Sad songs, happy people

Usually, the podcasts I listen to are sermons from other churches, so that I can steal ideas from be inspired by other preachers. I also listen to a few other thinkers and sports commentators, including quasi-Canadian, quasi-Mennonite Malcolm Gladwell. His podcast is entitled “Revisionist History” and in this most recent season (which you can find here), he had an episode called the King of Tears. In it, he contrasted the sad and complex songs in country music to the simplistic and happy songs in the popular/rock music sphere.

This was not a new debate to me. My parents grew up loving country music and were quick to critique the loud, abrasive rock music (or schunt as my father would call it in Low German, meaning garbage) and they feared how the songs about sex, drugs and wild living would influence us.

They wouldn’t have had the ability or desire to analyse the complexities of the songs or the musical styles, but they liked country music at a profound level. They liked how easily you could sing along to country music. They appreciated the sounds of the steel and acoustic guitars. They were drawn to the personalities of the country music scene, upstanding men and women with pretty smiles and clean-cut western clothing. But something was amiss.

Mom and Dad had collected vinyl records before we kids came along and absorbed their disposable income, and we enjoyed listening to those albums too. One song on one of the albums had the lyrics, “wham bam thank you ma’am” on it. My brother and I were too young to know what it meant (and if my older sisters knew what it meant, they didn’t tell us), and it was fun to sing along. All of a sudden that record disappeared from our music collection.

As a teenager, even though I didn’t listen to a lot of rock music, I grew tired of the moral superiority of country music fans. Certainly the industry had good, clean musicians singing good, clean songs, but there were no shortage of exceptions. I could easily find examples of how country songs and the artists who performed them were no more morally sound than rock stars. I happily used those examples to point out the hypocrisy of my parents and others like them. Now, I’ve come around, but I still have questions.

My parents loved Johnny Cash and June Carter’s song “Jackson.” And why not? It’s a fun song performed by fantastic musicians and beautiful harmonies. But it’s a song about a couple celebrating their failing marriage and impending infidelities. “Ring of Fire” is on that same album, a song June Carter wrote about falling in love with a man she shouldn’t and suffering the consequences of that illicit and immoral attraction. The Revisionist History episode I mentioned focussed on George Jones’ song “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a song about a man who spun into depression, drug abuse and alcoholism after his wife left him and how he was only freed from that heartbreak and its destructive cycle by his own death. That song was almost a biography of George Jones’ life, as he needed to pull out of a similar destructive cycle just to record that song.

In some ways, you would think that my parents didn’t belong in that world. My dad once got a novelty bottle opener as a promotional gift at some event. The first thing he did when he brought it home was to try to scratch the name “Labatt’s” off the front of it. I’m sure if you asked my parents to explain what the phrase, “snort a line of coke” meant, they would be utterly incapable of the task. Their marriage had issues like anyone else, but when they found about a couple they knew getting a divorce, they participated in the collective Mennonite experience of shame, mourning the demise of a sacred union. This wasn’t always the case, but I now credit most of that to them as righteousness.

So, why did these clean living people sing along so heartily to the sad songs of alcoholic, drug-abusing divorcees? I really think it’s just the rural pop culture equivalent of the songs of lament that our Bible is so full of. We can only climb the mountain tops of Hallelujah after we have walked through the valley of the shadow of death.

Psalm 137: 1-4, CEB
1 Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down, crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up in the trees there
3 because that’s where our captors asked us to sing; our tormentors requested songs of joy:
    “Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing the Lord’s song on foreign soil?

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