Passion Week Playlist #1: Songs Of a Groaning Creation

Whiskey and gun

What do a damaged Vietnam veteran, a heartbroken father, and a motherless child all have in common? All of their stories have been told in song form, and all of them are true. And there are thousands more just like them.

Most people listen to music because it makes them feel good, and I am certainly no exception. We are naturally drawn to music with lyrics that will uplift and encourage us. That’s why we all come back to the grand old hymns and gospel songs about heaven. (What a day that will be! Oh what shouting on that hallelujah morning!)

But sometimes, I need to hear what a groaning creation sounds like. Because it’s the reason Jesus had to die.

How do you respond to a lyric like this, written for the death of a child?

It’s all too easy to take so much for granted

But it’s oh, so hard to find the words to say

Like a castle in the sand the water takes away

Now how can life ever be the same?

Cause my heart is broken in pieces

Since I lost you.

Or this, for the death of a mother?

Some trains, they leave in the morning.

Some leave in the afternoon.

Some trains, they leave here right on time.

Some, they just leave too soon.

One thing is certain—cliches and platitudes will never do.

Continue reading “Passion Week Playlist #1: Songs Of a Groaning Creation”


Jesus, John, and The Last Supper

In honor of Passion Week, I’m preparing a few special playlists that will gather together some of my favorite songs ever written in any genre. So whether you like great songwriting or whether you’ve just been wondering, “That YankeeGospelGirl, man, what a grump she is! Isn’t there anything she likes?” then you won’t want to miss any of it.

Meanwhile, to kick off the week, I thought I would share an interesting biblical tidbit that sheds light on a key moment in the Last Supper. I discovered it while doing a little research after I’d reviewed the Old Paths Quartet’s latest album. I criticized their song “Stay” for being both poorly written and overly sentimental. While corresponding with someone who sent a nice comment on the review, I was inspired to look up the context for John’s record that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (assumed to be John himself) was “leaning on Jesus’ breast.” In the song, the writer turns this into some kind of infantile desire to “listen to Jesus’ heartbeat.” To say that I was skeptical of this interpretation would be an understatement. However, I’d always been curious about that phrase. What exactly did it mean? At the suggestion of my correspondent, I’m sharing this quotation from the helpful commentary I found after a few seconds of googling:

The “disciple whom Jesus loved” appears at the Last Supper. A literal translation of the Greek states that he was leaning on Jesus’ breast (Jn 13:23). Some twentieth century people have looked askance at this. In those days, however, it was customary for guests to recline side by side in such a way that the head of one guest was parallel to the chest of the person next to him. If one wished to speak privately to that person, one would move close enough so that one’s head was nearly or actually resting on the neighbor’s chest. This is what happened at the Last Supper, when John was reclining between Jesus and Peter, who was in turn between Judas and John. Jesus had just announced that one of his apostles would betray him. Peter, who was apparently on John‘s left, with his head on John‘s chest, bade him ask Jesus to identify the traitor. John then leaned back so his head was against Jesus’ chest as he asked Him to privately disclose who it was who would betray Him. Jesus took a piece of bread and told John that the man to whom he gave the morsel was the man to watch. He then gave it to Judas, who was on the other side of [John] and thus unable to follow Jesus’ conversation with John. — Bernard Ruffin, The Twelve: The Lives of the Apostles After Calvary, pp. 90-91

Now this author is speculating a bit when he suggests exactly how Peter and Judas were seated. But the point is that, with apologies to anyone who was really touched by that song, this whole idea of John cuddling up to Jesus just because is complete nonsense. In fact, once you understand what’s actually going on, it adds a wonderful dramatic tension to the reveal of Jesus’ betrayer.

It’s worth keeping in mind that Jesus’ life and ministry took place at a particular time and place, historically. We need to be aware that the cultural framework we bring to a given story could be wrong, maybe even seriously wrong. Of course it’s hard to let go of a favorite interpretation once you’ve latched onto it. But wouldn’t you rather understand the Bible the way it was really written, the way it really happened? I know I would.

