Even superstitions have their uses. Take the notion that the fiddle and banjo are the devil’s instruments. Or that certain crackerjack guitar heroes sold their souls to Mephistopheles. Such quaint beliefs kept traditional stringed instruments out of the homes of good Christian people for centuries.
Talk about a turnaround. Today you would be hard pressed to find a place of worship where there isn’t a full complement of folk musicians picking and grinning from the orchestra pit. Nowhere is this transition felt more deeply than on the production line of Wicks Organ Co., in Highland, Illinois, where, after more than 100 years in business, the company has ceased manufacturing custom pipe organs.
The family-owned Wicks is but another casualty of a lingering recession coupled with changing tastes in religious music (read: worsening tastes). There just isn’t much call for pipe organs in 21st century America.
Houses of worship, obviously, made up Wicks’ customer base. This, however, is the era of the megachurch. If you haven’t been, many of these gargantuan churches resemble concert halls, and are stocked, not with the traditional pipe organist, but with a 10-piece Christian rock band or a 300-person choir — a sure sign that two thousand years of tradition have been usurped by today’s pop culture. Some megachurches televise their “services.” Not many small town churches can compete with Big Rock and Roll TV Church where the only commandment is “Thou Shall Not Bore.”
But what really finished off the pipe organ was the lowly six-string guitar. Or, more specifically, the guitar mass. Back in the seventies acoustic guitars (and tambourines and recorders) migrated from the coffeehouse to the chapel. The pipe organ was just one of many cultural artifacts deemed elitist and old fashioned by modern church leaders. Faced with a graying congregation and empty pews, desperate church leaders hoped to attract more young bodies by “contemporizing” services, beginning with the music. As the culture of youth spread its tentacles throughout society, it no longer mattered what those over 40 desired, musically or otherwise. The old folks were already hooked. Besides, they’d be dead soon enough.
THE TRADITIONALISTS among us still long for the old time religion with its baroque melodies and strange archaic lyrics. Such songs could induce goosebumps, and were tailor-made for the stately pomp of the pipe organ — wonderfully evocative hymns like “O Sacred Head Surrounded,” with its plaintive strains and ornate libretto, like something out of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem:
I see Thy strength and vigor all fading in the strife
And death with cruel rigor bereaving Thee of life
O agony and dying! O love to sinners free!
Jesus, all grace supplying, O turn Thy face on me.
There was no sugarcoating life and death in the old hymns: “Death’s pallid hue comes o’er Thee, the glow of life decays…” Wonderful stuff. Instead, today’s hymnals are chock full of gag-inducing songs with shallow, repetitive lyrics about being lifted up on Eagle’s wings. (Indeed, pretty much any song by Dan Schutte or Marty Haugen sends me reeling for the barf bag.)
No masterpiece is exempt from the uplifter’s pen. Last Sunday I had to endure the bowdlerization of another timeless classic. All the glorious doom and gloom, to say nothing of the thee’s and thou’s, had been excised from the lyric until all that remained was a limp, pale, sanitized version, doubtless one that wouldn’t give the kids nightmares. Dismayed, I turned to the wife: “My God, is nothing sacred?”
This was too bad, because it spoiled what was otherwise rare religious experience. We attended mass in a tiny hamlet in the Ozark foothills. The green vistas were spectacular. The church was small and neat and the floor was freshly scrubbed, the walls newly painted. Best of all, there wasn’t a guitar on the premises. In fact, every hymn was sung a cappella (literally Italian for “in the manner of the church”), which is how God prefers it. I might have been attending services in a small English country church. What a pleasant change from our usual place of worship where every mass is a cacophony of strings, brass, and woodwinds, all overly amplified, and where the only part of the service that isn’t sung is the sermon. At least not yet.
In today’s newspaper, I read that the Wicks family has announced that, if and when the economy recovers and churches return to traditional music, they will happily restart their production line. Certainly the economy will bounce back, but I am less optimistic about musical tastes.
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