Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Southern and Gospel, or Suthun ayn Gawspul

I read a good book on the life of Flannery O’Connor.  She died of complications due to Lupus in 1964 at the age of 39.  She was a Southern and Roman Catholic fiction writer, mostly short stories.  I think I’ve read all her 32 short stories, but I haven’t read her two novels.  I’ve also read what she wrote in essays about the craft of writing, about being a Christian fiction writer, about why so many of her stories are so shocking.  Her stories are filled with grotesque, deformed, offensive, and violent characters in part because she deeply believes that is what we humans are.  She also believes most of us make ourselves look better than we are, think more highly of ourselves than we ought, which makes it very hard for us to see the need for grace, mercy, and redemption.  When she writes dialogue, she writes it phonetically such that you can hear the “suthun drowal” or southern drawl.  Having lived in Nashville for four years and having waitered at an expensive Italian restaurant there, I can hear in her writing the liquid and luscious elegant southern woman accent.  Or I cayan heeya in haw ridin the le-a-quid ay-n luzjous elgant suthun woomin ayakcint.

I also went recently to a small town to meet some relatives at a diner that has all you can eat spaghetti for $5.  There were eleven of us there.  We might put them out of business or force them to change prices.  I had two servings, my dad had four.  Then we went to the small babdist church for their twice a month Tuesday night Gospel Jamboree, otherwise known as the joyful noise meeting.  It began with a guitar band led by a 70 year old couple, Bob on electric Jean on acoustic, another 60 year old guy playing electric lead, and another 60 year old guy on a big acoustic.  They sang some old timey honky tonk gospel songs.  Then a 75 year old guy sang some Carter family songs, pretty well.  One guy did a couple of Hank Williams songs (one was “When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart”).  A woman played violin, then they got her to fiddle “Boil Them Cabbage Down.”  Then the lead guitar player did Orange Blossom Special, usually a fiddle number, very impressive.  My brother-in-law sang (he has a great voice) accompanied by instruments on a CD.  I remember a musician friend once wondering how it would be received if for special music at church he’d play piano accompanied by a recorded voice.  Another brother-in-law sang a couple of early 20th century hymns that are no longer in most hymn books.  A couple of the singers were terrible singers who were deeply in love with Jesus.  It was like the vision of the heavenly realm given in the Revelation of St. John, people from every tongue and tribe and nation who are there definitely not to sing or perform for my enjoyment.

While I am writing this I am listening to a bunch of old, mostly “gospel” Hank Williams recordings.  While they are called “gospel,” most of them are not even close to being biblically accurate.  I am not saying that as a criticism or a complaint.  For one thing, it is so hard to know what if anything is biblically accurate because there are so many issues, even very important issues, over which the bible does not speak in a single voice or have a single and consistent view on:  free will or predestination, communion as the body and blood of Christ or a memorial meal, the kingdom of God as a domain distinct from present reality or as a growing part of present reality, and on and on.

Those country and western gospel songs are more accurately described as American rural folk religion songs (“I’ll Fly Away,” actually a Carter Family song, is a classic example of that).  Gospel or not, they are good foot tapping honky tonk songs, often with lyrics that lament some life wasted in honky tonks that has been rescued from dissipation by Jesus.  A classic of that is Johnny Cash’s “I’m Alright Now” (written by Jerry Hensley).

                I’m alright now, I’m alright now

                I was ridin’ on the devil’s train but I got off somehow

                I’m alright now, I’m alright now

                Gabriel, let your trumpet blow, I’m alright now.

I wonder how many gospel songs Hank Williams wrote—I’ve seen a list of over 100 songs he wrote.  He had 35 songs that placed in the top 10 on the Country & Western chart.  He was born Hiram King Williams, but changed his name to Hank after he was in his first band at the age of 14.  He did several gospel recordings in 1950 under the name of Luke the Drifter which didn’t sell well because people didn’t realize it was Hank Williams.  He died January 1, 1953 when he was only 29 years old.  He was southern and gospel and he’s alright now.

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