Prodding the Spirit

If Ben Harper held a séance with just his Weissenborn guitar and the songs from his latest release, Burn to Shine, he could conjure up the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Hank Williams Sr., and Blind Willie McTell. Harper has been compared to these musicians whose legacies stretch through the century before Harper and his band, The Innocent Criminals, had their first release in 1994.

Harper’s instrument of choice, the Weissenborn, produced only in the 1920s, has a hollow neck, no frets, and is played across the lap like a slide guitar. It is one link between Harper’s current music and the roots music—blues, soul, spirituals, rock, and vintage country—that influenced him as the child of musician parents and grandparents.

The lyrics of this writer, musician, poet, and (some say) prophet are National Public Radio-meets-Rolling Stone. I wouldn’t know where to find him on FM radio—the lower 80s of public and college radio stations or in upper 100s of modern rock stations. As his recording and touring career continues, you’ll likely find him on many channels—a worrisome prospect for ardent fans. "An intimacy one has with a musician through his music can be too easily lost when the artist becomes increasingly popular, and consequently, overplayed and overglorified," said a friend who first introduced me to Harper’s music.

ON BURN, HARPER’S fourth effort, the 30-year-old California native wails, lulls, and roars. His songs cover the territory of relationships ("Woman in You"), the ills of materialism ("Less"), and stops along his faith journey. The variety of sounds include the blues-inspired "Suzie Blue," featuring The Real Time Jazz Band, which sounds like it was recorded on a vinyl LP, and the Motown-tinged "Show Me A Little Shame." The variety extends to the playful lyrics and beat boxing of "Steal My Kisses." Spiritual imagery and Harper’s yearning for signs of belief appear in most tracks; in two songs his search for love could be extended to his search for faith ("Please Bleed" and "Two Hands of a Prayer").

"Forgiven" and "In the Lord’s Arms" provide a Lenten reflection. Listening to "Forgiven" I envisioned Jesus lamenting from the cross: "I tried singing to you, but you turned my words to stone/Here I have been waiting, it seems for quite a while/Changed all my reflections/But inside I’m just a child/You shall be forgiven." The Weissenborn accompaniment softens the song, bringing Jesus down from the cross as a spirit whispering in your ear.

"In the Lord’s Arms" ends the album as a hymn sung in eulogy of the death and the ascension: "So I drink this wine to him/With each glass of memory/He left with his crown of thorns/Tonight he’s in the Lord’s arms." The mandolin, banjo, and fiddle accompaniment ground the song in Celtic roots and give Harper’s depiction a vision-like quality.

He transcends musical and theological categories, which gives reviewers and fans the opportunity to tag their own spiritual reflections onto Harper’s lyrics and sound. Most interviewers tackle the God question at some point in their dialogues with Harper; the varying answers they receive indicate how difficult it is to pin him down. "A belief isn’t something I can talk about," Harper says. "It’s beyond words. A belief can’t be spoken, only sung."

As Harper and The Innocent Criminals continue to tour extensively and gain fans from D.C. to Denmark to New Zealand, he responds to young people who yearn for a creative space to ask questions of faith and the spirit. "Music," he says, "is the spirit. Anything that can move people to act is the spirit." And listeners realize their own spirit rumbles somewhere under the surface of their skin, like Harper’s songs rumble under their thoughts. And the secret is out that the faith Harper sings about is alive in them as well.

ELIZABETH NEWBERRY is editorial assistant at Sojourners.

Born to Shine. Harper, Ben. Virgin Records, 10/01/1999.

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