The Transcendentalism of Song

<Singing together “The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Bob Dylan>

That song is one of the great songs of my life. It’s been with me as long as I can remember. I learned it very early on, from my parents’ Peter, Paul, and Mary records, and later it helped introduce me to the work of Bob Dylan.

Perhaps foolishly, my father told me once that when he used to come home from college, in the early sixties, just after the song came out, he would, at some appropriate moments in his relationship with his parents, storm to his room, shut himself inside and play “The Times They Are A-Changin’” really loudly, particularly the fourth verse—the one that says:

Come Mothers and Fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
For your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
So get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

Well, that seemed like such a good idea to me that later on I gave him the chance, on several occasions, to hear those words, as loudly as my cheap stereo could play them, from the other side of the slammed door. What goes around, comes around, I guess.

And that’s the point of the song, isn’t it? What goes around, comes around.

And it’s true, I know because here I find myself, more than twenty years later, having migrated across the line of the song to join the ranks of those “mothers and fathers throughout the land”. My daughter is too young, so far, to use music intentionally as a statement of protest. But I know that one day she will—in fact, I sort of hope that one day she will—just not against me.

But I love to play and sing with her, and I love to play for her the music that is important to me. So somewhere along the line, I made some decisions about her and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”.

First, I decided that I would try to listen to the prophetic words of the song, and work to “lend a hand” as best I could—to be as understanding and as compassionate a parent as I could be.

But since I have realistic notions of how far that will get me, I have also decided that I will sing and play that song often enough that she will find it in her mind so irreversibly linked with me, that it will be rendered ineffective as a parental protest song.

Of course, when the time comes, I’m sure she’ll find some new song of her own, songs about intergenerational injustice, for some reason, seem to be not exactly rare.

If there was nothing more to “The Times They Are A-Changin’” than child-parent gotchas, then this is where the story would end. But of course, it is a deeper song, a deeper, even archetypal song, about how the world works, about what our tasks are in the world if we are to keep up with the progress and process and passage of time. It echoes Buddhist concepts, and ideas from other long-established human beliefs. It quotes the Gospel directly: “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first,” Mark 10:31.

It is a song with much more to say than petty adolescent rebellion, and I learned that well, when I began to sing it to Emma. On occasion, I have found myself in that moment of singing, feeling, tangibly, the presence, right there, of forty years and four generations of my family. Singing that song, it feels to me that we are all there in that moment—all there, linked by the song, linked by that unique combination of melody and rhythm and words, written by someone more than forty years ago, who did not know us at all, but who knew at least some important, deep part of what it meant to be human, and who felt compelled in his own time to write his ideas down in song.

My definition of the word “scripture,” is that it is human communication that calls to us over time to a deeper and more accurate understanding of what it means to be human and to be alive in the world.

Scripture is language—more than just words—language that calls us to recognize, admit, and heal brokenness. It is language that drives us to seek out and honor wholeness. It is language that brings us to connection, and community, across time, across space.

Scripture is language that calls us to our highest and most effective selves.

The words, the poetry, the music, the works of art that call to you, they are scripture. Some of your scriptures may be recognized by religious communities and encoded in formal ways. And a great amount of your scripture may be recognized as such only by you.

In whatever form it takes, scripture is language that embeds itself in our minds and in our hearts and comes to us, full of layers of meaning, when it is needed. Sometimes it comes when the meaning is clear and expected, sometimes it comes unbidden, for reasons unknown, that we can discern only with time and perspective, and better understanding. It comes, offering both comfort and challenge, both solace and a drive to do what is right according to our best selves, and our understanding of the world.

Throughout my life, I have found that my scripture seems to come most often in the form of music. There is something about how music affects me that I struggle to describe.

Even in the Bible, I find myself drawn to the psalms—the hymnbook of ancient Israel. The psalms are songs, filled with all the emotions of human experience, all the joys and sorrows of being alive. They are sometimes troubling, sometimes painful, but that’s just it, isn’t it. To be human is to be sometimes troubled and sometimes troubling, sometimes full of joy, and sometimes full of anger and spite. The psalms challenge and connect, and they call forth honesty that we cannot avoid. That is what scripture is, what scripture must do. And it’s what music seems to do so often, so well.

So this summer, working in the hospital, when I have asked people to share with me what keeps them going in the face of illness, it doesn’t surprise me that more often than not, they have responded that it is the songs, the hymns, the music of their lives, that fills that role, better than anything else they know.

That’s certainly how it is for me. In moments of significant difficulty, it is the songs of my life that I find running through my head.

Folk songs, Rock songs, camp songs, Classical pieces, anthems I’ve sung in choirs, tunes I’ve played in band.

