Art/ music interpretation and the principle of charity


Hi all,

So this is a question that has come up for me a lot as I have come to embrace a Roman Catholic faith. If some song makes an allusion, however explicitly, to being sexually involved with someone, do we automatically assume in charity that the artist is singing about morally acceptable marital sexual relations? What if we happen to know that, as a matter of fact, the artist was involved in a non- marital sexual relationship with someone at the time that the song was written? Should we still assume that, despite this, he/ she was probably singing about some fictional marital relationship? Another way to pose the question is this: just how much do we grant an artist in charity when interpreting the lyrics of a song? Does it need to be made absolutely sparklingly explicit that the song is about non- marital relations in order for us to conclude that the song is morally evil, at least with respect to its sexual aspects?

Further, I am also interested in the question about what the responsibility of the listener is once he/ she has detected possibly or even explicitly evil attitudes expressed in song. What if the song is beautiful except with respect to one evil line? What if the line admits of various interpretations such that, even if we know that the intentions of the artist were bad, we might sing the exact same thing “along with him” without endorsing the evil attitude?

These issues are of relevance to me since I am a musician and play mainly American folk- influenced music, but am often bothered by what seems to me to be a disregard for sexual morality in such music. So my relationship to much folk music is ambivalent and conflicted.

I’ve asked a lot of questions, so of course I don’t expect anyone to answer all of them. Thanks for any help!

God Bless,



My interpretation is that a LOT of American folk music is cautionary in nature. If somebody’s out walking with his sweetheart down by the river and you get an inkling they’ve been doing more than walking, it usually means that the sweetheart is about to get murdered and then the guy is about to hang for it. You can’t really constitute that as approval. A lot of songs about unfaithfulness, or about pining for somebody else’s wife/husband, or about sleeping with somebody and then being betrayed by him, are full of things that point out that unchaste behavior is a Very Bad Idea.

But obviously you would probably want to avoid the ones which are basically about, “I am a musician, and I want somebody in this audience to sleep with me tonight, so please feel sorry for me or acknowledge my awesomeness.”

OTOH, if you’re playing the blues, it is notoriously filled with rocking and rolling under the sheets that may or may not be marital, because it is notoriously the opposite of Gospel music. Of course, a lot of blues songs are about the man being faithful in marriage while the woman isn’t, so it would make sense that plenty of the sex is marital!

Folk/Bluegrass - somebody’s porch on a weeknight with all the kids listening in. (Although factually a lot of bluegrass was invented in bars close to car factories up north. The joys of Southern immigration.)
Country, Ragtime, and Blues - Saturday night in a bar or even in a brothel.
Gospel - church on Sunday. (You probably know the joke about head bobbing direction.)

This isn’t an easy question to answer, because the Church basically expects artists to be grownups who can judge for themselves and be prudent. (A lot of people ask themselves if they’d be comfortable singing a song in front of their parents or siblings, but of course that’s not a great test if your family doesn’t like your music, which is often the case!) There’s not really a line that anybody can draw for you.

Do you feel that a song is overall full of good intent, or not? Is it selling something fake, or saying something true? That’s how I’d judge. A good honest song that is also beautiful is the most interesting song to sing, and brings the best response from your audience. A song that’s fake in its message, lyrics, or music is like singing a commercial jingle.

Here’s a link to Pope St. John Paul II’s letter to artists. He was an actor, poet, and playwright before he was a priest, so you might find his thoughts helpful.


Thank you, that is a very helpful reply!


Another thing to consider is that the singer may not the lyricist. It’s up to the singer how to interpret the lyrics. There are a couple of threads about the nun who sang a song origninally recorded by Madonna. If you read up on the song, Madonna didn’t write the lyrics and she interpreted them differently than the songwriter(s). Also, a singer can change that interpretation from performance to performance, too. And so can we. We are not bound to the interpretation of the songwriters or performers. A brilliant man said something like “art is not a pet. It’s like a child and it grows up and talks back.” Your interpretation is the talking back.


Beautifully put. Thank you for your insights!


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