lenny

This is an older review of the Lenny Smith’s Who Was and Is and Is To Come, originally posted on this site in July of 2012:

It’s been an odd couple of weeks, what with hurricanes sweeping through cities and towns, politicians battling over the fate of the world, rumors of wars and so forth.  Waters have risen and subsided.  Lights have dimmed and become alive again.  Doomsday prophets and naysayers abound, as they always have, and more will come I’m sure.

Amidst it all, there arrives the new Lenny Smith album, Who Was and Is and Is To Come (released on Great Comfort Records), a mix of 60s style folk and rock tunes inspired by the artist’s lifelong search of an unknown Creator.  In stark contrast to the turmoil of the times, Smith enters quietly.  Gently fingerpicking a sparse folk melody, drawing upon his many hours of scripture reading, Smith sings the first song he ever wrote,

Then I saw a new Heaven— and a new Earth, the New Jerusalem.

As a young seminary student in the 1960s, Smith would hide in the closet at night, writing songs and reading scripture.  The strange poetry of Revelation and its pronouncement of a New Jerusalem struck a deep chord.

God Himself will wipe every tear from their eyes

and death shall be no more.

As the album progresses, we get glimpses of Smith at different stages of his journey, from the theology obsessed student putting melodies to the psalms (“As a Doe Longs for Running Streams”), to the wizened grandfather looking back on all he’s learned (“All the Earth Worships You”).

You are the love I feel inside

And Your love won’t be denied…

Smith’s words are void of brimstone.  His ruminations are simple, sometimes hushed, as he beckons to hear that still, small voice.  But the journey isn’t just about introspection.   It’s about celebration.  Along the way, his many friends, children and grandchildren join in, elatedly plucking strings, playing keys and shouting along in joyous unity.

There is something very fitting about it all.  While so many are calling down fire from heaven, eagerly awaiting a swift vengeance, Smith is gently up turning evidence of his Maker in the quiet spaces; beneath sheets of darkness and layers of corrosion; in the trees and rocks, and inside of his very soul.  “The earth”, he writes in the liner notes, “knows something”.  These are words of reconciliation and healing that we could all use right now.

Who Was and Is and Is To Come is available at http://lennysmith.bandcamp.com/

Stained Glass 1

It was probably two years ago that I attended my first Sacred Harp singing.  The closest one I could find was in Columbus, Ohio, a two-hour drive.  The winter sun was beginning to set as I pulled into the empty parking lot of the borrowed Episcopalian church (which has no denominational connections to the group, or to the style itself).  Soon, somebody else arrived.  It was Eric, the group’s leader.  He let me in and I flipped through the pages of the Sacred Harp songbook as he set up chairs in a square formation.

The Sacred Harp has been around for roughly 150 years.  It’s origins are scattered across many southern states, but you can somewhat trace the tradition back to B.F. White and Elisha J. King in Georgia, who first organized the Sacred Harp songbook in 1844.  The two compiled melodies and lyrics that drew upon the southern style of shape note singing.  Within the style, notation is condensed to four notes, with a symbol representing each one (triangle for fa, oval for sol, square for la, and diamond for mi).  As each hymn begins, the choir “lines out” the song by singing the notes aloud, establishing the melody.  It’s an eerie sound, unlike anything else that I know of in sacred music (or in music in general).

White, King, and the wealth of singers and writers who contributed to the sacred harp tradition weren’t creating this new form of music from nothing.  They were absorbing years of sacred writings and hymns; songs that had travelled down mountains and over oceans; and they were transforming them into something much different.  The Sacred Harp songbook is a vast trove of ancient lyrics put to ghostly melodies.  Some of the words may have been contemporary to the first printings of the songbook, but many preceded the tradition by generations.

Sitting in the recreation room of the church, I turned to one such adaptation.  It was a tune called “Idumea”, number 47b in the book.  Charles Wesley’s hymn, written in 1763, has seen many alterations over the centuries, none more notable than it’s sacred harp translation.  My favorite is probably Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton’s version, recorded in 1964.  It wasn’t a sacred harp performance, but it was very much inspired by the tradition.  As Carlton’s fiddle moans, Watson’s voice, full of Appalachian dread, utters the terrifyingly honest words:

Soon as from earth I go,

What will become of me?

