Review of Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, by T. David Gordon (3/7)

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This lengthy review is broken up into several blog posts, but you can read the full PDF here at any time.  If you are jumping in mid-stream, scroll to the bottom to view and navigate to the other sections.

T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal.  Phillipsburg: P&R, 2010.  $12.99.  189 pp.  ISBN 978-1-59638-195-7


Problem #3: Historical Confusion and Unfounded Instrumental Favoritism

Throughout the book, the argumentation Gordon employs lends itself to the conclusion that the pinnacle of Christian worship is to be found in organ-and-choir-led music*—classical instrumentation and classical forms.  The first line of questioning, in response, is: What, then, of Christian worship music pre-Bach?  Was plainsong chant always an inferior expression, awaiting its eschatological realization in the high Western art it would eventually birth?  Was first-century Jewish music (which would probably have been shocking to Western classical ears) an artistic offering of lesser value, awaiting consummation in the redemptive days of Buxtehude and Beethoven?  Were the lute-driven Lutheran bards God’s musical “Plan B” until the pipe organ would come into widespread use?

Rabbit-trailing down this last question for a moment: Gordon traps himself in his own argument when he advocates for the traditional, organ-led rendering of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”  He says, “We simply cannot accompany Martin Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’ successfully with guitar” (p. 99).  Ironically, the song (including its tune, albeit with a more challenging rhythm) was first composed for the guitar’s predecessor, the lute. In fact, one could argue that the chordal and rhythmic complexity (signs of so-called “high art”) were lessened and simplified when it was pressed into its quadruple-metered, block chord, organ-friendly form.  Before “A Mighty Fortress” was a stately pipe organ hymn, it was a whimsical, rhythmic troubadour song, accompanied on sixteenth-century guitars by the “rock stars” of old.1

The historical confusion continues:

The fair question is how the form of contemporary pop music shapes the content of what is placed in it…Would it make sense, for instance, to take the lyrics of something like “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and put it into a contemporary-sounding musical form?  I suspect not; the form would make the content a different thing, and create a kind of dissonance (p. 60).

This reasoning, from a historical perspective, is not carefully thought out.  At one point in history, this hymn was composed in its own contemporary-sounding musical idiom!  Watts wrote it in 1719, and the music (“St. Anne”) is attributed to William Croft in the same part of the same century.  At one time, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” was sung in its own contemporary idiom, and I suspect its original hearers did not pause puzzled at the juxtaposition of contemporary music with a message about God’s past faithfulness.  Gordon is simply trying too hard here.  To the contrary, what a more beautiful picture of the church can you have than to employ old hymn texts sung to new music (especially for this particular hymn)?  There, you have the church across generations joining hands, creatively interweaving its now-ness and past-ness through the marriage of music and text.  One wonders whether churches that never sing hymns and songs in contemporary idioms truly have a sense that they are to be a church engaged in twenty-first century culture.2 Gordon’s broader point (that form and content should and do speak to one another) holds, but one is able to root out in his argumentation that he is using this principle to defend his own biases rather than arrive at thoughtful, logical conclusions.  Gordon would probably use this principle to discount all efforts at retuning old hymn texts into the modern musical vernacular,3 but it simply does not follow that because hymn texts are written in and about the past that such texts suffer from being wedded to modern music.  I would argue that the evaluation of a given pairing of text and music must be made more on a case-by-case basis and with a fair understanding of the genre and what is being communicated musically within the parameters of that genre.

Gordon goes on to advocate that guitars are poor accompanying instruments for congregational singing; they are so poor, in fact, that Gordon sees little value in their use whatsoever:

There is no good musical reason to insist on accompanying congregational song with the guitar; it is poorly suited to the task  (p. 99).

In fact, Gordon mocks the guitar (and, by implication, guitarists):

The guitar is not a new instrument. Why have classical musicians not frequently employed it to accompany choral music, and why have our better-known sacred musicians, from J. S. Bach onward, not written sacred music for it?  I’m not a musician, so I don’t know the answer to that question, but I suspect that the guitar just can’t do it well.  The guitar’s timbre limits it to less significant things; it is like Tom Cruise standing in the courtroom before Jack Nicholson, who says: “You can’t handle the truth.”  Maybe the guitar can handle a little truth, but it can’t handle much (p. 98).

The instrument, again, is lambasted in a move of guilt-by-association, as he throws the instrument into his list of the vices of pop culture: “Johnny has been so swallowed up in a contemporaneous, casual, trivial, youth-centered, guitar-playing pop culture” (pp. 173-174).  However, it is clear that Gordon knows very little about guitars and guitar-playing when he says: “Because the guitar is strummed, it is far more at home with duple meters than triple meters” (p. 100).  Where did he come up with this?  As a guitar teacher, I know that strum patterns in triple meters are just as easy for students to learn as strum patterns in duple meters.  This makes no sense, and it appears that Gordon is grasping at the wind in search of arguments to support his theory that the guitar is probably an inferior instrument for making “serious art” and most certainly an inferior instrument to accompany congregational song.

