Bluegrass Mass

The Jester and Deacon and their commentariats have jumped all over Fr Edward Richard’s Bluegrass Mass. It’s not a new development at all, using this particular American genre for worship. While they didn’t write as much of it as chant, the early St Louis Jesuits had a few bluegrass songs, John Foley’s “Born Today” and “Mighty Lord,” and Tim Manion’s “Lord of Glory.”

A few comments on the genre. Bluegrass is a fairly wholesome style, maybe the most wholesome of the various pop music developments of the last century. Like the blues, there’s a humility in its mainstream lyrics–a feature that would seem to be appealing to many sensibilities of that sort, even Catholic ones. Also like the blues, it has an ancestry in American sacred music.*

As for actually playing bluegrass style, that’s a matter less for composition and more for an informed arranger. There are any number of contemporary songs that could be translated well into a bluegrass style. All you need are the instruments: banjo, as well as guitar, bass, mandolin, and fiddle. Last night the students planned “Though The Mountains May Fall” for 10PM Mass. That tune works as an uptempo bluegrass tune, but not when the instrumentation is piano, drum kit, guitar, and flute.

One comment on both sites suggested watching the Passion to bluegrass music. You’d get the same cognitive disconnect cranking up the “Halleluyah Chorus,” but I don’t think that mismatch disqualifies Dead European White Men’s music.

Some liturgical comments:

I noted that the congregation was taught the Mass parts in advance and they were using them before the “debut” event during local bluegrass festival. I thought the music was good, and probably would translate well to piano or a straight-up guitar group.

Fr Richard’s music page has some typos. The Gloria appears to have an adapted text from the new ICEL translation. I don’t think that’s going to fly in either the pre-implementation age or post-.

The composer speaks:

I’d been asked before — quite a few times, but until now I resisted. My idea was never ‘to go liturgical’ with this.

… Father Tim’s request was a bit more understandable. This is the area of the country where Bluegrass comes from; it is a big part of the Rhythm and Roots festival here. He (Father Keeney) told me, “You really need to do this. The people here need something Catholic that is part of the experience that goes on in our town.”

It seems the music long preceded the Mass. Composers have many motivations. As a liturgical composer, I rarely write something I wouldn’t foresee being sung at Mass or at a celebration of a sacrament or the Liturgy of the Hours. Any reticence I feel about a piece is usually connected to the lack of quality or my own dissatisfaction with my work.

More from the diocesan papaer:

Referring to his initial hesitancy about writing the Mass, Father Richard pointed out, “I’m sensitive to my position in the seminary and the church, and I don’t want people to be offended. But there are a lot of different expressions of the liturgy.”

At the seminary, he laughs as he imagines his students hearing about the Bluegrass Mass and saying, ‘Really? Father Richard, the guy who celebrates the Tridentine Mass everyday?’”

That would be my question. This interview on his web site describes his own musical history, a bluegrass interest that preceded his discernment for ordination, and a wider musical formation than scoffers might suspect.

The Mass is available here for listening.

* Realizing that for some sad Catholics, the only sacred music is their own, not anybody else’s

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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5 Responses to Bluegrass Mass

  1. A lot may depend on context. If you did this for people who are so steeped in the music that it would not distract from the action at hand, then it might work. Otherwise, the effect may be too jarring, especially if the music is played in a campy way by musicians who are not as familiar with bluegrass.

    My quibble with the settings is that they’re all at the pace of a banjo breakdown. For the Kyrie, something along the lines of “O, Death” or “Man of Constant Sorrow” may be more suitable than Flatt & Scruggs. More fiddles and close harmonies, please.

    Many bluegrass songs get into some very deep spiritual territory, so if one must import folk idioms into the liturgy, this may be the best choice.

    On a related note, I guess I wish Hank Williams had been Catholic. How would his “Luke the Drifter” songs sound with more Catholic themes?

  2. Mike says:

    CC, if you listen to the intro to the Gloria Todd’s linked to, you’ll hear Hank Williams’s “I Saw the Light.”

  3. Eric M. says:

    Well as someone who was present when Fr. Richard played this at Mass there are a few comments I’d like to make. One, it sounded much different then the recordings in that link. It’s better with a full band, and it was done very well. These were all experienced Blue Grass musicians who know what it should sound like. They played it in the city where Blue Grass was born so the congregation was very familiar with the style and not distracted. It was a very prayerful experience for everyone.

    Thank you Fr. Richard for bringing this to Bristol.

  4. Thom Nickels says:

    Sounds like a he haw hand clappin, foot stompin hankie wavin snake twistin Baptist ceremony to me. Keep Bluegrass in the concert hall or on the range but I want my Mass to have chant and smells and bells.

  5. Craig Rantz says:

    I have writen a Bluegrass setting to the new text – and in Seattle! BG has a wonderful flavor and once the congregation knows the tune/s of the setting they typically enjoy the experience. Some, of course, see a banjo as the instrument of the devil :-). All in all, it is important to match the parish to the music, a BG mass should be a unique format done a few times a year. I like to tie it to a social event (as in a concert afterward) for those who enjoy BG. It is certainly a disconnect for folks who feel chant is the only music of the church… I actually like being part of that disconnect!

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