Rethinking Scarcity: New Post at The High Calling

Slaten and Rogers

Two artists: Son of Laughter and Jonathan Rogers. Photo by Mark Geil.

I’ve got a new post up at The High Calling today. I was asked to write on the theme of “rethinking scarcity”—and to look at in the context of art. Immediately I thought of the ways the artists I know come together and support one another in their work, forming communities that not only advance the production of art, but also deepen its quality.

“The Industry” is not dead, but it is desperately trying to stay alive in most cases—often at the expense of good art. So those who want to create new art, quality art, honest and true art, are forced (and, I think, will increasingly be forced) to step outside the industries. Rather than seeing this as a setback, perhaps we should look at the situation as a gift—and a challenge:

From the post:
“I expect no one would disagree that creative innovation often arises from scarcity. From Ritz cracker apple pie to the dinners we developed with nothing but a microwave and hot pot during college, some creative spark in human nature thrives when put to the challenge of limited resources.

Likewise, in comparison to the booming creative industries of the 1990s, today’s musicians and authors—even some of those signed with major labels and publishers—are creating within the context of limited resources. While the leaders of the companies that produce and distribute much of our art are cautious about taking costly risks like launching a new artist, rapid developments in technology allow artists willing to take the risk themselves to bypass the industry and get their work into the hands of the audience. Adam Young of Owl City wrote in 2012: ‘Here at the outset of a new century everyone is back at the starting line fighting to be heard. It’s effortless to hear and steal new music so bands have to think of ways to reinvent themselves and turn the box inside out.’

So perhaps it is no surprise that there is a particular richness in some of the art being created today when economics and technology have joined together to topple the industries of yester-year.”

Read more at The High Calling.

Jenny Youngman’s The Girl With Good Intentions: A Consideration

Jenny Youngman's The Girl With Good IntentionsA few weeks ago, my friend Julie asked if I’d be willing to listen to Jenny Youngman’s new album, The Girl with Good Intentions (released August 1, 2013 on iTunes and for sale on her site) and write about it somewhere. I agreed, and then ran into some existential angst and general busyness that delayed my doing so.

A note on the existential angst: I’ve toyed with the idea of reviewing things – music, movies, books, visual art, etc. – for ages. From time to time I’ve done so, both here on this site (or its previous iteration) and elsewhere, like Story Warren and The Curator. But my dabblings have been rare and unformed enough that I have trouble calling myself a “reviewer.” Besides, I often get off topic and end up sharing whatever the work of art made me start thinking about, rather than checking off the typical boxes of a typical “review.” So I’ve made a decision: I will continue to examine works of art that catch my fancy and share them with you, but I shall no longer call those examinations “reviews.” I hereby dub them “considerations.”

So here you have it, my first try:

Jenny Youngman’s The Girl with Good Intentions: A Consideration

A caveat: know from the start that while I have a whole playlist in my library devoted to the genre I call “Boy and Guitar” (which I interpret fairly broadly to include other instruments and even duets with female voices, but is in essence male-acoustic-singer/songwriter-based), I don’t listen to many “Girl with Guitar” or “Girl with Piano” or “Girl with Anything” music. I generally prefer the male voice to the female.

That said, The Girl with Good Intentions is beginning to break down my barriers. I’ve been listening to it on and off for the past couple of weeks and Jenny’s songwriting and lyrics are catching on in my brain. She has a lovely voice and uses it in partnership with piano-driven instrumentals produced by Andrew Osenga.

Many of Jenny’s songs are challenges and reminders to the North American Christian. Songs like “The Girl With Good Intentions” or “The Half of It” raise complex matters for those of us in North America who see the needs of the world and hear about all the organizations doing good things around the world in the name of Christ – there is a tension in our response to these calls for help: real needs exist and we have been blessed with the ability and the freedom to help; but on the other hand, we cannot do everything, either financially or physically. We must make choices, invest wisely, and seek justice and the spread of the gospel around the globe: for the glory of God, not just to feel good about ourselves.  Jenny is an artist-partner with International Justice Mission, and wants to raise awareness and support for the fight against human trafficking.

