February 24, 2009 | Comments ()

By TK | Music | February 24, 2009 |


This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin and the 150th of his extraordinary, world-changing tract The Origin Of Species. Yet still idiots all over the planet insist that some vague sort of figure with magical powers created the world, and that humans - unlike dinosaurs, cats and aardvarks, for instance - are a chosen race endlessly watched over by this magical being and therefore blessed with the magical ability to live beyond the ceasing of their brain and heart and the decaying of their body, in a sort of geographically-unspecific, magical Eldorado.

Good one! I have to say, I find the continued existence of religion in today’s world very dispiriting in so many ways - from the oppression of women to the sexually transmitted diseases in Africa that stem from this supposed god’s supposed views on contraception, and from institutional homophobia to the ongoing conflict in Israel-Palestine. However, even I must thank the god myth for some of the art and advances in society that it has fostered. I think that before the discoveries of science provided us with noble and brilliant explanations about our world, and ways to live our life as luckily intelligent animals on Earth, religion probably helped the world to evolve by giving humanity a sense of possible greatness; something to attain to. Take a look at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, for example, and the extraordinary awe that this wonderful work produces in you is really something quite incredible: in service of ‘God’, he painted this ceaselessly beautiful, sprawling, inventive, colourful masterpiece. It is something that lifts you out of your own petty existence and awakens your mind and senses.

Likewise music, which is what I’ve been driving at all along: Bach’s St Matthew Passion, a work of such near-transcendent gorgeousness - so devout, so magnificent - certainly owes a lot of its greatness to the religious beliefs of the afore-mentioned Johann Sebastian. And this is my predicament, and one I often find myself contemplating: I listen to a ridiculous amount of spiritually-charged music for such a devoted Atheist. From Stevie Wonder’s ‘Have A Talk With God’ to the more modern spirituality of the likes of Sufjan Stevens (on Seven Swans) and Ron Sexsmith (on ‘God Loves Everyone’), not to mention the heaps and heaps of gospel music I listen to, when I sing along to the music I love I often find myself intoning ‘thank you God!’ and ‘Hallelujah!’


Sufjan Stevens — “To Be Alone With You”

So how can I square the adoration of the music I listen to with my deeply-held beliefs that religion is a ghastly disease in society? And does the excellence of the music owe something to the faith with which it is concerned? I obviously don’t believe that the reason Mahalia Jackson is so unbelievably awesome is that god made her excellent - yet there is something so passionate about her singing, so deeply heart-felt, that I’m not certain I hear in other music. The same goes for Sam Cooke, whose gospel music with the Soul Stirrers I infinitely prefer to his secular pop (not that that isn’t also incredible). I think her live performance of ‘Didn’t It Rain’ and his song ‘Jesus Gave Me Water’ are two of the best things in the world. Can it be that they’re invested with some sort of extra quality, some otherworldly greatness?

You’ll have guessed the answer to this from what goes before: after thinking about it a little, I am happy to conclude that in musical terms I will gladly accept whatever mad beliefs inform the passion of gospel music, the contemplative hush of Sufjan, the hope and joy of Stevie, the ramshackle devotion of Ralph Stanley, and the imperious country preachings of the perfectly insane Fern Jones. When soul music started to be born from a fusion of blues and gospel, purists were furious with singers such as Sam Cooke and Sister Rosetta Tharpe for, as they saw it, deserting the church in favour of making devil-music. But I wonder if those naysayers weren’t actually frightened to hear that Cooke could derive just as much passion from a lusty love song as he could from singing the lord’s praises. Aretha Franklin sings just as brilliantly when purring about her man, on ‘Dr Feelgood’, as she does when singing ‘How I Got Over’ on her extraordinary gospel album. What I’m saying is: whatever crazy thing is that makes the force of the music so great, I’m willing to take it.


Mahalia Jackson — “Remember Me”

And I want to recommend gospel music now, as a great force for hope in the world. When religious bigots like Rick Warren are chosen to speak at Barack Obama’s opening ceremony, and when young girls are denied the possibility of abortion by religious-leaning law enforcers, I turn the other cheek, dig out some Dorothy Love Coates And The Original Gospel Harmonettes, and take heart in the power of gospel music. Seriously: isn’t it incredible, not that god should have granted us such delights, but rather that humanity should have evolved from such lowly origins to produce the sort of creatures who are able to provide other creatures, such as you and me, with such beauty?

Caspar likes books, music and films, and would never be described as “enigmatic.” Read more about him at his blog, Straigh Outta Crouch End.

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I'm Travellin' On For Jesus Night And Day

Religion and Music / Caspar Salmon

Music | February 24, 2009 | Comments ()




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