Eternal happiness or woe

Must then my portion be!

Just as sacred harp has taken old songs, rearranged their melodies, and created something much different; artists since have been drawing on the songbook for inspiration, taking the words, taking pieces of the melodies, and adapting them into other music styles.  Watson and Carlton’s version of “Idumea” is an early example of this, and it seems to set a precedent for an album of sacred harp cover songs released in 2008 called Help Me to Sing.  Their reinterpretation of “Idumea” sits alongside reinterpretations by a number of modern-day independent and mainstream musicians.

Help Me to Sing was organized by Matt Hinton as a companion piece to the sacred harp documentary, Awake My Soul, which he and his wife, Erica, directed.  Hinton discovered the tradition when he was about 16.  Escorted to a singing, he remembers approaching the church: “You could hear the power of the thing before you entered the building…Twenty or thirty people sounded like a couple hundred people”.  He was immediately fascinated.

Erica’s grandmother was a sacred harpist as well, and when the two young college students needed a topic for a 10-minute film they were assigned to create at Georgia State, they were both in agreement on what it should be.  They filmed different gatherings and interviewed aging singers who were carrying on the tradition.  After they had finished the short film, Matt says, “We never stopped bringing the camera with us”, and in 2006, the full-length documentary was released.

Matt’s interest in music has always been diverse.  Sacred harp is not for the casual listener.  It is not instantly pleasant or easy on the ears.  It challenges.  It demands participation to be fully understood.  So I think it’s telling that at the same time that he was travelling to different singings, studying and documenting this uncommon singing style, Matt was also embracing other unconventional artists and styles as well.

In the late 90’s, when Daniel Smith’s Danielson Familie began making waves in the indie music world, Matt would give them a place to stay on tours down the East coast.  Through sacred harp, he met Tim Eriksen, the punk rocker/musicologist (a rare breed), who has studied and performed various forms of American folk music over the years, sometimes traditionally, and sometimes not so much (listen to the cover of “Idumea” by his band, Cordelia’s Dad, for instance). 

Matt was drawn to the unordinary, and through incidents of happenstance, he was building musical relationships that would eventually join him in his sacred harp experiments.  When he and Erica were searching for ways to expose new listeners to sacred harp, easing them into a tradition that can be jarring at first, Matt began to call upon his old friends, who would filter the lyrics, melodies and harmonies through the lens of their respective musical styles.

Each artist brings his or her unique sensibility to the project.  The Innocence Mission condenses the hymn, “Africa”, down to a gentle folk song.  Jim Lauderdale fits “the Christian’s Hope” with eerie Appalachian harmonies.  And Danielson, screeching vocals and odd melody shifts in tact, still sounds like Danielson on “Sermon on the Mount”.  But there is a beautiful movement to the album, as if each track were a step towards that promised land of Canaan that sacred harpists so often sing about.  Much of it comes from the words, which are drenched in the archaic poetry and mournful laments of the tradition.  But even beyond the words, there is a fire that lies behind them.  Many of the songs erupt into bursts of choral and instrumental lamentations, unconventionally capturing the emotion of the old harpists shouting out their joys and sorrow.

The album is strange, bleak, uplifting and mysterious…just like sacred harp; a tradition that, according to Eriksen, involves “an ongoing, sometimes tacit, sometimes heated but in any case dynamic, discussion about what it is and what it isn’t”.

Eriksen, who sings two songs on the record, has studied its history, teaches and sings it often, but struggles to find words that describe it appropriately.  Matt and Erica filmed a movie about the tradition, but would most likely admit that it cannot be captured through any medium outside of performance.  It has led all of them to many Southern singings and far beyond, as it led me through many secondhand recordings, books, and finally to that church in Columbus, where I had no choice but to experience it firsthand.