The two songs that stand out to me particularly on the album are “The Preacher’s Wife” and “The Places You Will Go.” In “Preacher’s Wife,” Jenny is clearly speaking from personal experience about the expectations we tend to have of our church leaders – and their wives, particularly. The song is funny, “Everyone who meets her comes to Jesus /…And no one knows how she keeps it all together/ But they expect no less from the preacher’s wife.” I grew up in a ministry family. I remember the shocked looks on my friends’ faces when I disabused them of some of the mythical perceptions they had of my missionary parents. I have great parents. But they’re not perfect. And they would be the last people to want anyone thinking that of them. Jenny captures this in a gentle satire that all of us – both the preachers’ wives and those watching them – need to hear.

“The Places You Will Go” is lovely – mostly vocal and piano, with very little accessory. It’s the cry of a mother for her child. At its heart, it is the words of my sisters, the words of my mother, the words of every mother who wants to see her children rise and go forth in the lessons they’ve learned, walking with the Savior hand in hand.

Go all the places you will go.
See all the things your eyes will see.
The God who called your very life into being
Is everything you need,
Lights the path along the road
of all the places you will go

From Jenny’s Bio:
Jenny Youngman is a Nashville-based singer/songwriter who is making her way on the scene with her second studio album. With themes of justice-seeking, the search for significance in the mundane, intentional living, extending grace to ourselves and others, and discovering bravery, The Girl With Good Intentions takes the listener on a journey from simply having good intentions to getting our hands in the dirt and doing something good in the world.

The Girl With Good Intentions is available to download from iTunes and physical CDs are available from www.jennyyoungman.com

Rabbit Room Listening Party – Andy Gullahorn

Andy Gullahorn's Beyond the Frame

There’s a listening party going on over at The Rabbit Room today for Andy Gullahorn’s new album, Beyond the Frame. I heard the song that inspired the title almost a year ago – “Grand Canyon,” the first thing I ever heard from Andy – and it has remained with me since. If the rest of the album is half as good as the reviews I’ve been reading say it is, I’m in.

Each hour, a new song will be posted with some notes and comments from Andy. I’m going to come back to this post and note my initial reactions throughout the day as I listen. If you want to listen as well, be sure to do so today; the music will only be live until midnight.

So go check out the listening party yourself, and keep dropping by here to see my thoughts on the matter. (Update: All of Andy Gullahorn’s comments from the listening party day have been combined into a single wrap-up post over at the Rabbit Room! Check it out.)

Track by Track

Track 1: “I Will”

A lovely, heartbreaking-in-the-best-way song. If I could be this kind of friend…

Lyrics that struck me:

“If you’re looking for something broken
I am.”

“If you need a friend to do some dying with you
I will.”

Track 2: “The Surface of Things”

There are so many hurting marriages around me. My heart breaks for my friends who are going through these hard times, knowing this is not the way it is supposed to be. My prayer is that this song will speak to those who are there – and point them to seek the River underneath, in which they are rooted and from which they grow.

Lyrics that struck me:

“When’s the last time we forfeited the last word
Last time we didn’t care who won?”

Track 3: “Any Less True”

Just this morning a friend posted on Facebook, “Ponder anew/ What the Almighty can do” and commented that she likes the “Ponder anew” because she so often forgets. There is a truth outside of me. I am a believer in that Truth. But sometimes I have to remind myself, because sometimes the whispering of the world gets so loud.

Lyrics that struck me:

“Say it back to me
‘Cause it’s hard to believe.”

“They say God listens to our prayers
When you’re suffering, He holds you
I don’t feel Him anywhere
But that doesn’t make it any less true.”

Track 4: “Line in the Sand”

I am so often saddened by the gracelessness I see in myself and in other believers. I have been hurt by it. I’m certain I have hurt others without thinking when I drew my lines in the sand. A beautiful companion to “Any Less True”: truth doesn’t change, but perspective can.

