For those concerned with the negative influences of rock music on our culture, I would like to suggest politely that you are missing the boat. By far the musical style which has posed the greatest threat to Christian worship in general and Catholic worship in particular, is folk music. Yes, I said it, and I’ll say it again: If any music style could be plausibly claimed to have exerted a bad influence on the church in recent times, folk music is it.
Perhaps you think I overstate my case? Perhaps you think that all the folk-singers you know, and even the ones you don’t, are clean-living, doctrinaire, well-intentioned souls who would not hurt a fly? That is only because you haven’t paused to consider the secular, profane, and even sadistic roots of some of tunes now regularly sung in churches.
If you know anything at all about church music in the 20th century you will undoubtedly have noticed that many of the songs you find in your missal-ette each Sunday are set to the tunes of warmed-over folk songs. Sadly, many of these songs, as sung originally, represent lifestyles and world-views that are simply incompatible with a Christian life.
Examples abound, but it might be illustrative to look at just one jarring example I heard recently at a diocesan rite of election.
Perhaps you are familiar with “The Summons”, by John Bell and Graham Maule of the Iona Community? (You can find it in Gather Comprehensive, among other locations hymnary.org/hymn/GATHER/700) It is a cloying bit of treacle and in its present form contains at best confusing, and at worst theologically questionable lyrics. Below is the first verse, but it plows on for four additional verses, and you can easily find someone singing it on youtube with a placid look on their face:
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known,
will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?
The tune of the song is a Scottish melody known as “Kelvingrove”. Various versions of the song lyrics exist, but In the Victorian era it went something like this (Thomas Lyle darachweb.net/SongLyrics/KelvinGrove.html):
Let us haste to Kelvin Grove, bonnie lassie, O
Thro’ its mazes let us rove, bonnie lassie, O
Where the roses in their pride
Deck the bonnie dingle side
Where the midnight fairies glide, bonnie lassie, O.
So, our beloved contemporary worship song is really a quaint tale of a bonnie lassie, a dingle side, some fairies, etc. If the story ended here, we might retain our composure: a sappy, secular, Victorian song about a walk in the park has been re-cast in an equally sappy “churchy” light. Where’s the harm?
Unfortunately, the Victorian version has been heavily bowdlerized. Before the Victorians “improved” it, the song lived as several versions under the title of “Bonnie Lassie-O” and “The Shearing’s Nae For You”. These versions of the song start something like this:
Oh the shearin’s no for you my bonnie lassie o
No the shearin’s no for you my bonnie lassie o
No the shearin’s no for you, for your back it willnae boo
And your bellies rowan fu’ my bonnie lassie o
For those of you a little confused by “bellies rowan fu’”, it means the lassie in question is pregnant. How did that happen you ask? Well, it wasn’t exactly her idea, as we find out later in the song:
Dae you mind on yonder hill, where you said you wid me kill
If you didnae hae your will my bonnie laddie o
It turns out today’s hymn with traditional melody originated from a song about rape, a false promise of marriage, and impending bastardy. Yes, we stand a few centuries distant from bonnie lassie and her troubles, but imagine someone in the year 2030 wanting to re-write the lyrics for “Papa Don’t Preach” and use it in a mass setting? If that makes you queasy, it should.
This is but one example, but this bizarre, out-of-context, anachronistic use of folk music has reached epidemic proportions, in my view. It is so commonplace that we take it for granted, but now that you know about its origins, the next time you hear the “Summons” in church, can you not help but be reminded of the bonnie lassie?
Note: In composing this comment on Kelvingrove, I ran across the blogger below, who summarizes this transition from profane to sacred song quite nicely: ecalpemos.org/2011/02/kelvingrove-iona-and-dark-side-of.html