Unfortunately, unfounded instrumental favoritism and bias appear to be driving Gordon’s conclusions more than any credible argumentation.  In his mentioning and discussion of high, classical art and music, it is obvious that he favors the instruments most readily associated with that genre.  His lack of any critical understanding of modern music results in an inability to see the ways a song accompanied by the guitar might artistically enhance and amplify a hymn text, in some circumstances even in ways a pipe organ, for example, cannot.  For instance, an organ can only go so far in rhythmic excitement,4 from which some hymn texts would truly benefit.5 Sonically, an organ cannot compete with the percussive nature of a well-strummed acoustic guitar.  Of course, an organ can do many things a guitar cannot (although electric guitars plus effects considerably narrow many of those gaps), but the point is that one cannot make blanket statements that guitars are inferior and unsuitable as accompanying instruments for congregational singing.  It depends on the musical setting and the goals set forth in the intersection of music and text.6 Still, on instrumentation, Gordon insists:

No one has ever written a requiem, for instance, to be accompanied by three people playing guitars.  Why?  Because death is still (for some of us, anyway) a fairly serious matter, and guitar-playing just doesn’t sound serious; it sounds like casual amusement (p. 61).

This furthers my belief that either Gordon has not heard beautiful, musical guitar-playing, or he does not have the musical awareness to identify such artistry when it is apparent.  His footnote to the above comment qualifies that “classical guitar is a notable exception” to his statement, but this only furthers the reality that Gordon has an unfounded bias toward classical music and instrumentation.  Gordon’s attempt is to make the guitar a scapegoat for popular culture, placing the hand of pop music on its head and imputing all pop’s vices onto it.  This is truly unfortunate.



*In a subsequent conversation with Gordon, he felt this was a misrepresentation of his position.  He was clear that he does not favor the organ, and he pointed out that he actually sees deficiencies in the organ as an accompanying instrument.  I still believe, however, that the logical conclusion of his argumentation lends itself to favoring that instrument in worship.  I also still believe that Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns does contain an unfounded bias toward classical instrumentation.

1The Presbyterian Hymnal (alongside its traditional setting) offers “A Mighty Fortress” in an arrangement (by Hans Leo Hassler) of what would have been its more original tune-setting (Hymn #259).

2I am connected to many churches that only employ traditional and historic forms of worship and are engaged with culture.  But should that cultural engagement be somehow musically reflected in our worship?  I tend to think so; Gordon definitely thinks not.

3Gordon takes issue with the way I am using the term “vernacular” in his discussion on Luther (p. 46), but I disagree with his argumentation there.

4Gordon does mention the percussive nature of the piano, but even it cannot match that same ability in an acoustic guitar.  Oddly, Gordon also makes the comment, “The guitar accompanies a single voice, or a duet or trio, very well (hence its use in folk music); but it simply does not have the percussive properties of a piano, for instance, which strikes the strings and then the sound falls away” (p. 100).  It is hard to understand the point he is making here.  An acoustic guitar is equally as percussive in this sense.  Does he mean “dynamic properties,” rather (i.e. volume range)?

5For example, I have found that the joyful nuances of George Matheson’s great hymn, “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go,” are so much more easily grasped in Indelible Grace’s musical setting (to a rhythmic, bluegrass backbeat) than in its more romantic-styled traditional setting by Albert L. Peace (“St. Margaret”).  My point in this is not necessarily to say that the former tune is better than the latter, but to argue that what emphasizes the joyful current in the text is the rhythmic vibrancy brought forth by the guitar.  Even with a different tune, I don’t know that an organ can convey that kind of joy.

6This is an interesting point worth exploring further.  Many have experienced what I have in this area, namely, that one “hears” a hymn-text in a totally different way when a new tune and/or instrumentation is affixed to it.  It often brings out other facets of the hymn that one could not as easily see in its other setting.  I experienced this when, after growing up with Hastings’ beautiful tune to Toplady’s “Rock of Ages,” I sung the hymn afresh with James Ward’s 1984 tune (both tunes are set side-by-side in the Trinity Hymnal, #499 and #500). I believe that this is some of the mystery of the way music and text interact, especially in Christian hymnody.  This mystery is part of what Jeremy Begbie explores in his concept of “surplus of meaning” (Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in a World of Music [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 50).


Section-By-Section Links:
Introduction & Appreciation
Six Problems with Gordon’s Analysis: Problems 1 & 2
Six Problems with Gordon’s Analysis: Problem 3
Six Problems with Gordon’s Analysis: Problem 4
Six Problems with Gordon’s Analysis: Problems 5 & 6
Final Questions and Remarks: Where does the Gospel Fit into this Discussion?
Final Questions and Remarks: A Fairer Approach Proposed & Conclusion

Download a PDF of the full review.

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