Lyrics that struck me:

“What I thought was right
Sure looks a little different after all this time
No the truth won’t change
But perspective can
So much for the line in the sand”

Track 5: “The Same Song”

C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone.” May we also show each other that as we go about our daily lives.

Lyrics that struck me:

Maybe you came with a sad melody ringing in your heart – Ooh
Maybe your notes are like flickers of hope trying to light the dark – Ooh
Oh and I bring stories of my own from a broken life
But if we dare to open up to each other I think we’ll find
We’re all singing, We’re all singing, We’re all singing
The same song

Track 6: “Favor is a Foreign Tongue

Grace and mercy are mysterious things. We are dead beings – the very spark of life is such a strange thing to us that we often don’t know what to do with it. May we be messengers of grace to those in need of grace. May we learn of the mercy of God through the mercy of our fellow man.

Lyrics that struck me:

“You can’t help the world you were born into
Where you learned to walk with a limp that you didn’t even know was there”

Track 7: “Flash in the Pan”

I love that in his intro for this one on the RR site, Andy uses Britney Spears’ flame out of fame as “good news” for those in the middle of something that seems like it will last for ever – even though we don’t want it to.

Lyrics that struck me:

“Well, hindsight’s got some kind of power
Makes years feel like half an hour
And troubles melt away as quickly as they came”

Track 8: “My Language”

Andy wrote this song for his wife Jill Phillips – just one more off this album that celebrate the beauty of long-term love, of deep relationship, of commitment.

Lyrics that struck me:

“And every person on those streets
Is walking with their head turned down
They scurry past cathedral bones
Born in the thirteenth century”

“But I heard a song there in the deep
Rise from your paper and your pen
A song that I’d heard others sing
Oh but this time I could understand”

Track 9: “The Other Side”

I love that Andy juxtaposes the good with the bad here – no, you can’t take your things or your pride or your fame with you. But you also can’t take your errors, your shame, your sin. On the other side, we will all be changed. We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

Lyrics that struck me:

“All your worst mistakes, you can’t take them with you
All your secret shame, you can’t take it with you”

Track 10: “Skinny Jeans”

I’ve been hearing about this one for a while from friends who had this album before me. And I laughed out loud while I listened. I’ll give ya the lines that made me do so, but you really need to hear it to get the humor.

Lyrics that made me lol:

“I don’t wanna wear those skinny jeans
How can they even breathe?
<in a falsetto>I guess that’s why they sing up here
<à la James Blunt>You’re beautiful”

Track 11: “Sleeping Sound”

A word of encouragement for a worried father.

Lyrics that struck me:

“Well, even if turning back the clock was a choice you had
You couldn’t give him any more love than you already have
And that’s all he needs from his dad”

Track 12: “Nowhere To Be Found”

An achingly honest look at the pain of loss. And the lostness of we who are left looking for God after we fall with no safety net.

Lyrics that struck me:

“When the long line of dinners came to an end
We made a meal of our own
Out of cold habit we both bowed our heads
And felt the silence of our home
Where you were nowhere to be found”

“Now I look at the world like a crystal ball
Usually from the outside in
I see people I love get the life that I lost”

Track 13: “Grand Canyon”

I’ve been waiting almost a year to hear this song again, and I’m now lying flat on my floor with tears streaming down my temples. I had never heard of Andy Gullahorn before the night I heard this song. I’ve had it in my head ever since. The refrain, “the story isn’t over yet” has been the theme of my song for the past year; it has weighed on decisions I’ve made and influenced conversations I’ve held. If for no other reason, this song is the reason to buy this album.

Lyrics that struck me:

But there’s a bird out there
Still singing in the dead of night
Like it knows there’s a season
When the sun’s gonna set
But the story isn’t over yet”

We’re done folks. The songs will be streaming until midnight tonight. But the album will continue to be for sale at The Rabbit Room (I recommend getting it there!) and other places like iTunes and Amazon. 

