Music, Sacred or Nostalgic

Jimmy Mac sent me Joe Ferullo’s entry “Sacred music” from yesterday’s NCR blog.

I found myself someplace else (mostly in a place far-too-occupied by moments with my dreaded college girlfriend). But, just as I was about to descend into a world inhabited only by characters in Tom Waits tunes, I was pulled out.My daughters heard the song. And they began to sing along with James Taylor and Carole King. They knew the song, my girls did, because when they were toddlers, it was part of our bedtime ritual. After reading a book chapter, I’d pull out my old guitar and sing a few songs: “House on Pooh Corner” was one, “Every Day” by Buddy Holly was another. But I would end each session with “You’ve Got a Friend” — about as decent, hopeful and reassuring a song as has ever been written, perfect for sending little ones off to eight hours alone with their dreams and fears.

And my girls remembered. And they sang along. And, honestly, the tune was suddenly new and different and sacred.

I’ve been listening to music from the past lately, too. I get memories of my favorite year in college with the window and door of my little room open and playing my stereo. I don’t have to hunt down obscure foreign-pressed cd’s; I can catch a lot of good music on YouTube, like this. Another Renaissance fan in my dorm had never heard this album, and he was pretty excited about it. They also played this whole album early one morning when my friend Marianne and I were dance marathoning. Lots of memories.

I don’t know that lifting myself up out of the present moment is sacred. It’s not really nostalgic, either. It’s not just about thumbing through a geology text on a small creaky bed in an overheated room or dancing with an old girlfriend. I listen to these old songs with new ears. I understand better my father’s huge stack of sheet music from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Even though we kids sometimes laughed when he played and sang them.

My old brain is less inclined to be so particular about defining “sacred music.” On another blog this week, someone said the MCW three judgments are irrelevant. All you have to do is program sacred music. I have to smile at the thought that all you have to do is be good, and the rules, rubrics, and guidelines are meaningless. I know that’s not what he said or meant. But it’s a nice thought, very akin to nostalgia.

Another thought from the NCR commentariat:

When I came here six months ago this 80 something lady was playing the organ for daily mass. During Communion one day I caught an interesting tune and questioned her about it after Mass. “That sounded like ‘Autumn Leaves'”, he started. “Yes, Father, it was”, she replied. “But that is not a liturgical hymn and is not appropriate” he put forth. “God created the seasons and all things in the world, including the leaves, of course it is appropriate!”, she rejoined, and he had not the nerve nor the will to question her again.

I probably wouldn’t play “Autumn Leaves,” but I think the liturgy is sturdy enough for a pretty large musical net. And if we fancy ourselves courageous enough to put out for the deep, maybe we need a big net.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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9 Responses to Music, Sacred or Nostalgic

  1. Jean says:

    “…and he had not the nerve nor the will to question her again.”
    Just maybe he should have. At a recent Mass, during the quiet interlude after we had recieved Holy Communion and returned to our pews to pray, the pianist favored us with his rendition of I’m not sure what. All I know is that thanks to his choice of music I experienced a “flashback” to the pleasures of a piano bar so vividly I could almost taste the whiskey sours.

    I’m for “large musical nets” at the liturgy. But with some reasonable discretion and sensitivity for the reverence appropriate to the sacredness of the situation.

  2. Tony Barr says:

    Similar experience re. secular/pagan (from the countryside) songs. I have long been studying Native American spiritualities, as a result of which I have written (and published) an expanding collection of liturgical songs resonating with Lakota, Ojibwe, Navajo, etc. imagery, ‘melodies’, pounding drums and floating flutes. Some, but perhaps not all, of these have blended well into a Roman liturgical context, even with all of its current fears and tethered expectations.

    Several years ago I wrote, and recently recorded, ‘Lakota Winter Song’. It is a cascade of winter images of a frozen earth dreaming for re-birth; the refrain even addresses the spirit of renewal to be welcome among us.

    I included this piece in my Christmas Vigil carol program, complete with flute (cedar) and drums (Anashinaabeg/Ojibwe). This provoked two responses.

