Girl Named Tom Brings Mennonite Harmonies to ‘The Voice’ | Sojourners

Girl Named Tom Brings Mennonite Harmonies to ‘The Voice’

On Dec. 14, siblings Bekah, Caleb, and Joshua Liechty, collectively known as Girl Named Tom, became the first group to win NBC’s The Voice after 20 seasons of solo winners. In a blind audition, the siblings delighted the four celebrity coaches with their tight harmonies, but each of the three got a chance to shine throughout their performances. With the enthusiastic support of their coach, Kelly Clarkson, the trio presented new arrangements of beloved classic rock, country, and folk hits.

The Liechty siblings grew up attending Zion Mennonite Church in Archbold, Ohio, and brothers Caleb and Joshua are graduates of Goshen College, a Mennonite college. While Bekah and Joshua, who spoke with Sojourners, consider their faith identity to be “in exploration,” they continue to be rooted in Mennonite community.

Bekah and Joshua consider their musical experiences in church formational. They learned to sing in harmony by copying their mother as she sang through the different vocal parts of hymns and moved her finger along the sheet music. Their confidence expanded as they performed on piano and sang for their congregation. Many of the other talented finalists on The Voice, including Wendy Moten, Paris Winningham, and Jershika Maple, also cited their involvement in church music as crucial for their development as singers and musicians.

Caleb and Joshua continued their musical education at Goshen College, where their parents were alumni. Joshua attributes substantial musical growth from learning from professors Scott Hochstetler and Deb Detwiler, a beloved choir director who died in 2019. Joshua also enjoyed club hymn singing. In a message to Sojourners, Hochstetler wrote: “The blend and harmony [Girl Named Tom] are able to achieve as a group was most surely impacted by their early and continued exposure to four-part Mennonite hymn singing and high-level choral music-making. We are so proud to call (Caleb and Josh) Goshen College alums!”

As they arranged new songs, like Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind,” for performances on The Voice, Girl Named Tom asked themselves, “If we were to put this into a Mennonite hymnbook, what would it look like?” Bekah told Sojourners. They drew on the harmonies they had grown up hearing. “If it’s a Jonas Brothers song, make it a hymn,” she quipped.

Joshua and Bekah especially like hymns that have harmonies that are a little “creepy, dissonant, or crunchy,” like “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “I Bind My Heart This Tide,” and, in their arrangements, they try to go beyond the triad harmonies that are most common in pop music.

Mennonites all over the country have rallied behind the Liechty siblings as Girl Named Tom made their way through The Voice’s singing competition. Ken Nafziger, a professor emeritus at Eastern Mennonite University and music editor of the 1992 Hymnal: A Worship Book, said, “It is a matter of pride for the church. Of course, we don't talk about pride as Mennonites, but it is powerful that somebody from among us accomplished that.”

Sarah Hartman-Keiser, who lived in a group house with Caleb Liechty at Goshen and hosted an emotional watch party for The Voice finale, said Girl Named Tom’s win was “very personal for a lot of people because this group did a lot of touring” in Mennonite churches and communities. A fundraiser at a Mennonite church financed Girl Named Tom’s tour travel, and they connected with local Mennonites as they moved around the country. “The first thing we did in every city, we’d try to find a Mennonite church and someone that we knew in that church, and they would get us plugged into the community,” reflected Bekah.

An important moment in Mennonite history

For Mennonites, “music has always been important, and it's always been in some degree controversial,” said Ken Nafziger. The 1564 Ausbund, widely considered the earliest Anabaptist hymnal, has no music notes or harmony parts, which reflects a long history of Mennonites singing in unison. The Mennonite four-part acapella harmony tradition that many Mennonites identify with today grew out of 19th-century singing schools and Harmonia Sacra, an 1832 hymnbook by Joseph Funk that was used in singing schools, where Mennonites would learn to read music and sing in harmony.

This type of singing has become an integral part of Mennonite identity for many North American Mennonites. Joshua Liechty reflected that “the harmony is ingrained in our culture, and so, to share it and see that people really love it, it’s really cool.” Sarah Hartman-Keiser sees singing in harmony as the most important way she connects to the Mennonite church. “It's such a participatory thing, listening to the people around you and fitting in different parts with the parts you hear around you.”

However, while four-part acapella harmony singing is very important to some Mennonites, there is tremendous cultural, linguistic, and musical diversity among Mennonites. There are Mennonites who do not sing in harmony at all. Katie Graber, an ethnomusicology professor at Ohio State University and the intercultural worship editor for Mennonite Church USA’s 2020 hymnal Voices Together, notes in a forthcoming publication that Austin McCabe Juhnke “describes the publication of The Mennonite Hymnal in 1969 as a project that consolidated a conception of White ethnic Mennonite identity in part by emphasizing four-part singing and its connection to the European and Euro-American past.” In other words, Mennonite harmony has been an integral part of the construction of a white American Mennonite identity.

Graber believes that understanding this history provides important context for the strong Mennonite support for Girl Named Tom. White Mennonites today “think of the Mennonite Hymnal as Mennonite music, but they do not think of the Mennonaires (African American choir) or the Lawndale Choir (Latino) recordings from the 1970s as Mennonite music,” Graber explained to Sojourners. If Girl Named Tom were made up of Mennonites of color, Mennonite communities “might identify them as Mennonites making music and find a personal connection with that label, but it's different than thinking of the content as Mennonite,” she cautioned, underscoring the limited styles of music that are accepted as “Mennonite.” Even as Mennonites recognize Mennonite musicians of color as Mennonites, they often continue to exclude the kinds of music that those musicians make from their conceptions of what Mennonite music is.

Even as Mennonites grapple with racial justice and the need to incorporate a wider variety of music into their conceptions of Mennonite music, Mennonite enthusiasm for the Liechty siblings’ pop performances in glitter and understated leopard print already represents an expansion in Mennonite notions of what kinds of music are acceptable. Throughout Mennonite history in North America until the 1980s, instrumental music was controversial because it was seen as “worldly.” Applying the skills that they honed in church, Girl Named Tom used a variety of instruments while performing on The Voice.

Ken Nafziger reflected, “At one time I suspect that all three of them would have been kicked out of the church for what they did. Hollywood has never been much of a style for Mennonites, so I think it's a mark of growth and better health that they, for their unique and incomparable gifts, can be accepted as one of us and not condemned.”