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


  1. Thanks for this audio file... Those songs of the 60's and 70's kept most of us in Church longer than we would have w/o them. they were reaching us in that transitional stage of the post Vatican II era when all went haywire. I love Kumbaya,etc. They were a solace in a crazy world. i have very fond moments of knowing God's love through those songs...folk Masses at my favorite camp, sitting on foot stools, celebrating Mass...warm loving memories. Folk Masses at the local University put on by Campus Ministries was an alternative that worked in that time and place. Formal High Liturgical Masses would have not hit home with this 60's kid. Those fond experiences in the Church of my youth are the hooks that helped me transition from being away, to returning. I cannot minimize the effects of that contemporary experience of the Mass for the time. The 38,000 high-school teens that attend a Franciscan University Youth Conference will tell you the "contemporary" worship music touches them in a way the ordinary parish music does not. Music at Life Teen Masses is very worshipful,respectful and touch all age groups. My daughter attended a Baptist event at 16 and came back saying "One thing they have on us,mom,is the music" I, personally love the music at at Life Teen Masses and know that it leads me to deeper worship of Our Lord at Mass. I appreciate your thoughts and the referral to the site.

  2. As a convert from Evangelical and Pentecostal movements I also get a little sentimental when I hear some of these tunes. (Our guitar strummer in youth group preferred psalms set to folksy/"hebrew" reminiscent melodies). I still enjoy singing them in the privacy of my own home, as a part of private devotion or with friends OUTSIDE of the liturgy. But when I first converted I wondered why lyrics that sounded suspiciously less than Catholic were placed in the Mass when the words of liturgy are so carefully chosen. I, personally, am afraid to sing a lyric in holy Mass that I'm not sure I really believe. Many of the melodies themselves are just plain hard to sing if you have no ambitions to be a pop diva. I do enjoy singing but sometimes I have to follow the lead of many older Catholics who just remain silent, especially if the lyricist is Marty Haugen who is not Catholic and has produced many of these hymn offenders like "Gather Us In". Groan. Now that tune is stuck in my head.

    1. Yeah, Marty Haugen drives me nuts, especially how he also makes up new,bad lyrics to good traditional hymn tunes as a sideline. When I get mentally stuck on Gather Us In (which is a catchy tune) I sometimes make up my own funny lyrics to it and sing those. The worst thing about that ditty is the sacriligeous verse--3rd or 4th--that speaks disdainfully of heaven. that verse is not only sacriligeous, but stupid, because anyone singing it is indeed in a building, no more or no less confining than any other building. But don't get me started! :)

  3. I actually like that music... just not for Mass! I'm 33 but I was in the "Folk Group" at my parish from the time I was six years old (in 1984, I guess) until I was about ten or eleven. I have fond memories of practicing, of hanging out with grown-ups, about learning to sing harmony and descant that my lisping soprano could sing better than many adults because it was effortless... I even clearly remember remaining kneeling during Communion in case the EMHC didn't know I was too young to have recieved first Communion yet (I was a tall kid). But as I have grown, I have learned why my grandparents didn't think that the music was appropriate for Mass-- we were imitating a contemporary style (which really wasn't contemporary anymore, anyway), rather than singing the beautiful music that glorifies the Lord, we were glorifying popular culture. Thanks be to God for continuing conversion!

  4. Consider these years as a Beatitudes Practicum...

    What did those years teach you about the Truth of the Sermon on the Mount and it that fruit what you bring to the altar of the Lord

    Was all of it a rebellion against authority? Or a practicum to up root hypocrisy.... mine/yours/ours?

    To have the Cross of Christ...
    we must have both the horizontal ---
    and the vertical.

    At times profoundly horizontal gathering the marginalized into the the arms of Jesus Christ.
    (the folk )
    At times profoundly vertical in celebration of the Father's Love for us...

    Wholely human... Wholely Divine...
    is 40 years of desert wandering learning how to love God and neighbor really long enough? I invite you to consider further...
    that "we" are part of that Exodus Generation...
    that God called into the desert to learn to worship Him
    in Truth and in Love... and yes we did wander for 40 years ehh...

    I invite you also to consider...
    those years as formation that opened your heart to aspects of the Liturgy that were simply unavailable to you prior to Vatican II.

    By the fruit then...
    you come with a profound love of the Liturgy
    and a deeper intimacy.

    Yet the challenges remain...
    does 'church' stop at the narthex?
    and does the Mass 'end' with the last Amen?

    Last month... I celebrated the 65th anniversary of my Baptism... what a wonderful way to 'tell time' as a continuous call to holiness...

    I am
    come to do your will...


  5. I know WAY too many of the songs on that site, and I'm going to enjoy that flashback to my childhood. I grew up on folk Masses, since the guitar group played at the kids' Mass where my parents took us to church. By the time I was 15 I was playing--and I've done so for the past 31 years.
    I've played in good groups, and bad groups...and loved most of the experience. If I had my way we wouldn't sing "Sing a New Church" or "Sing a New Song" (which is NO LONGER a NEW song) or "Here I Am, Lord" but I am not in charge, so I sing what I'm told and just do my best.

  6. I generally sing what I'm given too. But I have to back away from the rest of our choir and laugh when it's Here I Am, Lord: all I can hear and think during the chorus is "It's the Sto-reeeee, of a lovely La-deeeeeeeee, who was bringing up three very lovely girls..."

  7. How interesting. I grew up singing a bunch of this, not only in Catholic school but also in a jam-up solid campus ministry where I learned to judge by the light of magisterial teaching.

    I remember one of the worst faults I brought to my marriage was a sense of being more spiritual advanced than my husband, a nominal Catholic at the time of our courtship. As I became more humble (and traditional) in many ways I still remembered these songs fondly, even as I preferred more orthodox/traditional sacred music, as having nurtured my youthful faith. The songs often - I felt - edified and reinforced a sense of holiness and identity. With your choice of the word "self-adulatory" I wonder now how much they reinforced my sense of self-righteousness.

    I also wonder how many of these, if taken out of the context of the liturgy, would be okay as songs by themselves. I learned many songs from the same era whose words were taken from the Psalms, and I'm considering introducing some to my kids as vehicles to learn Scripture. It's so much easier to memorize a song...

    (Of course, I always love suggestions for Psalm-songs!)

    1. I agree that a lot of them are totally appropriate for outside of mass. They have that nice, feel-good, sing-around-the-campfire feel to them. But since mass is where we leave everyday life, and stand outside of time at the foot of Calvary and the gate of heaven, the music should be totally other. You can call these folk tunes fun, cheerful,motivating, but not sacred.
      But sure, I hum them around the house all the time. Drives my kids nuts.

  8. You just proved Bach always existed!

    Cause no one back then was 14, and no one said "Oh ya, Bach's just like Franz, Fritz and Katherine.. You know, so folky. That Bach guy, he's so nontraditional!!!"

    It's okay, only 600 years will prove whether these songs will live. Neither of us will be around that long and neither was Bach...