Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, July 11, 2005


Got back last night from a glorious week at Gull Lake Michigan, whence I did not want to return so soon; the 2-year-old loved the water and his cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles, as do I; everybody seems more-or-less well; I got sunburned and tan and wrinkled like a prune.

One music-related story from the week, out of several:

I went to church on the 3rd of July to hear my friend the youth minister, who's been in that position at the church for 35 years, preach. Hadn't been to church myself for a few years. My friend rocked the sermon, in that low-key meditative Presbyterian way. The offertory hymn was Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." After the sermon I told my friend the preacher that I had never liked that song until they started singing it at ballgames after the mass murder of September 2001, whereupon I noticed that it's a prayer for guidance -- "stand beside her / and guide her." My friend, a left lefty left liberal from way back, said, "Well, they [the church music director and organist] do their thing, and I do mine." I knew he hated that patriotic stuff being in church.

When this topic first came up several years ago when the Congregation voted to bring the flag into the sanctuary for services near national holidays -- Memorial Day, Veterans' Day, Independence Day -- my friend had found no solace or humor in my lighthearted-on-the-surface but perhaps aggressive joke, "Christianity has always succeeded by absorbing the local paganisms" -- nationalism being an idolatrous paganism in this context.

About Berlin's "hymn" my friend said, "It's a little parochial."

"America is our parish," I said.

"The world is our parish. What does the flag have to do with Christian worship? I have a flag in my office, but this is a sanctuary."

I can't disagree with him, but I still like the song. Even though Irving Berlin was right to shelve it for 20 years after writing it during the First World War and deciding it was too mawkish, too sentimental, and only showing it to people in the late '30s, when mawkishness and sentimentality were more popular. I like mawkish, sometimes.

I remembered how unconscious I was growing up of the good fortune that Kalamazoo is a college town. The postlude of the worship service was Charles Ives's "Variations on America," which I'd never heard. It was great -- rambunctious, dissonant variations on that old tune "God Save the Queen," which Americans wrote new words for, rather grammatically awkward words at that: "My country, 'tis OF THEE, sweet land of liberty, OF THEE I sing," and the tremendous, hallucinatory, visionary non-sequiter concluding line, "From every mountainside, let freedom ring." Half the congregation waited to listen to the whole, several minute long piece, and applauded enthusiastically after it was over, and the organist -- a thin woman who'd been working hard up there in the choir loft behind the Congregation -- beamed.

"Ives is a good composer," said my friend, "but I don't want songs about America's birthday or the Queen's birthday or any of that in church."

He was right, but I was still really happy to hear that music.
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