At times, it’s tempting to believe that the sadness has finally drowned out the joy, that all the rage or the disillusionment or the despair that overwhelms the soul has silenced every simple and beautiful song. But then you hear your two sons and their guitars, plucking their way through an old tune. You hear their attempt to find their voice, to make the words their own. You see their intensity, the way the melody gives them a language they have not accessed before. And your heart returns home again. You still know the despair and the sorrow, you’re no fool. But you know something else more: there’s still the music in the world.
Gregory of Nazianzus, a Church Father considered one of our finest theologians attempting to speak intelligibly of the Trinity, could only, in the end, turn to poetry in his attempts to say something (something short of heresy but something more than drivel) about this confounding mystery. Church folk and lovers (two words which should be bosom buddies) often make their way to poets and verse whenever the thing we have to say simply cannot be said in the language we’ve been given.
I wrote my wife Miska a poem one Christmas. It wasn’t high art, just tender scribbles on a page. Thank God for free verse, as my iambic pentameter goes every kind of caddywompus. Still, somehow in those simple lines I was free to say things I didn’t know how to say, free to discover truths in the writing that I didn’t yet know I knew. The form insisted that I not worry so much about explaining my love; but to simply love, to let the love seep from my heart onto the page. I don’t know how it happens. I only know it does.
Since music is poetry in motion, all of this fits (I think) with how one of my friends, Eastern Orthodox professor Vigen Guroian, talks about theology. “It has to be sung,” he says. “If you can’t sing it, it can’t be good theology.” There’s more (much more) to faith than airtight theological constructs. Good words about God, ones that catch your breath short or make your knees buckle or turn your heart and your mind to fire, have to be set free – they have to set you free. Faith needs to carry a melody, to set down a groove, to bring a little funk.
St. Pophyrios of Kavsokalyvia said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.” Do not take St. Pophyrios too literally. He does not insist everyone must learn poetic craft. He’s reminding us that we must allow our soul to be moved into places deeper than bare fact. We must allow the Spirit to bring us embers, and then wait for the Spirit to blow on the embers until they sizzle and flare.
It is not sufficient to accumulate the facts. Someone’s got to sing us a song. Someone’s got to let the poetry loose. Someone’s got to bring the funk.
On my jog down Main Street yesterday morning, I encountered a young couple busking. They were obviously new to the trade, out so early when the crowd is sparse and the tips will be almost nil. Perhaps this was their gig, just learning the ropes and stepping in slowly when there’s less risk, less comparison to the many fine musicians who, on the really good days, make Charlottesville’s downtown mall something like an open-air version of Austin City Limits. The fellow, hair flowing and guitar raging, wailed lyrics to songs I did not recognize. I would not call his voice powerful or beautiful or clear even, but he owned every syllable. I will not criticize; it worked for Dylan. The woman, however, sang meekly. As I ran closer, her voice grew softer and softer. Her eyes dropped to the ground. I think, for her, it was courage simply to stay in place and keep her mouth moving in hopes that sound might squeak out.
In the afternoon, I was again downtown for errands, and another couple had secured Main Street for their stage. This duo, however, were legitimate troubadours. I could imagine them as the coolest street-smart characters from a Dickens’ novel…if Copperfield had displayed a penchant for futuristic fantasy…and been set in Nashville. The fellow wore tight black pants, black boots and a black vest over his bare chest. A black-straw summer fedora topped his head, with a couple dark curls, like Jewish payots, dropping to his jaw. His guitar hung from his shoulders, and he played a folksy tune, a cross between the Avett Brothers and a circus tune if you can imagine.
The woman wore a black lace top and a black mid-length skirt. Black stockings rose to just below her knee, black shoes. Her body swayed as she worked the rhythm of her black accordion. Both musicians had face tattoos, shapes of elongated spider webs or perhaps a mythical Celtic symbol. They were a sight. And they could play and sing.
His fingers danced up the neck of his guitar, and she made that little accordion hum. The melody was haunting, crisp. This was music that, if you were to stay for more than a few verses, would eventually require some kind of commitment. Their open guitar case sat on the ground, a few wadded dollars and copies of a self-produced CD lying on the faded red velvet.
What fascinated me most, however, was two little bells sitting at the woman’s feet. These were the old brass-colored bells that you’d find in the mom and pop dry cleaners, the ones on the front counter with a note next to them saying, “We’re in the back. Ring for service.” The woman had these two bells with two different pitches (who knew?), and her feet tapped them, creating a magical rhythm that covered this space of crowded commerce with enchantment. She rang that bell and danced with her accordion, and we all were caught up in her beauty.
A woman with the courage to hold her ground and a woman with the courage to ring, ring those bells. We’re all in different places, we’re all learning to trust what we have to give. We all can add to the music of this old world.
Every once in a while, I stumble across a musician (or group) that captures me. It has happened again – I’m enraptured with Mumford and Sons. Four Londoners with an innovative yet old-time take on folk and bluegrass (and with just the right bit of British accent), these fellas were born to sing (or sang). With names like Marcus Mumford, Country Winston, Ben Lovett and Ted Dwane, what other profession could they take on, really? I guess they could have been Texas sheriffs or oil rig hands… I’m glad they chose music. Any band of friends that describes themselves as “misty-eyed men” is more than alright in my book.
They recently played at Bonnaroo, and you can listen to the concert below. Or you can purchase their album Sigh No More for $7.99.