    My pastor thought it to be totally irrelevant and misleading for the assembly. I argued with him that celebrating the winter’s earth without mentioning Jesus was a salvific opportunity. God created the earth and saw that she (our mother) was good. Jesus loved on this earth and died for her redemption. The Spirit is now among us renewing this earth in all her beauty and glory. Perhaps because of our solidity of faith we could sing it with understanding and respect for God’s very fine gift to us. Bottom line to me (who spent 6 years in advance litrgical; studies): drop it next year. My retort? Sad year for incarnational theology.

    The second response? An elderly lady approached me a few days later. ‘I’ve been meaning to ask, why did you choose a Lakota piece for your Christmas carol program?’ Being somewhat wounded by my first onslaught, I was prepared to defensively explain my above theological reasons for the reason that I’d written it in the first place. But she interrupted me, ‘No, the reason I asked is that you made me and my family very happy. I was married to a Lakota chieftain, Douglas White-eyes, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

    Seems that God speaks out of both corners of his mouth at the same time! How happy are they who listen with understanding.

    footnote: I continued to use this piece each year for my remaining years in the parish. After all, I’d been appointed as the music and liturgy director, not he.

  3. Todd says:

    Thanks, as always, for sharing, Tony.

    “My pastor thought it to be … misleading for the assembly.”

    Ah! The poor dumb laity meme.

  4. Jimmy Mac says:

    Years ago when the (old)Oakland Cathedral (of St. Francis de Sales) was the “cat’s meow” when it came to progressive liturgy, the pianist who sometimes accompanied the choir and sometimes performed solo was a cocktail pianist for a living. One Sunday while the lines meandered slowly up to the front for communion, the piano was tinkling quietly in the background. As I got closer to the priest I started to listen to the familiar music but couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Then I had an “aha” moment: he was playing “My Blue Heaven” in a definite churchy style. I had to laugh to myself as it definitely seemed an appropriate song for the time. Being in that church in those days was probably the closest to heaven one could expect during the transition away from Tridentine dreariness into a new liturgical style.

  5. smf says:

    I once heard the piece from “Forest Gump” that plays while the feather floats through the air being played at mass. It was not an accident, but a deliberate attempt to invoke that floating feather imagery. At the time I liked it well enough, but in hind sight I do wonder just what was the idea behind that?

    • Tony Barr says:

      Seems like pure whimsy to me! I was once asked to play ‘Dropkick Me Jesus Through The Goalposts Of Life for a funeral liturgy. I actually refused, and no one ever came to haunt me!

      Flute music can be very evocative, and a carefully chosen piece well played can induce the sense of the numinous which is so often lacking in our liturgies.

      I like the flute when it is used to play the intro to a song, rather than the rather hearty full energy-blast of the keyboard (be it organ, piano or midiboard).

  6. smf says:


    I should mention I rather like native American flute music. There is a fellow by the name of Carlos Nikie (not sure of the spelling) that is rather good. I can’t really imagine something done in that style for mass, but perhaps it could work. On just the quality of being ear pleasing I wouldn’t mind dumping much of the current (not so pleasing to the ear) hymnal content and trying something that at least may sound nice.

    • Tony Barr says:

      Thanks for the comment.

      Carlos Nakai is an Apache, who in the spirit of most (if not all) Native American flute players, uses the breath which he has just inhaled to offer it back as music to the same air with which he is in dialogue.

      Playing a minor pentatonic (5-note)instrument can produce music not only in the incantation style of the N.A. but also music of a celtic vein, and even music akin to simple Gregorian chants. I know, because I have done it!

      By distilling the style of music played by Caroos et al., I can write music based on the interval technique of the N.A., which, interstingly enough, consists of downward moving phrases, rather than the upward movement favored by the western/european world.

      I would never transpose the music of Nakai etc. into the christian (catholic) worship space; but the spirituality of his people combined with the distilation of some of his interval playing can be well-shaped for use not only ‘within’ the Mass, but as music which embodies (integrates) various ritual occasions of the Mass.

      See Bernard Huijbers’ section on ‘musical integration’ in his book The Performing Audience, available from OCP.

  7. Sam Schmitt says:

    The liturgy is study enough, agreed. The Lord knows it has survived worse than some lame pop songs at mass.

    But why does the liturgy have to carry all this weight – is there no room for such music at paraliturgical services, prayer meetings, personal prayer, etc?

    I don’t see it as overweening clergy protecting dumb laity from dangerous music. It’s more that the liturgy has to be protected from manipulation, sentimentality, and fake “relevance.”

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