I love Bluegrass and Oldtime Gospel. I put up a lot of these songs on my facebook page now. This kind of music played a role in my rediscovery of traditional faith as a twenty year old in the early seventies. I had been very religious as a child. I was a devoted altar boy and when I was thirteen I made a 50 mile pilgrimage on foot to a shrine. Like a lot of young people I began to question and my questions were not treated kindly. I also discovered what the famous children’s writer Madeline L’Engle called the perfidy of adults who were my elders in religion. I lost my faith. Years later I studied faith development and found that some researchers in the field spoke of what they called the atheism of the twelve year old. I was stuck in the atheism of the twelve year old until about age 20.
In my last year of college I had a sudden and profound experience of Christ that did not fit into the secularized version of the Christian faith that I had started to experiment with. I went to seminary in Boston right out of college not to prepare for the priesthood but just to try to fit my experience into my skeptical and anti-supernatural world view. I took a course with Harvey Cox, one of the theologians of the Death of God movement. I knew about Harvey Cox from the religion teacher at my college, William Hamilton who had written with T.J. Altizer the book The Death of God which made the cover of Time. Cox was famous for a book called The Secular City which predicted the demise of the churches and religion and to a degree celebrated the “religionless Christianity” that would survive.
Harvey Cox was a sociologist and he was famous for the participant-observer model. Down with the detached and antiseptic observer and up with the observer who threw him or herself wholeheartedly into the experience and then came apart to reflect and analyze. As part of the class Harvey brought in a musician who was an expert in the Gospel music of Appalachia. The young man was an ethnomusicologist and this genre was his specialty. Harvey wanted us to sing the songs and have some of the experience. The musician was himself skeptical. He introduced the songs by saying, ” There is the religion of the earth and the religion of the sky and we are more earth people now but we are going to sing some songs of the sky god tonight.”
We sang a number of Oldtime favorites; I Saw The Light, I’ll Fly Away, What A Friend We Have In Jesus and so on. Then we sang a song that really got me. I have heard Doc Watson do it since. I am not sure of the title but the refrain is, “I like the old time preaching, praying, shouting singing, I like the old time worship of the Lord.” And there was this line, “In these latter days they say there is no need to pray, all we need to think religion is a better way but I am here to tell you brother Jesus saves from sin and in that old fashioned way he saves and now he dwells within.” I wasn’t sure I believed the line but I was sure that in the midst of all the palaver about the earth god and the sky god I had come across something that was serious, that had heft, weight, what I now understand the Bible calls glory. I left the auditorium thinking that if it was a choice between the earth god and the sky god that the sky god had way better songs. It took a while for the effect to go all the way home but that song had pulled on the end of the twelve year old atheist’s knitting and the whole scarf was coming undone. I love these old songs. They gladden my heart. At first hearing they can sound quaint and naïve. They are full of dynamite. Listen at your own risk.
Leander S. Harding, 2009