The first time I saw Amy León, she was standing in a church that was about to explode. Or had already exploded — I couldn’t tell. I was watching the music video for her song “Burning in Birmingham,” a reenactment of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that took the lives of four black girls on Sept. 15, 1963 in Birmingham, Ala.
Earlier this year, Tripp Hudgins wrote a piece declaring that all his favorite theologians are dying. He listed David Bowie and Pete Seeger as two theologians whom he felt sang “real theology about a real God” during their lifetimes. Others would later add Prince and Phife Dog and Sharon Jones to their lists of songwriters who spoke lyrics of truth in a broken world and who are no longer with us. Leon Wieselthier described his friend Leonard Cohen as “the lyrical advocate of the finite and the flawed” in a beautiful eulogy in the New York Times just the other week. Could a musically gifted person of any faith be honored with better words than those?
HIGHWAY 62 runs from Niagara Falls, N.Y., to El Paso, Texas, and is the only U.S. highway to connect Canada and Mexico. In my home state of Kentucky, it passes the Wild Turkey distillery at Lawrenceburg and the state maximum security penitentiary at Eddyville.
Further north it takes you to Buffalo, N.Y., the hometown of roots music singer-songwriter Peter Case. That’s why he picked HWY 62 as the title for his latest album, a collection that can be taken as a sort of “state of the nation” recording. The Christian Science Monitor even said that the album “plays like a John Steinbeck novel set to music.” And they have a point. Most of the album’s 11 songs are peopled with prisoners and deportees, the evicted and the gentrified, and other 21st-century American outcasts.
Unlike many folkie populists, Case comes by his sympathy for the down-and-out honestly, if a little foolishly. Back on that lost planet that was the1970s, he dropped out of high school to become a musician and eventually landed on the streets of San Francisco, hungry, homeless, and frequently drunk. This part of Case’s life is covered unsparingly in the blog/memoir that he keeps at petercase.com, some of which has become a book, As Far as You Can Get Without a Passport.
After a near-miss with the poppish-punk band The Nerves, Case got his ticket to the music business punched with The Plimsouls, whose hit, “A Million Miles Away,” was one of the high-water marks of jangly 1980s New Wave rock. But then, just before he could become really rich and famous, Case’s contrarian streak reasserted itself. He left the band and started what now looks to be the rest of his life as a singer-songwriter who sometimes records with the likes of T Bone Burnett and Ry Cooder, but most often performs solo with his own acoustic guitar and harmonica.
The month of May is littered with important anniversaries in movements for justice — beginning on May 1, the day of recognition for workers and laborers everywhere. Take a listen. Got a favorite song for justice? Share below — and in the meantime, enjoy these tunes.
Tucked away just off a rocky road is a small community of women who have chosen to retreat from the world and spend their days working in silence — except for when they are singing sacred music.
They are cloistered nuns, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. Their days consist of prayer, work, and song. And when they sing, people listen. Four albums have topped the charts. Their latest, “Adoration at Ephesus,” was issued April 26.
Can your district representative sing? Because Peggy Flanagan sure can.
Flanagan, a representative of District 46A in Minnesota, took Minnesota's house floor with a moving vocal performance on the evening of April 25 to pay her respects to Prince Rogers Nelson, who passed away on April 21.
While Prince's musical and theatrical talent is widley regarded, many may not know Prince was a deeply spiritual and religious man. Here are things to know about his faith life:
1. Prince grew up Seventh-day Adventist.
Prince, who was born Prince Rogers Nelson in 1958 in Minneapolis, used to be Seventh-day Adventist.
Fresh off winning five Grammy awards for his album To Pimp a Butterfly, rapper Kendrick Lamar released eight new tracks on March 4 under the project name untitled unmastered.
These new tracks continue Kendrick's tradition of talking faith and politics, including his relationship with God. For example, a lyric from untitled 05 reads: "Why you want to see a good man with a broken heart?/Once upon a time I used to go to church and talk to God/Now I'm thinking to myself hollow tips is all I got."
"I'd say this album touches more on political issues. People are taking sides and drawing lines, tension is growing in all of the areas you mentioned and music has a unique way of speaking to those issues.
It can be natural to want to pull the reigns back or go back to what we know when things get tense, but we must keep moving forward; hold on to wisdom from our roots but know there is wisdom ahead as well."
There we were, a group of political musicians, arm in arm, leading the populace. And we didn’t really know what to sing. The irony of the situation stuck with me. The power of our songs had gathered the people. But once the people gathered, where were the songs for that day's movements?
2008 was the year that most people got to know my group Flobots and our music, especially through the national release of Fight With Tools. 2008 was also a historic election year. Eight years later, as we prepare to release our album in 2016, the country is gearing up for another decisive election. And as division grows, some artists are singing out, and some movements are finding their refrains. This timing is significant.
