The Common Good

Forbidden Revivals and the Birth of Bluegrass

Summer Sundays with Phyllis Tickle

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In the days of my childhood, summer was the season of the big-tent revivals. More than any other of the myriad things that summer could be and was, it was the revivals that were for me the major descriptor of what a complete and proper summer was. This rather peculiar fixation was, no doubt, due in large measure to the fact that I was forbidden to even get near the things. For my Ph.D., Presbyterian father, everything that happened under those tents was suspect, and most of it was downright dangerous.

In those pre-air-conditioning days, we would often get in the car after supper and go for a drive simply to cool off enough to go to sleep. Windows down and breeze blowing, we would drive up and down the wider streets and most of the back roads surrounding the university town where we lived. And we would pass them. We would pass those great, gray-brown interruptions staked out like monoliths on empty city lots and in unmown fields. Always the naked lightbulbs swung by the dozens from strings of overhead wiring. Always the sawdust ... oh, I loved the sawdust and ached to be barefoot in it. Always the metal folding chairs in "discobbobalated" (my mother's word for them) rows, like snaggled teeth in the mouth of a 6-year-old. But more than that, more tantalizing and more forbidden ... always there was the music that passed through the windows of our passing car.

I don't like music particularly, at least not in the popular sense of having an iPod or a fine collection of CDs or even a favorite radio station. Music gets in my head, if I let it get near me, and then it takes over. I can't hear the words of my profession for all the nonverbal conversation of the music. But when I was a child, I didn't know that. I just knew that that music, that 1930's revival music, was my soul fulfilled and still feasting. This reaction was, of course, no doubt the precise reason why my father forbade our going to the things in the first place. The only time I can ever remember his breaking his rule, in fact, was one summer night in my seventh or eighth year when I was weepy with longing. To pacify my mother who, undoubtedly, was desperate to pacify me, he stopped the car, took me by the hand, and let me stand just inside the ring of sawdust and listen for perhaps five minutes. It was heaven, or as near as I had, at that stage of life, ever thought to be.

But World War II brought a lot of changes with it, as well as a lot of misery and a lot of goodness. No war is ever without a mixed bag of consequences. One of the war's consequences was increased urbanization and much better technology. Both of them forever changed the tent revival, or if not the revival per se, then certainly its music. The men and women who belted out or wept out or crooned out the glories of my childhood had not grown up on electricity, much less on electrified instruments. No, not at all. So they had played instead the acoustic instruments of their own childhoods -- the guitars, fiddles, mandolins, harmonicas, and guitars of their own past. And it was this sound, I later realized, that I so loved.

After the war, when music began to electrify and musicians began to entertain, instead of speak for, their audiences, there were apparently more folk than I who yearned to go home to the sound of the old ways. Bluegrass was born. Wonderful, fulsome, acoustic, down-home bluegrass. Lord, how I loved it. In fact, my great claim to fame (if you will forgive my bragging a bit here) is that once I was on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry as a guest of a friend and was standing just back of the wash of the stage lights and adjacent to the corner of the band's dais. Bill Monroe had just finished a set when, in turning from the front of the stage toward its back, he somehow caught his foot on the corner of the dais and fell straight into my arms, mandolin and all. It is not an immodest exaggeration to say that once upon a summer night, I saved Bill Monroe from some kind of nasty discomfort and his mandolin from certain destruction.

All that digression aside, however, the truth still is that bluegrass was and is just the revival glory of the '30s come into the 21st century. Blessedly, it still wrings out its sweetness with acoustical instruments and alternates its leads and riffs with egalitarian elegance. If it doesn't include so many hymns now, it still sings the certainty of goodness that those hymns were about. And it is that certainty, I now understand, that drew me as a child and still draws me now. I realized this -- in the sense of at last perceiving it at a level I can articulate -- last Saturday.

That day, Sam and I left Lucy, Tennessee, where we live, and drove about 60 miles southeast to Williston, Tennessee. Neither of those places is what anybody would call a major geographic site or a strong economic center. But that doesn't matter. What matters is that the Harrison Crawford Bluegrass Festival is held every June on the old Crawford farm just south of Williston. There's no tent, of course, but there is a huge metal-roofed, open-sided shed that Mr. Crawford built for the festival long before he died. And there is a stage of sorts -- adequate certainly for bluegrass needs. And all the straggly rows of mismatched chairs. And the concessionaires and the porta-potties and the campers and the two-acre parking lot and the music ... Oh, Lord, there it is, rolling over dozens of acres and who even knows how many people as set after set is played, and people clap and sway and clog and, then, transport to that place they all came hoping to go to in the first place. That place where goodness dwells so fully that nothing other than goodness could ever be there.

Ah, the goodness. And I left that afternoon of bluegrass and of swaying, clogging, clapping people knowing, yet once again, that my father was right about two things: The music is untamed, and the music can seduce you. He was wrong -- my beloved father -- only in that he himself was, by time and circumstance, forbidden to see or say that the Lord of the Dance calls by many tunes and many means. It is a good and joyful thing for me this summer Sunday to be able to know and understand that.

Blessed be the name of the Lord of the Dance.

Phyllis Tickle (www.phyllistickle.com) is the founding editor of the religion department of Publishers Weekly and author of The Words of Jesus: A Gospel of the Sayings of Our Lord and the forthcoming fall release, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why.

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