The Shared Memory of Songs

by Matthew Raley

Let’s assume a congregation today gathers to sing in a space that will enliven their sound. They won’t be singing into a dead zone, but creating a corporate resonance. They will feel from the first notes that they are not in the iPod worship mode, but that they are being called out of their own heads to participate.

So far, so good. A fundamental element in the dynamic of folk singing is present: participation is physically possible. But there’s the question of what to sing.

Folk singing is an expression of shared memory. People sing together because they remember the same songs. They’ve acquired those songs because they’ve lived together for a long time, sharing the same way of life in the same region, city, or neighborhood.

Local memory is powerful.

The British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was notorious as a folk song collector. One of the tunes he investigated was “Dives and Lazarus,” a ballad based on a parable of Jesus. He found five different versions of the tune in different regions of Britain, with various titles, and using each version he composed a string orchestra piece called, Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus.

What happened with this tune is pretty common. It traveled from one region to the next, but within the long life of each place it was remembered differently. The same phenomenon played havoc with colonial American worship, in which the hymnals often contained words without music. Congregations were known to sing variants of the same tune all at once, to general annoyance.

If you want to recover the next fundamental of the folk singing dynamic, you have to sing what can be shared. You have to build up local memory.

And in order to do that, you have to think of your church not as an outlet for Christian pop culture, but as a local community with a life of its own. The unique character of place, time, heritage, work, and cultural mix needs to drive the way a congregation sings, not the most popular Jesus-as-boyfriend ballads on the radio.

Worship leaders need to ask, “Who are we as believers in this place?”

In this connection, there are two cultural reasons why folk singing has been replaced by iPod worship.

In the first place, people move around more today than ever before in history. The suburban population is especially transient, so that the natural process of building a shared memory doesn’t have much time to work. This movement isn’t inherently bad. The book of Acts narrates the movement of believers from place to place, and I would argue that the mingling of the cultures from different city states strengthened all the churches.

But our moving around does elevate one thing that is shared from sea to shining sea, namely Christian radio. From FM stations, it’s easy to find songs that people recognize and use the hits in worship. (More about the problems with this practice next week.)

Secondly, people have little sense of history. This is catastrophic for worship.

The fact that hymnals are arranged according to doctrinal content is an outworking of history, and it is full of significance. Certain songs came from Reformation Germany (frequently composed by Martin Luther himself), or from immigrant groups (“How Great Thou Art”), or from specific theological movements (hymns by the Wesley brothers).

American evangelicalism did not sprout in the suburbs, and we’re blind when we act as though it did. The past can reprioritize the present, set our troubles in context, and give us a much-needed sense of proportion. The consequences of ignoring the past are pride and folly.

Christian radio, like all mass media, is an endless Now, and that is the mind of illiteracy.

The recovery of this part of the folk singing dynamic depends on a simple but radical shift in leadership. People can learn tunes. Shared memory can be built up, and relatively quickly. But only if pastors stop using music as a way to attract the people they want, and start thinking of it as an expression of a local church’s unique identity in Christ.

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