Musical Stories

I became a Christian in 1973 in Centerville, Ohio. In case history is not your strong suit, this was the height of the Jesus People movement. And it was also one of the most tumultuous times our nation has ever experienced. Some wondered if we would make it another three years to our bicentennial. The music of the day expressed the angst our nation was feeling. I developed my worldview by the music I listened to. When I became a Christian, I wanted to find a way to express my newfound faith. I didn’t have to look too far: I found it where I lived: in music.

Music was my primary language. I listened to music every chance I could. This was in an era (are you sitting down? This could be shocking.) before iPods, before boomboxes, even before the Sony Walkman. If I wanted to listen to music, I had to be near my record player. Or my cousin Gary’s record player. So Gary and I spent a lot of time in our rooms, listening to records. He was more interested in the instruments and the mixing of sound. I was more interested in lyrics. Pop, or as we called it then, “bubblegum,” music did not interest me in the least. I was drawn to songs that told stories, stories that touched my soul. And once my soul was awakened, I looked for lyrics that spoke to what I was now—a child of the Master Musician.

The songs that I could relate to in church were the hymns. Choruses were nice, and gave me a bit of an emotional rush and were fun to clap to with my new youth group friends, but the words didn’t really speak to me. But oh! the hymns. One of the first things I would do when we were told what page in the hymnal to turn to was to look at the year it was written. I figured the older the hymn, the better it must be, as it had survived the test of time. My favorite hymns (then and now) were Be Thou My Vision and All Creatures Of Our God And King.

Songs that tell stories speak to me more deeply than spoken or written words ever can. As I am writing this I’m listening to some of my favorite story songs. With God On Our Side (the Buddy Miller version). My God by Jethro Tull. San Quentin by Johnny Cash. And the most powerful story song of all, Hurricane by Bob Dylan. In this, Dylan sings the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer accused and convicted of murdering three people in a New Jersey bar in the 1960s. Whether you believe he was wrongly convicted or not, the story as sung by Dylan is unparalleled in touching my heart. It awakens anger and sorrow and grief like no other story or song I have ever encountered.

This is who I am: A man whose soul is reached by story. The first Christian musical storyteller I came upon as a young believer was Larry Norman. His lyrics went beyond the “isn’t Jesus so fine” words I was hearing in other songs I played on my record player (or, gasp!, my 8 track player. Yes, I am that old.) or sang in church. Norman was expressing what many in the church at the time wanted to ignore: poverty, injustice, the morality of war. He presented Jesus, not as a nice addition to life, but as a rebel who would be shunned by most practical, upstanding people today. Just as Norman was himself. Some say he was an outlaw …

So I went to church with a soul hungry for story, and I heard it in the hymns. Oh, we were taught great lessons from Scripture in the sermons, but I often went away with a hymn ringing in my heart that spoke more to me than the sermon did.

Ok, Jeff, you say, this is nice history. But it’s history. What is in this for us today? And my answer?

I don’t know.

Where are the great musical storytellers in the church today? They are not visible, at least not to me. Christian radio doesn’t want story. They want three minute, thirty second songs with a hook that worship leaders will sing this Sunday so that you buy the song on Monday. When that song wears out its welcome, a new one will be released. Cynical? No. Realistic. Christian music today is a business. Not as big of a business as Christian book publishing, but a business nonetheless. And it uses the church to expand its business. And we let it. That is just the way it is.

There are a few Christian music storytellers still today, but they are marginalized. My favorite is Sara Groves. She is very real, too real for most churches. She champions justice, something that makes most very uncomfortable. And if there is one thing we can’t allow in our worship services, it is making anyone uncomfortable. Everything, from parking lot greeters to giving free coffee to keeping crying babies out of sanctuaries, is meant to make the worship experience a comfortable one. Sing a song that asks why we are not rescuing slaves or feeding the starving or caring for dying AIDS patients? No way.

So for me, church music is mostly an hollow experience. It’s like eating cotton candy. Yes, it tastes good for a few bites. But it doesn’t satisfy hunger. Maybe your church still sings the great hymns of old. Ours sings one or two hymns every few months. But words like “fetter” and “Ebenezer” are not fun words to sing because we don’t know them today, and we don’t want to be bothered with learning what they mean and the story they might tell us. We want fun and comfort and cotton candy.

So I listen to Mike Roe of the 77s and Daniel Amos. I listen to Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash, three of the greatest storytellers ever to live. I listen to Larry Norman and thank the Lord for his rebellion and his long hair. And I sing by myself,

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

44 thoughts on “Musical Stories

  1. Before Damaris beats me to it I’ll mention the late Stan Rogers, Canadian singer-songwriter-storyteller-promoter of folk songs and sea chanties. His songs “The Mary Ellen Carter” and “Barrett’s Privateers” stand out, but if you’re a junkie like me you’ll like “Northwest Passage”, “Rolling Down to Old Maui”, “White Squall” (all story-telling songs) plus love songs like “45 Years from Now” and social protest like “The Field Behind the Plow” and “Tiny Fish for Japan”.