There’s a Drought in My Hymnal

This morning, on Facebook, I posted the following as a status update:

So, I always feel a bit perturbed when we sing hymns of the early 20th Century in Church. It is not that I dislike singing hymns, just that I’ve never thought the first half of the 20th Century particularly fertile soil for hymn-writers. I think to myself, “There are so many great old hymns of the church, why are we singing this or that one?”

I had to laugh, then, when I came across this line, written by Helen Gardner in The Art of T.S. Eliot published in 1949, describing the Modern Era: “An age which has hardly produced a hymn which can be sung without embarrassment…”

I know just what you mean, Helen.

Image from Church Music Today
It started a surprisingly long thread of comments, one of which was my own further thoughts on the matter. As I wrote it, and its length grew, I thought, “I should turn this into a post.” (And now you know how I come up for material for this blog.)
But it began with a friend asking for some examples of early 20th Century hymns that I found lacking. I was in the midst of a phone conversation with mi madre when I read it and we got going on the topic.
Her comments: “That whole period was very internally focused. There’s a lot of ‘I, I, I’: ‘I Come to the Garden Alone,’ ‘I Love to Tell the Story,’ ‘I Will Sing the Wondrous Story.’ Others: ‘Showers of Blessing,’ [perhaps myleast favorite] ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus.’ There’s another one that goes, ‘Does Jesus care when my heart is pained too deeply for mirth and song?’ Many are the hymns of the late 19th Century tent meetings and gospel awakenings and the early 20th Century modernist/fundamentalist controversy.
“Often you have what was at that time a rather daring rhythm; they have syncopation and swing to them – so they are very singable. They are the songs that built the Sunday night Gospel meetings in churches – often they were evangelistic meetings because the church had gaslights or electricity when individuals didn’t. The services were lighter, the preaching evangelistic, and there was lots of music. Even as late as when I was a child [1950s] the evening service was called the ‘Evangel’ or the ‘Gospel’ service. But by then the people who came because it was a novelty were gone. By then the Sunday evening service was full of those who came regularly on Sunday morning.”

Mom got me thinking about my Grandma Givens’ stories about her courtship with my grandfather. They met as Mennonite teenagers in 1936 and all of their “dates” were Sunday evening gatherings at all the various Mennonite churches in Lancaster County for singing nights. My mom reminded me that in the later Little House on the Prairie books (1890s), they start up an evening “singing club” at the schoolhouse and it’s where all the young people go. Even today that is the tradition among the Amish.

We have an incredible tradition within the Christian church of singing. I don’t want to put that down in any way. I think our contemporary culture is reaping the blessing of this tradition in the music that is being produced by contemporary pop and folk artists. Look at the participants in and winners of singing competitions on television in recent years; across the board, the majority of the stand-outs were raised in church. Bands like The Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, The Last Bison (who you should seriously check out), The Fray, OneRepublic, Owl City – heck, even Katy Perry – grew up singing in church.

I love the moments around the piano that my family would gather and sing together. I love the times for singing in a worship service. I love that we sing in times of joy and in times of sorrow This is not just the American church – it is universal, it is historical. Dr. Brian Toews, Provost at Cairn University, pointed out once that, “What became very clear [to me] teaching the wisdom literature is that one thing unique about Christianity is that in the midst of trouble, Christians sing.”

I love the tradition of song in the Christian church. My issue is with the musical and lyrical mundanity and shallowness of the early 20th Century. The richness of the truly old hymns – both musically and lyrically – and the beauty of some more contemporary works far outweigh that period in my mind.

In the course of the commentary on my Facebook page, another friend mentioned her frustration with hymns written after 1960: “Apparently, people forgot how to sing in harmony ‘cause it feels like everything was written in unison.” Another was frustrated with the musicality of mid-19th Century American hymn tunes. There’s probably quite a bit more to be said on the topic, and I would by no means consider myself an authority on the subject. What are your thoughts?