What is UU Music?

Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence

David A. Mix Barrington and Mike Nagy

11 December 2011

Here is the second reflection, "What Music Do UU's Make?" for the service of 11 December 2011.

"I think I'll just let the mystery be", says folksinger and sometime UU Iris DeMent about what might happen to her when she dies. "No one knows for certain and it's all the same to me. I believe in love and I live my life accordingly." A sensible, rational sentiment for a sensible, rational, faith community like ours. Rather different from "Oh, come, angel band, come and around me stand, bear me away on your snow white wings to my immortal home," as the Gospel song says.

Gospel music sells certainty. Believe in Jesus and you will be saved, and go to heaven. That's the music Iris DeMent grew up with in Arkansas and California, and when she grew up she found that she wasn't certain any more, at least not about Jesus and the angels with the snow white wings. She wrote a song that's become something of a UU anthem, judging by the YouTube videos of it being performed in our churches. A song to celebrate what we're not certain of -- it sounds like a joke Garrison Keillor would make about us.

But DeMent's song isn't all about uncertainty, remember: "I believe in love and I live my life accordingly". The UUA's latest attempt to simplify, clarify, and purify our message came up with "Standing on the Side of Love", which is also the title of a song Greg Greenway sang for us last spring. The message is positive as well as negative. We don't all believe the same thing, but we are here because we believe something, and our music can express that.

Julie Gold's From a Distance is an expression of faith as well, faith that the world makes sense in spite of all appearances. Julie Gold is a theist, and puts her faith in theistic language: "God is watching us", not to judge us like Santa Claus but as a parent watches their child, hopeful and compassionate. Annie Dillard put it a bit differently: "We are here to abet creation and be witness to it, to notice each other's beautiful face and complex nature, so that creation need not play to an empty house."

That Annie Dillard quote is from the gray hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition. It's one of some 300 readings from the back of the book, after the 415 hymns. As you heard from the committee that put it together, they sought to draw music and words from almost any tradition imaginable, and they organized their work around our principles and purposes, which had just been recently codified by a committee much like theirs. "Inspired by various liberation philosophies, cross-cultural perspectives, and ecological awareness, we sought to express a full range of spiritual imagery." (Could a single human being, rather than a committee, have ever come up with that particular sentence?)

And they changed the words. Last week we sang that Emmanuel shall come not to ransom captive Israel but as Love to dwell (and in succeeding verses Truth, Light, and Hope). In the passage we read, the committee explain exactly why -- "we applied similar inclusive insights to carols and some familiar hymns so that our tradition is not merely received". Fine. There's a long tradition even within Unitarianism and Universalism of co-opting other people's hymns. Sir Arthur Sullivan's extremely singable tune "St. Gertrude" became "Onward Christian Soldiers" and then "Forward Through the Ages" when Unitarian minister Frederick Lucian Hosmer got hold of it. But really, "Source of all, to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise"?

The choir have been known to joke that they can sing about God and Jesus all they want, as long as it's in a foreign language. It's not that the choir are necessarily more theistic than anyone else, but they respect the music for itself, as a whole, and they usually want to sing it as it was written. By contrast, according to the old joke, the UU's in the pews don't sing hymns very well because they are reading ahead to see whether they agree with the words. That's really sensible and rational. Some of us believe in God, and some don't. Some are bothered by God-language in the hymns, and some aren't. Some think feminine imagery for the divine is necessary, and some think it's strange. It's not an easy thing to come up with hymns that we are all happy singing, and the committee did a sensible, rational job.

What Bill Sinkford noticed was that some of those hymns were becoming part of people, becoming so established that people sing them without the hymnal. And the teal hymnal is intended to make that happen more often, drawing on "music in a number of different styles including jazz, folk, pop, spirituals, gospel, praise songs, call-and-response, chants, rounds, and traditional hymns".

UU music is what UU's choose to sing -- old music, new music, classical or not, Western or not. We search through the accumulated treasures of the past, apply our own thought and creativity, and come up with "something". The committee said that they were guided by the UU sources of tradition and the seven principles. Can one have a song about "the inherent worth and dignity of every person"? If you heard Arjuna sing this song at the Big Ol'Gay service last spring, you already know that one can.

Last modified 5 January 2012