After I had flipped through the pages for a while, admiring the noted poetry as if it were an ancient art (which it almost is), the singers began to arrive and take their places at the square.  Quiet voices nimbly immersed in small talk soon gave way to an epic sound that shook the room. I sat among the basses and was timid at first, whispering the words, while the singers shouted and sang around me.  I had only listened to the style beforehand.  I had never tried to sing it, nor did I understand how to read and interpret the four shape notes.  But as the night wore on, and the music took hold, I began to see past my insecurities.  Matt was right.  There were only about ten of us in that square, but it sounded like an ocean of voices.  I lifted my own voice, decibel by decibel, until I was almost shouting with everyone else, the words crashing like waves while our voices ebbed and flowed together.  That is the mystery of sacred harp.  I was drawn in, my soul awakened.  That’s what it does to you.

 

Help Me to Sing is part of a 2 disc set that also includes the soundtrack to Matt and Erica’s film.  It can be found at most online retailers.

References

Eriksen, Tim. Email interview. November and December, 2011.

Hinton, Matt. Phone interview.  Sometime in 2011.

Steel, David Warren, and Richard H. Hulan. The Makers of the Sacred Harp. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield, University of Illinois Press, 2010. Print

deep-calls-to-deep-cover

After reading through part of Matthew some time ago, I could think of only one thing.  I wish I could’ve been there at the Sermon on the Mount.   No, not because I wanted to bask in the power and glory of God’s holy son, hanging on every perfect word (which would have been nice); but because I had so many questions that I wanted to ask him.  I wondered if anyone sitting on that mountainside had timidly raised a hand, had quietly asked for Jesus to elaborate, and if so, why did the writers of scripture not document it.

His language is so harsh at times.  He intones, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers!’”

In other instances his words seem cryptic and elusive, as if asking to be misinterpreted.  Wasn’t anyone thinking, “Rabbi, why?”

Near the beginning of his record, Deep Calls to Deep, Lenny Smith, reflecting on his Creator, asks his own difficult questions:

I will say to God, “Why have You forgotten me?

Why do I go mourning while they revile me?”

Questions are nothing new to the Judeo-Christian tradition.  David, throughout his psalms, oftentimes cries out in agony.  The ancient hymnists, in their darkest moments, laid bare their faith, their belief, and their uncertainty.

It’s in these modern times that we’ve lost the nerve to question.  Perhaps we fear God’s wrath.  Perhaps we underestimate His nature.  But certainly a God who sees all things, both past and future, can understand a broken heart and the questions that pour forth from it.

Smith’s entire life has been one of questioning and searching.  The writer of such hymns as “Our God Reigns”, and the father of indie rock’s brother and sister act, the Danielson Familie, has never been satisfied living on the surface of his faith.  He has been scavenging the deep places for as long as he can remember, trying to make sense of the profound mysteries of God.  He says of his first encounter with the spiritual,

I was about 10 and sitting in a basement of a little Protestant church, looking at a flannel graft, as a lady teacher talked about how much God the Father loved us and how His Son loved us enough to endure a painful death for us.   I was simply over-whelmed with a feeling of being loved and cherished.  That was when I was plugged into God’s Spirit and the lights went on for me.

Growing up, his mother was a devout Catholic and his father was a Protestant who didn’t attend church.  Until he was 12, his mother would drop him and his sisters off at the local Protestant building, then drive down the street to her own Catholic Church.  The kids finally asked their mother if they could go with her, and the young Smith fell in love with the pageantry and poetry of the tradition.

As he entered high school and eventually college, his interest in faith never waned.  He explored book after book on theology and religion. Out of high school, he studied literature and philosophy and theology, working towards the priesthood.  He found nourishment in the Bible, sustenance in the words of Christ, and kinship in the saints and martyrs of the past.  At the same time, Smith started playing guitar, putting his questions to song.

