Private Music, Public Music: Vandals Trash Kumbaya – Is Music Making Us Stupid?

I’m shocked to find the lovely, spiritual folk song Kumbaya trashed by pundits and politicos alike in a bipartisan effort to discredit one of the solid gold traditions my generation sought to carry on – the healing power of music. Yet it should come as no surprise, for music, like politics, suffers from an infection of the big, the bad, and the rowdy. Perhaps it was always so; one’s affections are often awakened by market reality, but we must get to the bottom of this Kumbaya business.

First, to the phrase Kumbaya (“Come by here” [Lord]) has been added the increasingly popular “ing,” so we now find ourselves Kumbayaing, though hopefully not in public. Kumbayaing is pundit-lingo for working together in teams for the mutual benefit of community members – and what could be sillier than trying to work together? The neologism distorts the song, ignores the music, and mocks the efforts of those who would organize peacefully, all in one cynical, dismissive, and cranky attitude – to Kumbaya is to waste time; holding hands betrays weakness.

It seems that what we today call Christian Music isn’t liturgical music, or music to gather by, as much as a music market. The religious experience is marketed through music. This isn’t the same thing as music creating a religious experience. Do we not want the Lord coming by here anymore? For “The spirit will not descend without song,” as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) explains in his study Blues People (1963). Jones explains that the first Christian music in the US was black music born of the slave experience and developed as communal, healing, and organizational. Of course, time and distance also distort, and, as Gary Snyder explains, when ritual is moved from its source it loses some of its power. But the beauty of the music that Jones describes is its very resourcefulness.

Richard Rodriguez’s influential essay “Private Language, Public Language” went against the grain of the bilingual education movement by insisting that we shouldn’t publicize our private language, the language of our family. Just so, perhaps we shouldn’t market something called Christian Music, for the idea adulterates the tradition and allows the pundits to infiltrate the community without understanding or respecting the values of the community. Consider the following example, where the word spiritual becomes so watered down that it loses all its color and power: Elizabeth A. Brown writes a short review, published in the April 5, 2010 Christian Science Monitor, of The Best Spiritual Writing of 2010 (edited by Philip Zaleski), and what do we find as an example of not just spiritual writing but the best spiritual writing? Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Someone’s sighing, Lord. Come by here.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Bill Goodman says:

    Very well said. I have seen “Christian music” evolve into what it was probably never intended to be — entertainment and music for revenue. What used to be simple and inspirational — and free — has now become something quite the opposite. Has the culture impacted the church, or has the church impacted the culture? I think the answer is obvious. By the way, what ever happened to liturgical music’s being the true Christian music? Perhaps we need to label these music genres for what they really are, not by popular definition.

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    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thanks for comment, Bill. The blinding glare of celebrity and the attraction of the stage also no doubt play a role – and maybe my generation had already itself betrayed the music: super this and super that. In the beginning was the word, and the word was a song.

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  2. Brittian says:

    Great post Joe.

    Very interesting.

    A couple of things…

    First–you point out a dissonance in cultures, that something is being lost that was once held. I would offer a thoughtful push back that this is not only a difference in culture, but a difference in sub-culture.

    As soon as i read your introduction I knew by your affirmation of Kumbaya, that you had grown up mainline (catholic I believe). The reason? Because protestant charismatic culture, and evangelicalism in general, missed out on the song as a social justice reform statement. The stream I grew up in would NEVER have sung the song, because it didn’t have the value of communal social justice. Instead it was valuing emotionalism and emotiveness. Interesting no?

    But, you’re right–there has been a shift. I wonder if the shift occurred beyond the Christian scene of music…with the advent of punk. Punk offered a stripped away sense of emotion, no longer trying to make a statement, just allowing one’s soul to hang out. Music sense then has been less communal, more fragile, and tended to be more self-reflective than societally so.

    Great thoughts man. I love your writing.

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    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Brittian. Yr right – in fact, when Susan and I were married, in 1974, we had the first guitar-folk-mass wedding in our local Catholic parish. It was very simple, my younger sisters and their friends with guitars, tambourine, and songs. And yes the sub-culture point you make is interesting, and thoughtful. Thanks again.

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