Saturday, October 8, 2011

Religion: Holy Now

Peter Mayer: Holy Now


Sundown this evening marked the end of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement; twenty years ago, or even five, the day would have had me in temple, naming my sins alongside the community in a language I can speak but cannot understand, hoping that G-d would find my repentance sincere enough to inscribe me in the book of life for yet another year.

But the older I get, the more my belief system drifts away from the conservative Judaism of my birth, and towards that of the Unitarian Universalists - a humanistic practice with no common creed among its followers save that of the ongoing search, the sacredness of community itself, and the urgency of social justice. And where most religions tell us where and how to pray, the UU sense of ritual is fluid enough to allow us to celebrate in whatever way best befits our mood, our needs, and our sense of the universe and our place in it.

And so, today, I found myself home, preparing a feature for Cover Lay Down about the ways in which I have come to use blogging itself as a mechanism for writing myself into the world, by year and by day.

And so, perhaps, it is fitting to find myself finishing up here, posting the song which most clearly speaks to that growing sense of the sublime in the mundane.

Because Minnesota singer-songwriter Peter Mayer's Holy Now serves as a sort of personalized UU hymn, one which reflects my own drift from Judaism even as it describes the move many lapsed Catholics have made from their own churches to the shared table where we worship through song and story each Sunday. In lyric and tone, it reminds us that returning reverence to the totality of creation need not imply a creator, but it sure does demand mindfulness in everything.

On my best days, I aspire to his vision.

May every day of your life bring atonement and prayer, joy and solace, no matter what you believe. For there is none of us so lost that we cannot find ourself again. Happy Yom Kippur, everyone.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Religion: What About The Bond

Bruce Cockburn: What About the Bond


In 1980, Bruce Cockburn released Humans. The album is a collection of songs about the various forms of injustice in the world. What About the Bond comes almost exactly in the middle of the album, and it makes clear that Cockburn sees testifying about these injustices as a religious obligation. Cockburn urges all of us to stop turning a blind eye to human suffering, a message that is at least as relevant today as it was in 1980. I haven’t read the whole Book, but I’m pretty sure that there is a parable about that…

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Religion: Love, Devotion, and Surrender

Santana: Love, Devotion, and Surrender


We've had a lot of Christian music this week, so I thought I'd offer up something a little more universal by Latin-jazz-rock-fusion guitarist Carlos Santana. In the years before this release, he'd been making quite a musical splash, first in late-60s San Francisco, then at Woodstock (his blazing debut), and then worldwide. But around 1973 his music took a definite turn towards jazz fusion, a blend of jazz, funk, R&B, and rock heavily dosed with complicated time signatures. Miles Davis was at the forefront of jazz fusion, releasing in short order the groundbreaking albums Miles in the Sky (1968), In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970). Some of the musicians on these LPs went on to further to fusion cause: Joe Zawinil and Wayne Shorter formed Weather Report, John McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea, Airto Moriera, and Flora Purim became Return to Forever, and Herbie Hancock formed Headhunters, among others. Some of these artists also show up in Santana's albums around this time, but John McLaughlin in particular is a prominent influence.

Just as music made dramatic changes in the late 60s, religious ideas became more diverse and took a pronounced turn eastward. Like many trends of the era, this started with the Beatles. In 1967, the Fab Four, along with a passel of other A-list celebrities (Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Cilla Black, Donovan, Mike Love of The Beach Boys, Mia Farrow, and flutist Paul Horn) became interested in an unknown Indian guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and his technique of Transcendental Meditation. As you might expect, fascination with all things Indian---especially Indian mysticism--- soon followed.

By 1973 John McLaughlin was a member of the Self Realization Fellowship led by Indian-cum-American guru Sri Chinmoy, and he converted Carlos Santana and his drummer Michael Shrieve to the fellowship. Sri Chinmoy taught that rapid spiritual progress could be made with divine love, divine devotion and divine surrender, which gives us our title. McLaughlin and Santana released an album with this title several months prior, but this song is from the album Welcome. Vocalists are Santana, Wendy Hass, and Leon Thomas.

"We are all seekers, and our goal is the same: to achieve inner peace, light and joy, to become inseparably one with our Source, and to lead lives full of true satisfaction.” Sri Chinmoy

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Religion: Love...Thy Will Be Done

Martika: Love...Thy Will Be Done


This song blew me away the first time I heard it on the radio (though admittedly, I was only in junior high). It's beautiful, and anthemic, but yet it is pretty much a gospel song just jammed in there among the rest of the pop schlock that was being played on popular radio in 1991. The song was written and produced by the one and only Prince, and then performed by pop singer Martika, who is best known for her hit single "Toy Soldiers". "Love...Thy Will Be Done" did well commercially though, it made it into the top 10 pop charts.