    Here’s a video of Stan and his pirate buddies singing a portion of “Barrett’s Privateers” around the kitchen table. Somebody here at iMonk (was it Christiane?) said that in Nova Scotia you can tell the pub is about to close when everybody starts singing this one. Not sure if this is taking the Lord’s name in vain because it sounds like the guys meant it.


  2. I’ve been checking out Josh at the Cornerstone Music Festival for years, and I’ve enjoyed watching his journey from some unknown hippie kid just sharing his music and his heart for free at the corner next to the port-a-potties to performing on the main stage with all the big names. He just keeps getting better, in my opinion, and a measure of success hasn’t diminished the honesty and integrity of his music.
    God help me, I’m going to miss Cornerstone!


  3. Wow! Another Edwards fan. I thought I was alone in the world.
    He’s probably a little to far “out there” for even most indie fans, but I love his stuff — even if it’s a bit scary and disturbing at times. His lyrics are like Jim Morrison meets the prophet Ezekiel on a major acid trip. But his words are usually dead-on true — if you can figure out what he’s talking about. His use of poetic imagery is amazing, and there’s a lot of depth there to explore if you’re willing to think outside the box. And of course Edwards’ musical compositions — which I would describe as Pink Floyd meets Peter Gabriel at a bluegrass festival on an Indian reservation — are just as amazing as his lyrics.
    The first time I heard his music was a live Woven Hand performance at the Cornerstone Music Festival about 10 years ago. It was just him playing various stringed instruments, a drummer with a jazz kit, and a spooky organ player. It was intense.


  4. I love nearly everything done by the 77’s. Randy Stonehill is also a singer/storyteller whose tunes I always find relaxing and provoking of contemplation.

    We want fun and comfort and cotton candy.

    Tragic, but true. I have one of the luxuries of being at a church where I am free to sing as many “hymns” as I want, though we don’t quite use them exclusively. There’s a little demand here and there for some fluff, which I usually oblige, provided the song isn’t about fire. I sing a lot of songs I can’t stand, but for me, the thing that makes a song good or bad is not so much its age as its textual substance. Many want cheery little ditties that make them feel happy, but I need to sing songs that say something meaningful.


  5. I’ve noticed that any discussion of music and, specifically CCM, really draws interest here on iMonk. Must be a great big hole in lots of our lives these days.

    Chris Rice is incredibly good, Jim Cole if you can find him (“Wayward Son” is my own favorite), and Carolyn Arends needs to be included as one very talented and prolific. England’s Mal Pope and Julie Costello are well worth a listen, too. Kate Miner and Ashley Cleveland have made wonderful contributions to the body of music and to our library here.

    I’d like us to find a new name for this category of music …music by Christian artists that serves to promulgate the Christian world view and is both literate, scripturally accurate and actually MUSICAL!


  6. Don Francisco is still active, just under the radar. He and his wife Wendy (once of Wendy and Mary if you’re old enough to remember) are releasing a new album this fall. And his whole catalog is available on his website. Great stuff!


  7. Yep, those “lyrical” songwriters aren’t prolific these days, but they are out there. Along with Andrew Peterson and Sara Groves(mentioned by others) I would throw in Derek Webb and perhaps Steve Taylor(“Cash Cow”, anyone?). Oh, and Michael Card as well.


  8. I was a little too young to appreciate the Jesus Music movement when it was in full bloom. But a fraternity brother turned me on to Mark Heard, who still stands at the top of my list of “real” Christian songwriters. Go search Youtube for his stuff. Incredible!

    Another songwriter of faith, who comes at it from the Catholic side, and who always includes a Mark Heard cover on his albums, is Pierce Pettis. His latest is entitled “That Kind of Love”, and both the title song and “You Did That for Me” (also covered by Sara Groves) will lift your heart in worship.


  9. Josh Garrels is probably the best musician I have come across in years. His lyrics are stunning and Christ centered and his talent is in no short supply.

    Check out these songs.

    And especially this one:

    Do yourself a favor and check him out, he is a rare talent


  10. … “And as he drew the bow across the strings it made an evil hiss, and a band of demons joined in, and it sounded something like KISS… I was made for loving you baby, you were made for loving me, can’t get enough of loviing you baby, have you any love left for me….”

    Couldn’t resist… remember when medleys were the hip thing in church?


  11. One of the more “challenging” songs I’ve heard from a Christian band is “Kingdom of Comfort” by Delirious.

    “Save me, save me
    From the kingdom of comfort where I am king
    From my unhealthy lust of material things”


  12. The text has undergone a substantial amount of revision and rearrangement, that’s for sure. It can be easy to sing it the newer way and not realize tehre’s more llike 9 than 3 verses.


  13. Neal Morse is an absolute necessity for this discussion. His “?” album from beginning to end is a masterpiece of music and storytelling lyrics. I can’t make it through to the end without crying like a little girl.

    And Andrew Peterson is a close second. His Christmas concert, “Behold The Lamb Of God” is a holiday standard for me and my family.