Harmony Master-Class: The Cactus Cuties

I still remember when the Cactus Cuties first became a viral sensation. I was watching it on Youtube, and my mom walked by in the background and said, “Huh, they sound good.” Then she leaned over to read the description and exclaimed, ” ‘Range in age from 8 to 13???'”

That was basically America’s reaction too, and if you’re one of the five people who hasn’t seen the video yet, you’ll understand why once you do. The harmony, which could only have been the result of diligent practice, appears absolutely effortless. Best of all, the Anthem is sung tastefully, with the usual vocal histrionics replaced by a winsome Texas twang.

The Lubbock, Texas quartet soon had offers and opportunities flooding in. They kept up a tour schedule for the next few years. Unfortunately, if you look up their website now, it hasn’t been updated past 2011. They resurfaced in 2012 to ask for fan suggestions about a new group name, but I haven’t found anything more recent. It appears that they eventually just broke up without much explanation. I know their tastes shifted to more mainstream pop as they grew older. Perhaps they discovered that this didn’t differentiate them enough from any number of other aspiring pop singers. The lightning in a bottle that they captured with that National Anthem performance was what made them unique.

There’s a higher quality performance from an appearance they did on the 700 Club around the time they went viral. This video also includes an interview segment where they talk about how learning the history of the song affected the way they sang it. Coincidentally, I was just quoting Harry Connick, Jr. the other day about the importance of respecting a song’s lyrics. And coincidentally, Terry Franklin was just commenting under that post about how many singers have butchered the National Anthem, because they made the performance all about their vocal flourishes. (And for readers who aren’t familiar with southern gospel music, Terry Franklin is a crackerjack pro singer and demo artist himself.) It’s very heartening to see singers this age taking their craft so seriously. I only wish they could have found a way to stay together and continue making great music for longer than just a few years.

Do you want to be a great singer? Then sing the song.

Harry Connick Jr. you do runs homemade memeOne of my favorite contemporary musicians is Harry Connick, Jr. While I like some of his albums better than others, I respect his commitment to the craft and his deep understanding of American music and songwriting. I never watched American Idol at all until he became a judge. Then I tuned in last year just to hear his critiques, because they were so honest and insightful. Okay, maybe also to stare dreamily at Keith Urban, but never mind that for now.

ANY-way, before American Idol got smart and put Connick on the judges’ panel, they brought him in as a mentor on an earlier season. For those who don’t watch the show (which is okay, really—so not worth half a year of your life), a “mentor” is another celebrity brought in to coach the young singers through one particular week on the show. This mentor is (supposedly) chosen for his expertise in the week’s theme. In this season, the singers were given a week to prepare one current hit back-to-back with a Great American Songbook standard. (Which is a really dumb idea when you think about it, but I digress.) So, Harry was the obvious go-to guy to coach them through the standards. Really, I can’t think of anyone else his generation who would be better.

The problem was that while all of these 20-something aged singers were very talented, Harry walked in thinking they would also have some understanding of what they had chosen to sing about. He thought wrong. And they got a rude, but necessary awakening.

Continue reading “Do you want to be a great singer? Then sing the song.”

Artists, Your Digital Music is on Youtube, Like it Or Not

Some time last fall, I began to notice a strange phenomenon on Youtube. Videos were cropping up all over the place with high quality songs from a variety of artists, both secular and sacred. They featured exactly the same thumbnail image (the cover reflected against a dark background), and they were all tagged as “auto-generated by Youtube.” Essentially, if an album was being sold in digital markets, it was made available for free streaming this way. I did some googling, and at first all I found was a page about auto-generated playlists, where Youtube would collect already uploaded videos on a particular subject and create playlists automatically. This was obviously different. It was as if Youtube itself was providing new content. All that distinguishes these music videos from other user uploads is that popular web conversion services like youtube to mp3 will not work with them, making it difficult to download copies onto your own computer.

