It’s a bright, sunny day in early May. Highway 460 is revealing delights I, who grew up along it, have never imagined. Soon-to-be pumpkin patches vie with tiny post offices for our attention. My wife and I are driving nearly two hours, from my empty childhood home, to visit my mother in the hospital. We’ve had a hard few days. I was in the hospital for some routine tests, which came at the end of days of fasting. Yesterday I thought my mother was dying, and we drove over three hours to see her, then two, at midnight, through deer-crossed night roads, to sleep. And we are discussing how lovely and remarkable old gospel music is. This is odd, because I am a vaguely heathen chaos magician and my wife is a Buddhist-flavored atheist.
We both grew up in very Christian sub-cultures. My wife was in a more evangelical place than I was — friends think it’s remarkable, hearing about my rural upbringing in eastern Kentucky, to find I wasn’t made to go to church. I actually brought that up with my mom (now out of the hospital again). She said I was always going with one of my grandmothers. Mostly I attended church, when I did, with my dad’s mom, who walked, at the age of 82, about fifteen minutes each way to attend a church that I believe, now, to have been Pentecostal. If I stayed with her on a weekend, it was just a fact that I walked to this church with her, and then walked back, through the eastern end of a town so small it’s silly to point out it has an eastern end.
My wife’s father was actually a big deal in the family church, so it was a bigger deal, in turn, that my wife’s family be religious, particularly in very public ways.
Given that information, you might find it odd that we both like gospel music. I’ve written in the past that Christians who hate intolerance need to rebrand themselves, because the word “Christian” is just too tainted by the religion’s history.
Of course, I should be specific — we both like very old gospel music, usually bluegrass music. We both revile what we’ve heard of Christian rock and other contemporary attempts to cater to people who think their children shouldn’t be exposed to culture-at-large.
I’m being very honest when I say that some religious songs can make me weep. Of course, they usually have some sensitive connotations. “Go Rest High On That Mountain” is a good example. I have a cousin who’s the family musician. My dad wanted him to perform this song at his — my dad’s — funeral. My cousin couldn’t make it. About seven months later, at the family reunion, my cousin showed up with a wet face, begging us to forgive him for not coming. He was working, stuck hundreds of miles away. We didn’t blame him. But he came up with us to the cemetery and sang this song, with his lone guitar, on the hilltop.
I should take a moment to talk about the cemetery. I grew up fifteen minutes’ drive from the nearest town, and that town is tiny. So when I say “the cemetery” I mean the family cemetery, isolated on a hilltop, overlooking the creek on one side and the woods on the other. Growing up, I could see the cemetery from my window. At night, the security light was the only light visible in the darkness. Standing in the cemetery, I am surrounded on all sides by family. The dead are below ground, the living above it. From the hilltop, every house visible belongs to someone I am related to. The only person nearby that I’m not related to got unceremoniously adopted into my family, just because we’re so thick along the creek. He took the place of a grandfather for me, since both of mine were dead. I own several vine-twisted walking staves he carved. He also gave me my first knife, a green-handled single-blade thing that was really just a keychain, honestly.
The point I guess I’m driving at is that I grew up surrounded by family, and when they died they didn’t go away, they just went up there. “Up there” or “on the hill” are phrases in my family that mean “the cemetery.”
I hadn’t meant to confine myself to mourning music when I started this. The bigger picture we can derive from this stuff so far is that, for me growing up, religion wasn’t a question mark. It also wasn’t a big deal. It was just a thing that happened to be true. God was like my older brother. I believed he existed because I was told so, and when I was up on that high hilltop I was close to both of them. I remember having a moment of powerful ecstasy after a church service that my aforementioned neighbor took me to with his wife. It wasn’t the service itself, which I had barely heard — if I heard it at all. I remember sitting outside in the vestibule for a lot of it. I don’t know if that’s what happened, but I remember it that way. I had it in the cemetery behind that church (not the one I’ve been talking about). I was looking up at the sky during sunset. The clouds were pink and blue and bright, and the sky was big. Big skies still have a powerful effect on me, because I didn’t grow up with them. We were so surrounded by trees that darkness came, and still comes, long before it would were we somewhere else. I didn’t grew up with sunsets; I grew up with long, romantic gloamings.
Here’s the punchy ending, since this has been mostly reminiscence: that’s the worldview in which gospel music makes sense. It’s a world where you can encounter God at any point, and then go home and eat. Old bluegrass music captures that feeling — someone may mention God because they’re talking about poverty, or family, or death, or the future. God happens to be a part of those things.
Compare that to Christian rock today, in which the singer tries to talk about God as much as it’s possible to do. Everything else in the song becomes subservient to the goal of sticking some more God in there. I actually heard a song, last week, in a waiting room, in which the singer spoke to a significant other who was “given” to him, the singer, by God. So the woman (let’s face it, it was a woman) is a thing, a parcel to be delivered from God to the singer. Her agency is gone.
Compare that, again, to “The Old Churchyard,” which is about how death appears from inside the rubric of Christianity. It’s about mourning, not God. Here’s Offa Rex’s version (from which this entire post happened late at night):
So, why might the people in the scene far above, driving that sunny road, be powerfully affected by religious music, even though it’s not there religion? There are probably a lot of answers. It’s an honest portrayal of a person’s life and thoughts. It’s a stirring rendition of a faith and worldview offering hope, rather than condemnation. And, of course, the music’s good, too.