Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Music's bloodline

Photo by Chrissy Piper, via Pitchfork
I was so excited to read Pitchfork's in-depth interview with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. The new album, "The Life of the World to Come," uses Bible verses as the base for Darnielle's part-autobiographical, part-introspective, part-musing lyrics. The result isn't always saintly-- in fact, it's at turns dark, doubting and hopeful.
This isn't the first time Biblical themes have seeped into Darnielle's lyrics, but it's the first interview I've read where Darnielle gets so specific about his faith and how it influences his music. One of my favorite excerpts:

"If you're into music, you're into religion, somehow or another.
Religion, that's the bloodline of music. The whole reason, I'm pretty
sure, we have music on notation is to preserve chant, to transcribe
what was going on, which we're singing in order to describe the
experience the divine."

That got me thinking about music history and the way faith has shaped the types of music we listen to today. What do you think? Do you see the influence of hymns, devotionals or other "religious" music on the stuff you're playing on your iPod?
Here's an impromptu list of some of my recent-and-past-favorite songs that fit that description for me.

-Black Soul Choir-- 16 Horsepower
-Freedom Hangs Like Heaven-- Iron and Wine
-Children of the Lord-- Slim Cessna's Auto Club

Despite heavy Biblical imagery, I wouldn't consider these songs to be "church songs." In fact, I hear a sort of irony, darkness and artisticness to them that I've tried to explain a little better here and here.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!


  1. Maybe a little off the mark, but the example that leaps to mind for me is the Thermals' "The Blood, the Body, the Machine."

    I love the idea of more songs about history. But as far as recent history is concerned, the best I can do right now is Art Brut's track "The Replacements," which is about being oblivious to things that have come before. Even if it's just about being oblivious to the Replacements.

  2. I want to point first to your earlier post about Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

    One really amazing and fascinating (to me)example of the intersection of faith and music is that of Shaped-Note or Sacred Harp Singers. This music, the last truly American folk music (i.e. explicitly created to sound american, and lacking in many of the scots, irish, and african roots that are very prevalent in other folk musics like blues, bluegrass, and old tyme/americana).
    Shaped note music was created to teach the illiterate how to read music following that equanimity that came from the reformation. While shaped notes to exist in other parts of europe the tradition that evolved in America, around the time of the war for independence reflects a truly american spirit. This wildness, uncouth four part harmony music, written when the only thing to write about was God, was pushed out of the colonial cities as they tried to become more cosmopolitan and found homes in the backwoods, rural parts of New England and the South. Surviving most poignantly in the south, this singing became both a culutural and spiritual marker for generations of singers, and continues to this day.

    As a Sacred Harp singer, the poetry of expression and the human condition as it relates to an older understanding of faith is poignant and moving.

    Other folk artists, like Tim Eriksen, Crooked Still, Abigail Washburn, have taken the music from these old hymnals and recorded them with instruments and things, making them a little more recognizable to "outside" audiences.