‘Here Let Dead Poetry Rise to Life Again!’

De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.

Ray Repp passed away several days ago. Every Catholic of my age will remember that suddenly we had songs to sing at Mass that were composed by people of our own time, who seemingly had come out of nowhere. These songs were called, generally, “folk” songs. There were two reasons for the label, from what I can see at this distance. One was that they were meant to be sung to the guitar, not to the organ. Indeed, the organ would have been quite out of character for them. Imagine pulling out the stops to sing “Aloha Oe,” or “The Irish Rover.” Absurd. The other reason was that the songs were supposed to well up from the natural springs of folk piety, such springs as had given us the Negro spirituals: “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” “Go Down, Moses,” “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and many more that somehow never made it to our hymnals.

In neither case have I said anything specifically about the character of what makes up a song, namely the melody and the lyrics. Folk songs in Western music share some family resemblances that range across the languages. The melodies need not be simple, but they must be melodic, without strange intervals or awkward syncopation. Think of one of the most intricate of folk melodies, the Londonderry Air (“Danny Boy”): you can whistle it, and if you are a good whistler you will give pleasure to those who hear you. Its melody has as broad a range as a folk song can bear, but each portion of it is an echo or a variation of the others, so that the whole is coherent, and the resolution feels right and just.

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The lyrics must be lyrical, too. The poetry will be about elemental things: life and death, love and betrayal, joy and sorrow, war and peace, homesickness and coming home at last. Strange or obviously clever rhymes are to be avoided, along with bald abstractions, or anything that sounds as if it has come from a committee or a writing workshop or a textbook. Johnny Cash sang about prison, not about the penal code. Irish folk songs may be patriotic, but they do not talk about parliaments and constitutions.

Now, Ray Repp was one of the few composers who did try to write folk songs. I am thinking of such songs as “Of My Hands” and “I Am the Resurrection.” (Set aside the problem, in the latter, that you will be singing the words of Jesus in the first person.) The songs fit the folk bill. After decades of not having heard it at all, I can bring to mind the air in the minor key, and the words of the refrain:

Of my hands I give to you, O Lord,
Of my hands I give to you.
I give to you what you gave to me,
Of my hands I give to you.

Despite the hundreds of bad songs that have since gone under the name of “folk,” the kind of thing Repp was doing died out pretty quickly, and Repp himself did not keep it up either. There are three reasons for the demise, as I see them. The first is that the “folk” was quickly confused with the show tune: think of Godspell, with Mary Magdalene making an admittedly well-done torch song out of the old hymn “Turn Back, O Man.” The film Godspellwith its hippie clowning, seems embarrassingly dated, along with its music, and Jesus Christ Superstar is—well, not a far cry from Godspell. Almost everything written for Catholic hymnals in the last fifty years has the musical and verbal structure of the show tune, meant for the soloist, but without the genius of Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hart. And show tunes, such as “I’ll Be Seeing You,” had better be sung by Frank Sinatra or Rosemary Clooney, and not by your average cantor. The show tune is like the violin. It is impossible to play the violin passably well. A violinist is either excellent or intolerable.

The second reason for the demise is that the composers never had more than a tenuous connection with American folk traditions. The very idea of tradition, after all, was confused with authority, and the composers set themselves against authority: think of the young people splashing and cavorting in the public fountain at the beginning of Godspell. For a hundred years, American Christians with a strong tradition of congregational singing, often a capella, had composed what really are folk hymns: “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” “He Leadeth Me,” “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross,” “It Is Well with My Soul,” and “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” The new composers shunned them. It was a fateful decision. Imagine setting yourself up as an illuminator of manuscripts, and not bothering to learn from what your many predecessors have done. The art is only apparently simple. Your work will be stilted and awkward if you try anything subtle; otherwise you will fall back upon the simplistic and cartoonish. And so our composers have done.

The third reason is that such folk songs as Ray Repp wrote are not suited for a large congregation. For a campfire, yes. For a small group of people gathered around a small altar, yes. But when you have a congregation at Mass, you have people of all ages and both sexes, with a large interior space to fill. The trebles must find their place, and so must the bassi profondi. The dominant musical instrument must carry the melody, not just some chords that make a cantor with a microphone an absolute necessity and thus turn the hymn into showtime. A guitar cannot carry the melody, and in most churches its chords turn to mud, unless its sound is amplified, in which case it drowns out the people. The organ, by contrast, carries the melody and the harmony and all kinds of overtones, so that even the bass may join in and not sound like a bullfrog among pixies.

There is perhaps a fourth reason. The call for new songs came at the worst time. That is because English poetry as an art for the common man had all but ceased to be. When the blind Fanny Crosby wrote “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross,” she was working out of a vibrant tradition of popular verse. She was no Lord Tennyson, but she did not need to be. She only had to go to the wellsprings, and not attempt to do more than what her native talent permitted. But the wellsprings were mud and sand by the time Ray Repp composed his first songs, and things have gotten no better since then.

For years I have begged Catholics in charge of music to submit to instruction by people who have gone before them. Ralph Vaughan Williams, a great classical composer in his own right, traveled across the British Isles seeking folk melodies that he could adapt for his own compositions and for hymnody. Our would-be hymnodists have not done the like. They learn neither from Bach nor from Scottish fishermen. Authors of lyrics seem ignorant of English lyric poetry in general, and of English hymn lyrics in particular. They learn neither from George Herbert nor from Edward Caswall, John Henry Newman, John Mason Neale, or Charles Wesley. It is not too much to ask the man who would cover your church with mural paintings that he know how to draw. Why then it is too much to ask hymnodists that they know how English poetry works?

“Here let dead poetry rise to life again!” I cry out with Dante at the base of the mountain of Purgatory. It will not do so unless we admit that we have traveled along a dead path. Turn back, O man.

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine.


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