To this day it remains one of my all time favorite songs because I find it so powerful...undoubtedly because of what it stands for to me. When having a religious discussion with a friend of mine and attempting to explain how I feel on the subject the only thing I could think of was this song. I told him, "as an agnostic, the one thing I feel like I can get behind without reservations is love as a religion. To me, if you can't replace the word "Lord" or "God" with "love" and still have your beliefs make sense, then you're doing something wrong". And of course, the original phrase is "Lord, thy will be done", and the song is "Love, thy will be done". Changing two letters changes everything.

Religion: Fix It Jesus

When your burden gets too heavy, sometimes all you need is a southern preacher armed with a Fender Mustang, playing and singing like a man possessed. No matter what you believe in, or don't believe in. Ain't that the gospel truth.

Religion: Church

Lyle Lovett: Church


I like to say that mankind invented religion to answer the question, “What’s for dinner?” Think about it. The oldest religions have mythologies and rituals that are centered around hunting and farming. Even Judaism has a seasonal cycle of festivals that include a harvest festival, (Sukkos), and Passover can be seen as a ritualized tale of leading the livestock to their spring pastures. Christianity is the first one to replace the old question with a new one, “What happens when we die?” But Lyle Lovett finds the old question returning in a powerful way one Sunday. What’s for dinner? The preacher’s answer will surprise you.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Religion: Do Lord

Jane Russell, Connie Haines, Beryl Davis, Della Russell: Do Lord


It's a fascinating bit of trivia: Sex symbol actress Jane Russell headed a gospel quartet in the 1950s. Russell, a life-long Christian who died at 90 in February this year, met her fellow group members, singers Connie Haines (a former singer in the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey orchestras) and Beryl Davis, at a Christian social in Hollywood.The three were periodically joined by Della Russell and Rhonda Fleming (another bombshell).

The story goes that during the filming of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1953, Russell tried to convert co-star Marilyn Monroe to Christianity. Monroe later recalled: "Jane tried to convert me and I tried to introduce her to Freud".

"Do Lord", in which the singers are helfully introduced individually, was a big hit in 1954, shifting 2 million copies.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Religion: Let The Mystery Be

Iris DeMent: Let The Mystery Be


Iris DeMent didn't get to spend Sundays the same way as the other kids in her Southern California neighborhood. Her parents took her to Pentecostal and Assembly Of Life churches where she spent hour after hour listening to fire and brimstone sermons which sometimes involved speaking in tongues. As Iris told The Aspen Times recently: "There's a lot of weird stuff there that anybody could do without."

When Iris left home, she left the church. But the church didn't leave her. From her 1992 debut Infamous Angel,  "Let The Mystery Be" takes on the subject of religious uncertainty: "Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from/ Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done."

 "I've never met anybody who went to the other side," she said. "So I just don't know what's there."

Religion: There's Gonna Be A Showdown

The Rance Allen Group: There's Gonna Be A Showdown


Some believe that when they die, there'll be nothing. Others believe that when they die, granny and gramps will wait for them, cheerfully waving in a show of welcome at the end of that tunnel. Others believe that granny and gramps are biding their time with the waving welcome on the other side of purgatory. And some believe that there's gonna be a showdown at the end of days when the righteous shall rise again (God seems to have fun missing the deadlines set for him by the rapture-tempting loons).

The Rance Allen Band, who were brilliant at fusing soul, funk and gospel, seem to be of the apocalyptic persuasion. So their advice is that you better start having God in your life now because you don't know when that showdown of rapture will happen.

"There's Gonna Be A Showdown", from their 1972 LP Truth Is Where It's At, is a cover of the song by Archie Bell and the Drells, with the lyrics entirely reworked, except for the rousing chorus, which even retains the theologically redundant phrase, "hey hey". Where the Archie Bell and his band promised a showdown of dancing, Rance Allen and his band were aiming for final days. It's interesting that the gospel version totally outfunks the dance original. The Race Allen version is exhilirating where the original is just rather good.

The Rance Allen Group released a few very good albums on the Stax subsidiary Gospel Truth, and appeared at the Wattstax, the African-Amerian Woodstock (their performance of their song "Lying On The Truth" is, in the film, intercuit with images of churches in Watts). They remain active today.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Religion: Snake-Handling Man

Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer: Snake-Handling Man


And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. - Mark 16: 17-18

I came into possession of a number of albums by Tracy Grammer, with and without her late musical partner Dave Carter, and I have lately been discovering Carter and Grammer’s album Seven is the Number. The obvious choice from it for our new theme would have been Workin’ For Jesus, but I liked Snake-Handling Man better. Snake-Handling is a real thing. Dating from at least the 1920s, it is practiced in some Pentacostal churches in Appalachia. The bible verse I quoted above is the scriptural justification for the practice, and practitioners feel that only those whose faith is strong enough should attempt it. Dave Carter portrays his narrator as a man who is filled with the awesome power of God. The turbulent guitar parts only serve to emphasize this. I am reminded of the boasting of supernatural power that is found in blues songs like Hoochie Coochie Man.