Music, Balm of the Soul 1 Deck-60pt-4600

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 4, 2004 | Go to article overview

Music, Balm of the Soul 1 Deck-60pt-4600


Byline: Carol Herman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Not so very long ago my husband and I attended the wedding of a young Salvadoran couple who were married at a Catholic church in Washington. The entire service was conducted in Spanish, but to our surprise, one of the hymns chanted was more familiar to us than it should have been.

What were we to make of that beautiful, mournful tune - one we knew as the "Hasheveynu," a prayer derived from the end of Lamentations that is a staple of Jewish religious services? How could two different prayers of two different religions (and languages, and cultures) find expression in the same musical intervals and dramatic crescendos?

It is one of the sublime pleasures of reading David Stowe's "How Sweet the Sound: Music in the Spiritual Lives of Americans" that answers to such questions can be found in the book's joyous examination of religious history, American history and popular culture. Falling within the academic universe of ethnomusicology, Mr. Stowe's observations regarding the relationship between music and spirituality take him to the religious music of Indians, Shakers, Mormons, Moravians, African-Americans, Jews, Buddhists and others.

The premise of this book is a simple one. Music is at the heart of the American spiritual experience, and in America's houses of worship a process of "exchanges" between ostensibly diverse groups of people have taken place for centuries that unify more than divide. It is a celebration of the music and a celebration of the human impulse to express our deepest feelings in song.

Mr. Stowe begins his book by citing a segment of an anti-slavery speech delivered by Frederick Douglass in 1852. In it, "Douglass likened the United States to another unnamed nation, one 'whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable rain!' Then [Douglass] intoned what he called 'the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people,' the first verses of a Hebraic psalm. 'By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion . . .'"

Mr. Stowe writes that Psalm 137 "has been the basis for countless religious songs over the centuries," beginning with the music of the Puritans' "Bay Psalm Book of 1640" all the way up to Steve Earle's recorded version of the psalm in a song called "Rivers of Babylon." And he adds that "Americans are in fact the most God-believing, prayer-uttering, church-attending society of the modern capitalist democracies."

As for the myriad ways music functions in our lives he writes: "Music is most obviously a means of communication with the divine, a mechanism for expressing praise and thanksgiving, for petitioning for mercy, protection and power. And music, often combined with dance or physical movement and pursued in circumstances that raise the psychic stakes, serves to elevate the worshipper to a heightened or ecstatic state in which the presence of the divine is keenly felt."

Mr. Stowe explains that the texts of music "are set and reset to melodies that evolve over time" and he charts this evolution.

Though Mr. Stowe notes that "by a large majority, Americans believe in the holy trinity and attend Christian churches," he takes care to show how Judaism "enters and animates the worship of this churchgoing nation," and he notes that "in surveying the range of psalms, hymns, and other sacred songs that have emerged on American soil in the last several hundred years, one is struck by the frequency with which Hebrew images, metaphors and stories appear: the River Jordan, the language of Jerusalem, Zion and Israel, Egyptian bondage and Babylonian captivity; the social criticism of the prophets, the panoply of human emotions explored by the Psalms of David which have served as the model for so much Christian music. …

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