Apr 25 2010

60’s Nostalgia: Remembering the Early Music of John Ylvisaker

Published by under Opinion

The younger generation could be forgiven for thinking that “Christian music” is exclusively evangelical or charismatic. However, back in the 60s, when guitars and drums began to make their appearance in Church, there were musicians such as the English Quaker Sydney Carter, the Australian Anglican Jim Minchin, the German Roman Catholic Peter Janssens, and the American Lutheran John Ylvisaker, who had a liberal, provocative and questioning approach to religion.  It was 1970 or 1971 when I first heard Ylvisaker’s music. I became an instant fan and paid the license fee to have his songs copied onto reel-to-reel tapes by the Christian Audio-Visual Society of New Zealand. For years he was an inspiration, but then my reel-to-reel tape recorder gave up the ghost, so for decades, I was unable to play his music. Recently, I searched for him on the Internet, discovered that there are some of the younger generation who love his music. Through them, I was able to download some of his songs. I was surprised not only by how strongly they evoked the feelings from so long ago, but also by how interesting and often profound their lyrics are.

In 2000, the music magazine Mojo carried an article on religious music in the psychedelic 60’s, under the title “Jesus Christ! What were they on?” It had this to say about Ylvisaker:

Meanwhile, in America the Dylan of the Bible scene, John Ylvisaker, was “gently rocking he American churches from coast to coast with some new electric sounds”. Albums like Cool Livin’ (1967) and Follow Me (1968) swapped unquestioning praise for Lutheran folk songs and sardonic Dylanesque lyrics, and Ylvisaker became a hero to young 60’s Christians who wanted to be hip and praise God.

Here are some of the songs that appeal to me, both for their music and their words.

Noise of Solemn Assemblies is a heavy rock attack on religious observance, taken straight from the prophet Amos: “Take away from me the noise of your hymns, to the sound of your harps I will not listen. I take no delight in the noise of your solemn assemblies.” At the end, the song changes from angry confrontation to warm invitation, to present the prophet’s appeal: “But let justice roll down and righteousness an ever-flowing stream.”  A similar but less confrontational song pokes ironic fun at our trappings of affluence (“we look so fine in our magazine cars”) and our church culture  (“with our Sunday smiles and uptight clothes, our sermon ears and twinkle toes”) and has an inspired refrain:

Hey let loose, let loose your love, hey let loose the love of God in you.

The Old Man and the New presents the message of Ecclesiastes, that there is nothing new under the sun. The chorus goes like this:

The old is really not so old,
The new really not so new.
The longer I live in this crazy old world,
The more I think it must be true.

The examples he gives in support of this are astonishing.  Trips on drugs seem so new and unique, but are no different from what the mystics of old achieved through beating and fasting… Christians think that the biblical stories of creation and flood are so new and great, but need to realize that the Genesis creation story “was borrowed right and left” and that “Noah’s flood was swiped from Babylon.”  The conclusion is:

The good old days were really not so good
And the present not so bad
And the future will look a whole lot like the past
So we don’t have to get so mad

Two songs about Jesus present contrasting moods. In The Camel Swallowers, Ylvisaker has Jesus rail against the religious leaders:

Shame on you, people, you that lead and all you who teach
You load up men’s backs but you do not practice what you preach

In Desolation, Ylvisaker presents Jesus lamenting his failure to win over the people of Jerusalem to his cause.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
Killing the prophets, slaying those who are sent to you
How oft would I have gathered your children
As a hen gathers her brood, but you would not!

The text for both songs comes from Matthew 23, but where else do you find songs or hymns in which Jesus attacks the religious authorities or where he expresses failure in his mission?

Ylvisaker engaged with the theology of the time. In 1965, Harvey Cox wrote “The Secular City” and already in 1967, Ylvisaker’s music reflected Cox’s themes of secularization and the positive potential of the city, which were explicitly intended as a counter to the Church’s general bemoaning of the mobility and urbanization of modern life.

My City is a poem in praise of the city and an expression of hope in its future.

My city stands in the four free winds,
Her airways leap where the jets fly high
And in the night when the winds go down
Her glow is a heartbeat against the sky.

Mass for the Secular City ingeniously wove together the traditional sung parts of the Eucharistic liturgy and a paradigmatic story of a young man who went to the city but became lost and lonely, but found new life – not in a church but in a coffee-house.

We came to the city, big time in the city
Lord, have mercy
It’s the city that caught us, the city that taught us
To hide from the hope of the world.

Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy
Lord, have mercy on us only you do we trust
Help us live for the life of the world.

In 1967, Ylvisaker performed this work at Carnegie Hall, perhaps the high point of his musical career.

He has continued as a church musician and composer, but his later work sounds much more middle-of-the-road. The only clue I have found to the reasons for the change was in an article he wrote in 1985:  Imaginative Use of the Arts: Music and Audio: Ten Steps Toward Responsible Innovation. There he writes:

One of the chief problems of any reform movement is the privatizing of the religious experience, the cultifying of groups of “followers,” etc. Our task in the ’80s is to take the best of this drift toward closer cultural identity while maintaining our historical, stabilizing rituals. So, the final step in this process is to preserve the rituals we have inherited lest our innovation cut us off and we find ourselves adrift in a sea of options. This is very difficult to do, as many of us have discovered, but it is vital to the growth and nurture of Christian congregations everywhere.

It looks like he concluded that the very attributes which endear him to me were divisive in the Church community, adjusting his music and lyrics accordingly.

For me, it is a delight to be able to hear these songs again and a comfort to know that, however banal or off-putting the music of Christian radio stations and evangelical/charismatic congregations  may be today, there was a time when good quality Christian music stimulated and challenged.

http://heavenly-grooves.blogspot.com (search for Ylvisaker)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06f4OppoRNc (Palm Sunday song)

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