After 7 years of college and a master’s degree in philosophy, he felt a different pull in his life.  He saw God moving not only in the books and sacred traditions of the priesthood, but outside of its walls as well; and in deep and extraordinary ways.  Toward the end of the 1960s, he abandoned his attempt at the priesthood for the Jesus Movement, a group of countercultural pacifists shouting their love of Christ above the noise of Vietnam-battered America.  It was there that Smith recalls being baptized by the Holy Spirit.  He is reluctant to talk about the event, responding to questions only briefly.  I could tell though, that it was something special for him; something intense, supernatural, and even after all of these years, something he is still struggling to grasp.

Smith married his wife, Marian, in 1970.  Together they had five children, who would all eventually play a role in older brother Daniel’s Danielson Familie band.  In that time, Smith bounced from one corner of the faith to the other.  Andrew, the youngest of his children, says in the film, Danielson: a Family movie, “We changed churches a lot, always searching for that perfect connection.  In between this one and that one, we would have church at home, reading scripture, discussing the week’s stories, and playing whatever instruments we had or had created”.

Smith’s passion for his faith could sometimes border on obsession.  During the early part of the 1970s, he was reflecting often on the Second Coming, reading the Bible three hours a day.  He was losing focus, and jobs as well, but amid this distress, his eyes fell upon the words of Isaiah: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” This good news, untethered from the burden of dogma, replenished his laden spirit.  In the ensuing two minutes, he had a verse and chorus written.  In the years that followed, as life threw its various challenges at him, more verses would be added, and choirs around the world would sing them.   “Our God Reigns” would even be a favorite of Pope John Paul II.

Through the years, Smith would continue to pour out his joys and grief through song.  After Daniel had established himself in the independent music scene as a performer, producer, and founder of a record label, he persuaded his dad to sit down and record some of his songs.  His whole family joined in, joyously shouting his choruses, ringing handbells and strumming instruments.  What emerged over those seven years was Deep Calls to Deep, an album of 60s style folk and rock songs that documented Smith’s ever-evolving faith.

Throughout the record, he sings songs of gratitude:

Lord, we bring our gifts and treasures,

lay them at Your lovely feet,

and we hope they give your pleasure,

reigning from Your mercy seat.

He rejoices in God’s promises:

None of those who wait for You will ever be ashamed.

And he utters, as if he were David anguishing over his misfortune,

Can You hear us calling?

It is a worship record through and through; one that’s not shy about its adoration of the Creator, but also isn’t afraid to ask questions.  It’s as real and as honest and as messy as the life of faith that inspired it.

It’s been over ten years since Deep Calls was released.  In that time, Smith has continued to live and breathe in a state of perpetual motion.  He and Marian, along with Daniel and Daniel’s wife, Elin, started another record label, Great Comfort Records; where they search and record atypical worship music that emphasizes poetry and melody; artists writing and working in the farthest outer reaches of the sacred music realm.

He doesn’t play the old songs as much.  He’s got new ideas and new paths to follow.  Ask him what he believes and he’ll pontificate at great length on Jesus, the faith, and on the Father of all.  “Jesus was like a full-moon, reflecting the sun’s light”, he wrote to me.  “Somehow we have fallen in love with the moon and have not gotten to know the Father”.   He’s been moving toward this new perspective on the Father/Son story for sometime now, comforted that his years of searching are revealing buried treasures.

Christians prefer to think about and talk about Jesus rather than the Father.  They think the Father is aloof and, possibly, angry and maybe even mean.  But Jesus basically said the Father is kind and gentle, generous and forgiving, long-suffering and patient, always having our best interests at heart.  I believe if we do not get to know Father, we will not ever be happy.

After writing back and forth to Smith, listening and reflecting on his inundation of ideas, I was left with even more questions than I began: questions about sacredness and music, about miracles and nature, about the subtlety my Creator’s love.  I can’t say that the answers are near.  I can only take joy, as Isaiah once did, in the fact that our God reigns.

References

Danielson: a Family movie. Dir. JL Aronson. Perf. Daniel Smith, Sufjan Stevens, and Lenny Smith.  Creative Arson Productions, 2006. DVD.

Smith, Lenny. Email interview. 11-11 through 12-11.

The two quoted Bible passages were taken from the books of Isaiah and Matthew in the NIV.