When we look at the movements happening today, we see everyday people seeking to resist violence, racism, and destruction. We see raised voices crying out for transformation. It is critically important that they succeed.
I never liked “Imagine.” I am not the only Jewish teacher who feels this way.
“Imagine there’s no countries/It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too.”
Lennon was saying: Let’s get rid of nations; let’s get rid of religion; let’s get rid of the idea that there is something above me that is worth dying for, and that might even be worth killing for.
Let’s get rid of the passions that help us transcend ourselves. Maybe that’s why the melody of “Imagine” is so subdued — almost like sleepwalking.
“Imagine” is a dream, and not a very good one.
AS KIDS, Wilner Baptiste (viola) and Kevin Sylvester (violin) might have been labeled classical music nerds. They played in the orchestra at their Fort Lauderdale, Fla. performing arts high school and went to college on full music scholarships. They have excelled in an insular and rarified world: one in which people devote hours every day to mastering the subtleties of antique and unforgiving instruments and the difficult repertoire left by the dead white guys. It’s a sphere peopled almost entirely by whites and Asians, and Baptiste and Sylvester are neither.
“Wil B” Baptiste and “Kev Marcus” Sylvester are Black Violin, a duo that fuses the thrilling virtuosity of the European classical world with the booty-shaking funk and street-level grace of hip-hop. In September they released their first major-label album, Stereotypes.
While these two young men were honing their chops in that high school orchestra, they were also typical turn-of-the-century hip-hop kids, tuned into the world of rap. After graduating from different colleges, the two got back together and worked the South Florida clubs, developing an act that involved playing classical-string covers of hip-hop hits.
I know, this whole hip-hop and classical thing sounds like a gimmick, and if I’d read about it before I heard these guys, I probably wouldn’t have been interested. It sounds too much like the prog-rock abominations of the 1970s, when rock operas and rock symphonies almost killed off rock and roll. But I was lucky enough to hear Black Violin live before I ever read about them. They were playing at a banquet honoring top academic achievers from historically black colleges and universities. It was the perfect pairing of artist and audience. Taking the stage backed by a live drummer and a deejay, Black Violin rocked the house with sophisticated sparkle.
I knew this was going to be a great trip. I did not know it would afford me a chance to scratch off the top item on my bucket list.
But when the iconic gospel singer Bobby Jones met with the band of international journalists I am traveling with on a fellowship from the East-West Center, he mentioned the song “Oh Happy Day” was so popular among his fans in Russia, Italy and Japan that he can’t get offstage there without singing it.
Dynamic, charismatic-style worship is a defining feature of Hispanic churches from evangelical to mainline to Catholic, and across the U.S. they are opening their own in-house music schools to train young people to lead them.
Where English-speaking music ministers might earn postsecondary degrees in worship arts or sacred music at more than 50 Christian colleges, Hispanic congregations are following in the footsteps of Pentecostal churches by raising up music and worship ministers from within, even if they can’t fret a guitar string.
Three years ago, when Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell took the stage at a Jewish vaudeville celebration and said he was going to sing in Yiddish, people laughed.
As a 6-foot-plus African-American with one golden earring, he just didn’t look like the typical Jew fluent in the language of the pre-World War II shtetl.
Then he opened his mouth. Out came a rich bass voice in a longing lament to the isolated villages and tiny homes left behind in places like Poland and Russia.
Think Fiddler on the Roof's “Anatevka” sung by a guy who looks more like Chris Rock than Zero Mostel.
This summer I had the distinct privilege of being asked to serve as the Liturgical Coordinator for the Wild Goose Festival held in Hot Springs, N.C. The festival is a time and place of celebrating the “intersection of Spirit, Justice, Music, and the Arts” that began a few years ago. As such, liturgies abound. Some of them were rather traditional. The Episcopal tent, for example, held Compline services every night. They also broke out of the mold and hosted a songwriter circle and an agape feast. The Goose is like that. Ask the Methodists about the beer tent. Oh, and the Baptists had a coffee shop.
People break from the mold a little. There was a Eucharistic liturgy where a blacksmith literally hammered a rifle into a farm implement. It was an unusual Eucharist, to be sure, but beautiful.
Lowland Hum, comprised of married folk duo Daniel and Lauren Goans, have emerged with their eponymous second album a stronger, more versatile, and possibly even more intimate musical pairing than their first album, Native Air. It's this sudden sense of fragility and uncertainty in the face of the next layer of intimacy — and the corresponding joy when the leap taken finds solid ground — that Lowland Hum brought to Sojourners' Summit.
Watch the full Sojo Session here.