This is what you get when you raise your kids in a UU church

As a religious educator, when I watch kids grow up as Unitarian Universalists, I hope that when they become adults they will be thoughtful and critical of the world around them, they will value the arts, and they will have a sense of humor. Like this:

“A Song.” Written and performed by Eli Grober.

(Click through and leave your comments for Eli on YouTube.)

Millennial hymn for our times

Back in the early nineteenth century, Richard McNemar wrote a hymn commonly called “Babylon is Fallen,” which was included in the 1813 Shaker hymnal Millennial Praises. It is a hymn with typical Biblical apocalyptic imagery, probably based on Revelation 18.21 ff. Today the hymn is most commonly associated with an 1878 tune by W. E. Chute, and the Roud Folksong index number is S227926.

But the words most commonly sung today, e.g. in folk music circles and by Sacred Harp singers, are not the original words; four of the original six verses get ignored, and a third verse (probably added when Chute wrote his tune) is tacked on. I like the original words better, and when I read the first three verses, it feels as though the hymnodist were describing the current financial meltdown in the U.S.:

1. Hail the day so long expected!
Hail the year of full release!
Zion’s walls are now erected,
And her watchmen publish peace:
From the distant coasts of Shinar,
The shrill trumpet loudly roars,
   Refrain
Babylon is fallen, is fallen, is fallen,
Babylon is fallen to rise no more.

2. Hark, and hear her people crying,
“See the city disappear!
Trade and traffic all are dying!
Lo, we sink and perish here!”
Sailors who have bought her traffic,
Crying from her distant shore,
   Refrain

3. All her merchants cry with wonder,
“What is this that’s come to pass?”
Murm’ring like the distant thunder
Crying out, “Alas! Alas!”
Swell the sound, ye kings and nobles!
Priests and people, rich and poor!
   Refrain

Continue reading “Millennial hymn for our times”

The last of my general assembly reporting

A few last posts by me on the uuworld.org GA blog:

Scholars of color assess UU history, report on brief talks by Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, Rev. Monica Cummings, and Rev. Patricia Jimenez.
Music and cultural change in UUism, interviews with UU musicians Nick Page and Jeannie Gagne.
Commission on Appraisal continues study of ministry and authority, covering the Commission on Appraisal’s report to GA, and brief interview with Megan Dowdell of the Commission.
Moderator’s report: All of us working together, covering Gini Courter’s report to GA.

As before, comment here, or comment on the posts themselves.

(Earlier links to my reporting are here, and here.)

Poly Styrene: an appreciation

Various media sources are reporting that singer Marianne Elliot-Said has died of complications of breast cancer at age 53. Elliot-Said was better known under the stage name Poly Styrene, a name she used while singing with X-Ray Spex.

X-Ray Spex had a short career. In 1976, Elliot-Said was taking voice lessons, learning how to sing opera, and recording derivative reggae songs on the side, when she saw the Sex Pistols perform. This exposure to punk rock galvanized her, and she decided to form her own punk band, X-Ray Spex. The band performed together for about three years, recorded a handful of singles and one album, then disbanded in 1979.

Following the demise of X-Ray Spex, Elliot-Said joined the Hare Krishnas — more properly, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a branch of Hinduism that worships Vishnu, and is devoted to bhakti yoga, or expressions of devotion to God. I had not known that Elliot-Said had joined the Hare Kishnas, but I was not entirely surprised. When she was singing with X-Ray Spex, her voice had a transcendent, joyful quality to it — even when she was singing about the horrors of genetic engineering, or screaming (in late 1970s punk vocal style) “Oh bondage! up yours!” Although the punk rock idiom of the late 1970s was fairly limited, as practiced by someone like Poly Styrene the vocal style could approach a raucous and ecstatic transcendence. There was often a hint of rapture in her voice, even a hint of a connection to something larger than herself.

Elliot-Said has been interpreted as an early exponent of what came to be called third-wave feminism; she had a clear influence on later feminist bands like The Slits, and it’s hard to imagine the riot-grrrl movement without her example. She allied herself with the anti-racist forces within punk rock and was bi-racial — a Somali father and an English mother — and perhaps she will be claimed as an early adopter of multiracial identity. She also had a preference for day-glo colors and wore braces on her teeth, though it’s harder to know what to make of those attributes.

But I prefer to remember her simply for her full-throated, no-holds-barred singing, a kind of punk bhakti devotion that invited us all to transform and transcend. The hell with the anemic pablum of praise bands — if you’re gonna make me have amplified music in a worship service, I won’t settle for anything less the raw full-throated raucous singing of someone like Poly Styrene.

Because someone asked…

Yes, I sing Sacred Harp music every week in Berkeley. Yes, beginners are welcome. And a great place to check out this wild, raucous, loud, centuries-old genre of indigenous American music is the upcoming all-day singing on Saturday, April 23, in Berkeley — the 7th Annual Golden Gate All-Day-Singing. I know of several beginners who will be singing with us on April 23 — plus a former lead singer of a grunge-core band, a Grammy-award winning singer of medieval music, a K-6 music teacher, a church organist, a singer-songwriter, a couple of old folkies, two or three academics, and several dozen ordinary people.

Sacred Harp at GA?

Scott Wells, at Boy in the Bands, poses an excellent question regarding the upcoming General Assembly (GA) of Unitarian Universalists: “What might we show or teach one another in the hallways and cafés of Charlotte?”

My answer: I really want to share some Sacred Harp singing at GA. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s “theologically incorrect,” but it’s rockin good music that draws in punk rockersGrammy-winning performers of medieval musicavant-garde sound artistsyoung urbanitesfolkies — and just ordinary people like you. This is whatreal hymn singing sounds like: loud, raucous, unrestrained, by turns mournful and ecstatic.

I kinda doubt there will be many Sacred Harp singers at GA, but if you’re one, let me know, and let’s see if we can set something up.

Tibetan monks in Palo Alto

We have five Tibetan Buddhist monks visiting the Unitarian Universalist Church in Palo Alto, from the Drepung Loseling Phukhang Monastery. They’re working on creating a sand mandala, which will be completed by Sunday:

Here’s a close-up:

Last night, they had an opening ceremony, which involved about ten minutes of chanting. They wore elaborate yellow headdresses, and accompanied their chanting with a bell and a pair of cymbals. Part of their chanting involves overtone singing, which produced exceptionally low notes. (I happened to be sitting next to Marsha, a professional singer who knows a great deal about chanting, and asked her about the technique, but she said she couldn’t speak with any certainty about their specific technique.) All of the chanting tended to stay in the lower ranges of their voices, and was quite powerful and loud. You can find recordings of this type of chanting on the Web, but they simply don’t capture what it’s like to be sitting a couple of yards away when the monks are chanting.

Now they’re working on creating the sand mandala. As their work on the mandala progresses over the next few days, I’ll post more photos. (Link to a photo on the church Web site.) I’m also including a press release below, which gives more details. Continue reading “Tibetan monks in Palo Alto”