  14. Mark Knopfler is an awesome singer/story-teller. Check out “Telegraph Road” off Dire Straits’ “Love Over Gold” album or a number of songs off of Knopfler’s “Sailing to Philadelphia” record.


  15. Jeff — Do you know Rez Band’s “Lament?” The whole album is a beautifully structured story. I think it’s the best thing they’ve done.

    Jenny — I know a slightly different version of the first verse you quote:
    Be thou my battleshield, sword for the fight,
    Be thou my dignity, thou my delight —
    The other two lines are similar. I like both of these translations.


  16. I’m still trying to forget that one. Charlie fell off the right-wing end of things. But the Marshall Tucker Band has done some wonderful gospel, and no one brings me closer to God than the Allman Brothers.


  17. “Be Thou my Vision” has always been a favourite of mine too, but when did they change the words? The ones you quote drive me crazy, I loved the old version before they swapped the words round and took out all the “be”s and find the new version very difficult to sing as the timing is different.

    Be thou my breastplate, my sword for the fight;
    be thou my whole armor, be thou my true might;
    be thou my soul’s shelter, be thou my strong tower:
    O raise thou me heavenward, great Power of my power.

    Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise:
    be thou mine inheritance now and always;
    be thou and thou only the first in my heart;
    O Sovereign of heaven, my treasure thou art.


  18. I can’t contribute much to the discussion regarding CCM, since the only time I listen to CCM is when I have to learn a new p&w song for Sunday, but I love a good story-song. “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan is one of the best. I also like “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” a song so rich and vivid that you can make a movie out of if. A few others that come to mind:

    “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by the Band
    “Brownsville Girl” by Bob Dylan
    “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” by RIchard Thompson
    “American Pie” by Don McLean
    “Jungleland” by Bruce Springsteen

    A story-song doesn’t have to be long to be effective. Here are some radio-length songs I like: “All Along the Watchtower (Dylan)” “Fast Car (Tracy Chapman),” “The Boxer” (Simon & Garfunkle), “Midnight Train to Georgia (Gladys Knight).


  19. The storytellers are generally in the acoustic music, singer-songwriter tradition, which CCM and Christian radio have essentially abandoned. The near-total dominance of the praise band and big vocalist models in the past two decades has relegated the storyteller acoustic artists to the Indie pool. That’s the only place I’ll swim musically now.

    Andrew Peterson is undoubtedly (for me anyway) the best acoustic artist and storyteller on the scene today. Check out his newest CD, “Light for the Lost Boy,” to hear story, literature, theology, imagery, lyricism, and music blended into a whole story. Outstanding. Others I like: Sara Groves, Fernando Ortega, Bebo Norman (pre-pop), Eric Peters, Jill Phillips, Fernando Ortega, Bob Bennett, and of course Rich Mullins.


  20. Buddy Miller’s cover of Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” is astoundingly powerful.

    Everything else on that CD (“Universal United House of Prayer for All People”) is superb as well, especially his version of “Worry Too Much,” which, if anything, is even more powerful than his cover of “WIth God on Our Side.”


  21. And nobody has mentioned the “story singer” I remember most from early Eighties CCM —
    Don Francisco, master of the story-ballad format.


  22. Maybe your church still sings the great hymns of old. Ours sings one or two hymns every few months. But words like “fetter” and “Ebenezer” are not fun words to sing because we don’t know them today, and we don’t want to be bothered with learning what they mean and the story they might tell us. We want fun and comfort and cotton candy.

    Panem et Ludi — Bread and Circuses.

    What was this about Evangelical Churches steering clear of everything “Romish”?


  23. I haven’t heard a lot of the people you mentioned, but I’ll second Andrew Peterson, he’s an excellent story teller, full of biblical imagery. Unfortunately I’m not sure most in church today would catch all the imagery and it kind of takes away from the song.


  24. Jeff,
    It’s interesting you being up Sara Groves. Her and her husband, Troy, recently bought an old church building in St. Paul and started up a place called Art House, modeled after Charlie Peacock’s original Art House in Nashville. I was lucky enough to see Charlie there this past weekend, and I have to say, he’s one of the relatively small handful of Christian artists who I really respect. All of his music tells a story, like you say. Even though some of the production on his albums is dated, the music has a timeless quality to it.

    To me, it all comes down to authenticity. A few other Christian artists I’d recommend are Andrew Peterson, Burlap to Cashmere (especially Steven Delopoulos’ solo albums), The Choir, Justin McRoberts, Over the Rhine (of course, although, their audience goes beyond the typical Christian one).

    Another album you might want to check if you haven’t (I vageuly recall it being mentioned here before) yet is Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of US. It was produced by Phil Madeira, and it’s simply beautiful.

    Personally, I get depressed about the state of CCM, but I still think there are more Christians recording great music now than ever before. They just aren’t doing it through the Christian ghetto.


  25. Well spoken.

    So the question is, how can we encourage a new generation of musicians and story tellers to tell the same narratives in a way that is relevant to people of their age?

    It has to be rooted in their experience of God.


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