And, of course, there are hymns. Hymns like, “Amazing Grace,” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”, and two hymns set to the old Irish tune, Slane—The one we sang earlier: “Wake Now My Senses”, written by my teacher and colleague, Thomas Mikelson, and the older version I learned in my childhood: “Be Thou My Vision.”

I have to say about that tune, that something about it just grabs me. It gives me what W.A. Mathieu describes in the reading that Tom shared with you earlier—the feeling of something primal that I almost remember. I’ve found it seems not to matter to me which version I sing—the two are so conflated in my mind now that unless I have the words in front of me, I find myself drifting back and forth, verse to verse; and they all stir something in me, some basic meaning that I struggle to describe, but that I hope never to live without.

That, for me, is scripture. That for me is important religious experience—experience that goes beyond my common everyday understanding, and that reaches in and touches some deeper part of who I am, and what I think I need to do if I am to live a life that is full of meaning, full of who I know I should be.

Maybe you’ve heard a story like the one from the beginning of General Assembly in Quebec City in 2002. As the banner parade was just starting to get underway, a man, one of the banner carriers, suffered a heart attack and collapsed. Some of the others in the room had medical training, and they began tending to him right away. Someone else called for an ambulance. And the others, after a few moments, I am told, gathered around, held hands, and sang “Spirit of Life.”

Say what you want about that song, I know that some people don’t like it, or get tired of it, or struggle with it theologically, but in that moment, it was the right song in the right time. When nothing else could be done, when no words or actions would really do much, it was the right song to sing. The man survived, and is doing fine, I’m told. Probably not because of the song, sure, but I know it didn’t hurt.

In fact, in that moment, that song did exactly what good scripture should do—it brought people together, and gave them comfort, and strength, and community and challenged them to stand by in human companionship in the presence of an event that was hard to witness, and in which it might have been easier simply to turn away.

It’s important to note that some songs, and some people’s ideas of scripture, seem to be used in exactly the opposite fashion—to withdraw from human community, to build walls, to prop up restrictive groups, to escape the depths of what is truly human on the promise of some pseudo-utopian ideal.

I think about the music that accompanied the Nazi rallies. I think about the temptation, the desire to use drugs to short-circuit experience, and substitute ecstatic feelings for true life—the temptation to use music not to engage with the world, but to withdraw from it.

Fear of just this sort of situation is what leads religions sometimes to avoid music, to say that it is incompatible with religious practice. We know that our own ecclesiastical ancestors—the Puritans who founded this congregation—for instance, in their earliest years restricted music to unaccompanied psalm-singing. They said, in those early times, that music clouded the mind, and lured thoughts away from God. They changed their position after a while, of course, but the fear was still there, as it remains in many religious settings, that music and Spirit would hold each other apart.

But music, used well, we know, can be a foundation for good spiritual practice, and to do so it needs to fulfill all the requirements of all good spiritual practice. It needs to help us connect to life at several different levels: it needs to connect ourselves and our spirits, in the way we often have labeled here “going in”. It needs to help us connect to the needs and experiences of wider world—the kind of connection we have called, “going out”. And finally, it needs to help us connect to each other in overlapping, intertwined layers of community—what I describe as “coming together”.

Spiritual practice is about building connections, and Music can build connections. Music is one way to touch the Spirit, and it is a particularly effective means to do so—to touch the Spirit, to build connections, and to build a life that is full and whole and authentic and alive.

So we need good songs—both for ourselves, and for our communities. We need good songs, and we need as many good songs, as varied a collection as we can build.

We need them in all genres, of many types, with words we like right away, and with words that make us struggle sometimes. We need good songs too with no words, because sometimes what we need, in fact, is to have just music, and no words.

We need good songs filled with sound and spirit—filled with rhythm and melody and harmony and dissonance, and overtones that we can’t even hear consciously, but that are there, making the quality of the sound what it is, making it deeper, and fuller, and inexplicably whole.

And isn’t that a profound and true metaphor for religious experience as a whole.

We need songs that build themselves into our souls, so that when nothing else seems right, when no other language will fit, the song comes unbidden but welcome, whole and whole-hearted, and touches the part of us that is most human, most connected, most aware of what makes a difference, most alive.

Dylan is right when he quotes the film, and says it’s a religious line to say that Music is where it’s at. Music is a profound mechanism of the spirit, a profound mechanism of connection:

for all people laugh
in the same tongue
an’ cry
in the same tongue…
an’ its all songs
it’s just one big world of songs
an’ they’re all on loan
if they’re only turned loose t’ sing.

(end)

 

The Times They Are A-Changin’
By Bob Dylan

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'.
'Cause the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and its ragin'
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin'.
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.