Monday, January 16, 2012

The Folk Mass as Museum Piece


I just spend a highly ambivalent hour listening to audio files on this website, which is dedicated to 60s and 70s Folk Mass music and nostalgia. I am so happy that most of these songs are not heard in Church any more, and sincerely hope this website will not lead to their revival. On the other hand, you know how hearing the music of one's lost youth can bring back a tsunami of memories. Mine was for most part a happy and interesting childhood. Listening to these catchy little tunes brought back the sights, sounds, places, and people that populated my elementary  and high school years. Furthermore, I'll disclose that  in 8th grade I received a guitar for Christmas, taught myself  a dozen chords plus the ubiquitous DOWN-down, UP-up, DOWN-up strum pattern, and spent one semester as a member of the Mt. St. John's Academy (Gladstone, NJ) folk mass group.  A year later, at Villa Walsh Academy, (Morristown,NJ) I was struck by  the weird disconnect between the gorgeous  classical sacred music we learned in the school concert chorus (Bach, Palestrina, di Lasso, Handel) and these happy-clappy tunes that we  bopped to during the Eucharistic sacrifice. I quit the folk group, confining my  guitar playing to John Denver, Chicago, Orleans, Carpenters, and other decidedly non-liturgical music.

If any of you are between the ages of 45 and 65, you might enjoy listening  to some of these audio files, even if you are now, like me, a  traditionalist when it comes to liturgical music. A couple more thoughts, with which I don't mean to generate controversy. (I know that musical taste varies. I know people that have been moved to greater love of God by songs that make me ill, and that the music which moves me might leave some people cold.)  Anyway, my observations:
  • Now I know why masses that include contemporary hymns and guitars accompaniment are no longer called "folk masses". Listening to all these files, I now realize (what didn't sink in when I was aged 7 through 17) was that these tunes were clearly in the nouveau folk style of  the Kingston Trio; Peter,Paul&Mary; and the Mamas&thePapas. Those were the pop groups of the early and mid sixties, which eventually were eclipsed by a more rock  and/or a more solid country/western sound. So folk mass music truly was imitating--for better or worse-- what the youth were listening to in those days. Unlike today's "contemporary" hymns, which don't seem to resemble any type of popular music I can think of, although a few of them seem to be aping Broadway show tunes. It seems that  "Contemporary Christian" (or Catholic) music only imitates itself. It is not really "contemporary" with any other style of popular music.
  • Of the list of audio files on the Folk Mass site, only two are still frequently heard in church today: the "Prayer of St. Francis" (Make me a channel of your peace) and "They Will Know We are Christians by Our Love". And the funny thing is, they are now played to organ accompaniment, something that would have seemed totally incongruous during the height of the folk mass era. But the ballad-like pace of the former makes organ work pretty well, and slowing down the latter from its former pop tempo has done the same. Of the two, I like the lyrics of the St. Francis one, but find the melody tedious. With "Know We Are Christians", I find the melody, at the stately organ pace to be acceptable, but not the lyrics, because they are self-adulatory. We should not sing of ourselves, but of God,His truth, His Church, and the salvation He won for us. (the St. Francis lyrics are a prayer of petition for virtues we need, rather than an over-confident  recital of virtues we think we have as in "Know We are Christians") 
  • If you listen to the parts of the mass--Gloria, Sanctus--in the audio files that are from the--God help us! Missa Bossa Nova--you will notice that the lyrics are identical to the "new" missal translation that went into effect this advent. That is because, in the mid-sixties, although mass was mostly in English, and the priest was facing the people, it was still the Roman missal of 1962: what is now called the Extraordinary form of the mass. So if anyone tells you that the mass of Paul VI was the cause of bad liturgical music, just tell them there was such a thing as Tridentine folk masses. The Gloria on the folk mass website is evidence of that. 
  • By the way, I am not slamming all contemporary music or use of guitars at mass. Just most of it. If truly talented and reverent musicians sing reverent, beautiful music whose lyrics reflect Catholic orthodoxy, great. 
  • Just don't sing Gather Us In, please.Or Here Am I, Lord