “No Man is an Island” – yet another song, derived from the John Donne poem we all learned in high school, and full of folk wisdom that sums up an essential need.  Sharing ideas.  Giving and receiving support. Feeling the energy.

Plenty of people were still singing as the 1960s began drawing to a close, but we were also listening like never before.  By this time, rock and roll had exploded -- it was no longer some weird music you could turn your kids away from as easily as turning off the radio.  In great part due to Bob Dylan and the Beatles, rock lyrics were part of everyday discourse...but it was the music that hammered the message home. 

According to Wikipedia, The oldest European protest song on record is "The Cutty Wren" from the English peasants' revolt of 1381 against feudal oppression.

When Neil Young sang about "Four Dead in Ohio," he wasn't suggesting that we go overseas and fight.

He was suggesting that we stop and think.

I had the privilege of participating a month or so ago in the UUA’s General Assembly in Ft. Lauderdale.  On three separate occasions I was in a room with a large group of people.  There were questions – lots of them.  And there was music.
We were entertained and enlightened by a duo called The Good Asian Drivers --Kit Yan is a transgendered slam poet and Melissa Li is a lesbian folkrocker.  

This is for anybody who forgot to wake up and smell the coffee this morning:  

Melissa and Kit performed at the Bridging Ceremony for high school students moving up into the adult congregation. They made me take a fresh look at a world that lies far beyond the walls of this church, far beyond Chattanooga, and Tennessee.  Far beyond this moment.
So, we've got Woody and Pete and Bob and Bruce and Melissa and Kit... but what about Kanye and Ziggy and Lauryn?  That's right, we've completely ignored reggae and hip hop, so often unfairly maligned and stereotyped.  Like any angry young music, some of it does, indeed, have a limited audience, and quite often is written and produced specifically to offend or to flout convention -- or just to make a quick buck.  

But looking beyond the superficial impression, rap lyrics can surprise and delight with their wit and insight. Reggae is quirky, joyous, transcendent.

So, how do you set out to find that buried treasure?
Well, you have to listen.  Listen and you shall hear.  College radio, satellite radio, Pandora radio, I-tunes can take you ten thousand miles away to a new musical universe in less than a second.

The Vietnam War is long over, but as long as there's unrest in the world, and suffering, and injustice, people will be working together to support each other and make the rest of us aware.  They will be participating in political campaigns, rallies, and community action projects.  They will be asking questions.  They will be putting their impressions together and returning home with a report. 
And they will be making music.

There’s a lot going on, and still plenty to sing about.


What a stirring sermon that must have been. It must have been difficult to deliver in the wake of the shooting, so I applaud you. I applaud your celebration of music as well!

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