Finding God in a Song: Religion, Klezmer, and Country -- Mary Channen Caldwell

July 25, 2013

In a 2012, New York Times music-album review, “On Religion: A Search for God Through Bluegrass and Klezmer,” klezmer musician Andy Statman discusses a Christian hymn that appears on his album Old Brooklyn: “It’s about belief in God, a direct experience of God…It’s a song any monotheist can get behind.’”

On his album, Statman, who found his way to Orthodox Judaism as an adult, performs the hymn with country/bluegrass singer and evangelical Christian, Ricky Skaggs. In another review of the album, music critic Ari Davidow writes: “[t]his CD captures Statman the davenner, the musician who prays with his music, who wraps up the joy of creation and shares it with his listening audience. His duet with Ricky Skaggs, “The Lord will Provide,” as his clarinet davens in duet with Skaggs voice is a perfect example.”

How curious that both Samuel Freedman, the author of the NYT article, and Davidow comment on the spiritual identity of Statman by focusing on a song that resists easy categorization as Christian/Jewish, sacred/secular, liturgical/popular.

Statman publically defines himself and his music as an expression of his faith while Skaggs has said that “my music is for the glory of God.” The tie-in between their music and spirituality raises the question of how “secular” genres like klezmer and country become religious. Do they do so as a result of the artist’s intent, rather than through ritual function? In other words, how do secular genres become capable of expressing faith? Or, more to the point, can secular, musical genres become acceptable or even orthodox expressions of faith even when neither typically appears in religious rites? What makes song sacred?

Historically, country music has close ties to the Protestant, Christian tradition, ties so pervasive that contemporary country artists like Kareem Salama and Ray Benson are notable due to their “divergent” faiths (Islam and Judaism, respectively).

With few exceptions, the lyrics of country music largely revolve around Protestant, Christian belief systems, epitomized in the songs of Ricky Skaggs, as well as those of mainstream artists. In the history of country music, religion and church music played a formative role, and some artists continue to simultaneously produce mainstream and religious albums (the 1958 Hymns by Johnny Cash is a well-known example of the latter). The continued infiltration of religious themes into country music follows this historical trajectory, with the genre emerging from, and continually influenced by, the music of Christian rituals.
           
By contrast, klezmer music has a tenuous relationship to religious practice, originating as secular folk music of Eastern-European Ashkenazic Jews and performed at weddings and other life cycle events. If anything, klezmer music has been denigrated by Orthodox Jewish groups, and the activities of klezmer musicians (Jewish and not) have often been limited by religious and civic authorities.

Following a lengthy European history, klezmer arrived in the United States in the late 1800s and flourished as Jewish and Eastern European populations grew. Interest in Jewish musical and cultural heritage continued to increase, especially in the 1970s, under the influence of Statman and others.

Though klezmer and its musicians are linked to Jewishness, and the genre points to Jewish identity worldwide, traditionally and now, klezmer is considered secular music and plays no role in religious rites. Elements may derive from Jewish musical practices but klezmer remains resolutely secular and neither its performers nor its audience members are necessarily Jewish, either historically or after the 1970s revival.

Reflecting on Statman and Skaggs’s duet on Old Brooklyn in light of the history of their respective genres in Protestant Christianity and Judaism offers a richer perspective on the way these two artists integrated their faith traditions in one song. Neither musician performs their songs within religious contexts but both turn to popular music as an outlet for devotional impulses.

Since Statman recorded his duet with Skaggs, however, he has moved away from the klezmer music he helped popularize. Statman explains (in an article by Michael Orbach) that klezmer “became very much an expression of Judaism for me, and once I began observing the mitzvot I didn’t feel the need to play the music anymore.” Leaving klezmer behind, as Statman did when he became more religiously orthodox, parallels a similar path taken by several country musicians for whom “pop country” dimmed in appeal as they pursued increasingly devout musical expression.

But why, if the songs of Skaggs and Statman are capable of connecting them to the divine, is there a push away from this music in the interest of becoming more religiously observant? Perhaps “finding God in a song” becomes more difficult, if not impossible, when orthodox practices begin to clash with and replace an individual’s own musico-spiritual pursuits.

 

References:

Davidow, Ari. “Andy Statman / Old Brooklyn.” Klezmershack.comFebruary 17, 2012. Accessed May 21, 2013. http://www.klezmershack.com/bands/statman/oldbrooklyn/.
 
Freedman, Samuel G. “On Religion: A Search for God Through Bluegrass and Klezmer.” The New York Times, November 30, 2012.http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/nyregion/ andy-statmans-search-for-god-in-music.html?_r=0.
 
Grimshaw, Michael. “‘Redneck Religion and Shitkickin' Saviours?’: Gram Parsons, Theology and Country Music.” Popular Music 21, no. 1 (2002): 93-105.
 
Malone, Bill C. “The Gospel Truth: Christianity and Country Music.” The Encyclopedia of Country MusicThe Ultimate Guide to the Music. Compiled by the staff of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Edited by Paul Kingsbury, Laura Garrard, Daniel Cooper, and John Rumble, 218-221. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
 
Orbach, Michael. "Andy Statman: Klezmer Is Finished By: Michael Orbach." thejewishpress.com. June 26, 20120. Accessed May 23, 2013. http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/andy-statman-klezmer-is-finished/2012/06/26/.
 
Slobin, Mark, ed. American Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

 

IMG_3147_2.JPGAuthor, Mary Channen Caldwell, completed her PhD in Music History and Theory at the University of Chicago in June 2013 on sacred Latin songs in premodern Europe. She also harbors an ongoing curiosity in elements of the sacred in current popular music. She will be the visiting assistant professor of music history at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts in fall 2013. 
 

 


ac_110325_151102_1489c9b397c70eff40990f.Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.


 

Publication author: 
Mary Channe Caldwell