After more digging, I found out that yes indeed, Youtube is automatically putting artists’ full digital albums out there for free. With the integration of Youtube and all things Google, some have speculated that it’s tied in with Google Play. As far as I’ve been able to find, neither Google nor Youtube itself has released any official statement on the matter. But I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Here is a reddit thread, and here is an article describing the phenomenon.

This extends to southern gospel artists with work in the digital market as well, including people like Gerald Wolfe who have been very vocal about piracy concerns in the past. I hate to break it to Gerald, but for whatever reason, it looks like Google and/or Youtube is now making piracy official. (You can find hours’ worth of Greater Vision albums here, all automatically generated.)

However, given southern gospel music’s particular demographic, I’m not sure how much of a concern this should be to southern gospel artists. Southern gospel fans like to have music in their hands, and unless you have a mobile phone, you can’t listen to Youtube playlists on the go. My advice to southern gospel artists would be that it’s still worth it to put their music on the digital market, even though this automatic process now seems unstoppable. And if anything, it’s such a small niche in the music business that even more Youtube exposure is probably going to help more than it hurts.

What are your thoughts on this trend, as it affects southern gospel music or just music in general? I think it raises some interesting questions and concerns. I think the people who will be hardest hit are independent artists with a younger demographic.

CD Review: Stay, by The Old Paths

STAY album cover

The Old Paths Quartet may not be a household name even among fans of southern gospel music, but they have built a reputation as one of the most consistent groups in the industry. Last year, they garnered some well-deserved extra attention with their big ballad “Long Live the King.” With Stay, available today, they offer the same solid vocals their fans have come to expect, paired with new songs mostly penned by Dianne Wilkinson and Rebecca Peck. Click below the fold for my thoughts. Continue reading “CD Review: Stay, by The Old Paths”

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Have some Irish music.

Well, I was going to publish a CD review today, but it didn’t happen. So on this Saint Paddy’s Day, enjoy this fine live performance of a love letter to Dublin: “Rare Auld Times.” Brian Dunphy of the High Kings dedicates it to his father, who had passed away recently at the time of this recording. It’s a stellar vocal, and I love the way they just strum away with abandon on the guitar and banjo sorry, not a banjo as I’m looking more closely at it. Stringed something-something. Anyway, this is the kind of spirited, rough-hewn music-making I love. I love the guy in blue just grinning and leaning back behind them in the background like, “Yep. Way to do it!”

Ring a ring a rosy

As the light declines

I remember Dublin City

In the rare auld times…

Harmony Master Class: Simon & Garfunkel and Andy Williams

A harmony master class, as I will define it, is a preferably live exhibition of exceptionally good harmony singing. It can be from any genre, as long as it’s aesthetically pleasing. For my first installment, I’ve chosen Simon & Garfunkel’s collaborative guest appearance on the Andy Williams show. Williams often invited and sang with popular groups of his day (including other folk revivalist bands like Peter, Paul & Mary). Although Williams’s voice is heavier than Simon or Garfunkel’s, it’s remarkable how smoothly he blends in his tones with theirs. In the little intro clip, he recalls that he didn’t find it difficult to find his part, because he grew up practicing harmony singing with his brothers.

The piece is the legendary “Scarborough Fair,” here presented with the rarely heard, Simon-penned counterpoint tune “Canticle.” As you might be able to tell, the lyrics are rather flaky and anti-war (you can follow along here), but then that’s only to be expected. However, if you concentrate on the music, it’s quite exquisitely woven together with the folk song.

It might look a bit odd that Garfunkel appears to be staring very intently at Williams as they sit in a circle around a single microphone, but this is a practical choice. As I can confirm from personal experience, eye contact is especially important in synchronizing close harmony when you haven’t sung extensively with your singing partners.

An interesting detail is the way Paul shows off his upper range around 2:48, harmonizing above Williams while Garfunkel sings the counterpoint, then dips back under him for the next line. As a duo, Simon and Garfunkel would often cross their parts so that you could only tell by careful listening who was singing what at a given moment. Williams puts it well when describing the elegant simplicity of their sound: “You became mesmerized by it, by just that lack of things going on.”