A favorite, somewhat obscure, occasionally reshown late at night film of mine is Songcatcher. It tells the story of an Ivy League musicologist at the turn of the 20th century who leaves the comfort of her city life and academic environs to live in the harsh and not-always-inviting Appalachian Mountains. In this remote and rugged area, she stumbles upon a surprising community of songcatchers.
Some songcatchers are sitting by the bank of a creek playing the mandolin, while others are plowing rocky fields while singing a heartrending ballad. Some sit in rocking chairs on front porches singing lullabies to their nursing babies. What soon shocks this sophisticated Northeastern musicologist is that the Appalachian songcatchers are not really singing new songs. Their songs are variations of songs from distant ancestors in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, songs that crossed the ocean and found new roots in the ancient Appalachian hills. Over time, these New World songcatchers added their own mountain dialect to the lyrics, but the melodies survived, connecting songcatchers over a chasm of centuries and distance.
As I grow older, I am especially thankful for songcatchers, many of whom have enriched, and even saved, my life. I thank God for songcatchers who have passed down songs that I know by heart and still sing in times of great joy and in seasons of deep despair.
I am especially thankful for songcatchers who have an ear for music that should never die, music that makes our minds race, our hearts pulse faster, our wills engage, our souls soar. The music that songcatchers pass on is not trendy, tunes that have no staying power; it is music that enriches and inspires and saves.
More than any other night in my life, I was thankful for songcatchers on the night of 9/11/2001 when through our collective tears, we sang, O Beautiful for Spacious Skies at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, Virginia, just a couple of miles from the cratered Pentagon. I thanked God that night for the songcatchers Katherine Lee Bates and Samuel Augustus Ward who passed down the stirring music and words of America the Beautiful. On that holy night when life seemed anything but beautiful and we were living in gut-wrenching fear of what would fall next out of those spacious skies, I sang those words like never before, in a prayerful song for what might yet be.
I have found that songcatchers are good companions in times of joy, but they are indispensable friends in the face of death and tragedy. Too often in death, many of us are struck mute not knowing what to say while others of us should be struck mute before we utter another lame word. Soon after 9/11 and too often in times of death, I have heard people say things that they do not necessarily either believe or fully understand, simply out of the need to say something. People stumble through the words, “God must have a plan” as if we would be less than Christian if we were to confess, “I do not begin to understand why so many people died so senselessly and left such a huge hole in so many lives.” “I can’t begin to understand God’s will in such a tragedy.” Whatever the time and for whatever the reason, death challenges us not only to do something – bake a cake or bring some flowers – but to say something and something with meaning, something about God.
As a pastor, I have spoken many words of consolation to grieving friends and as a grieving son and brother, many words of consolation have been spoken to me. The words that have held the most meaning for me and for those whom I have tried to comfort are not new words at all, not words that I or they had to invent. They are words of consolation and promise that would have long since been lost had it not been for songcatchers years ago, songcatchers who sang the community of faith to sleep to the soothing melody and reassuring words of this song:
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” The 23rd Psalm was first written and sung in the Hebrew language, but over time songcatchers translated it into Greek and Aramaic and Latin and then into a thousand different languages.
As a child, I learned the 23rd Psalm in the poetic cadence of the King James Version of the Bible. Long before I acted in my first Shakespearean play, I learned to love the way that “thou” and “art” and “annointest” and “runneth” rolled off my tongue and caressed my ear.
The power of this psalm, though, is in more than its poetry. The power is in its theology. This Psalm does not explain why any of us have to watch loved ones gasp for their last breath or waste away into mental oblivion or be poisoned with chemicals in Syria or gunned down in a local elementary school or wrestle with the grip of alcohol or opiods, but it does teach us to sing and believe this promise: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”
I suspect that this song has lasted for centuries and has been sung in a thousand different languages because death does not respect any generation or ethnicity or language, any sexual orientation or social class. Early songcatchers heard the psalmist’s song as one that time must not erase; one that must be shared whenever life is fragile, suffering real, and questions abound. Psalm 23 does not answer all the complex theological questions that death provokes, but it does offer solid ground on which you and I can stand when the earth seems to be one long seismic tremor.
Early in my life, special songcatchers sang to me and then taught me to sing: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” In those early years, I heard this song as a lucky charm, a promise that if I toed the religious line, then God would bless my life with an unceasing array of good things, and more importantly, would shield my life against a barrage of bad things. As my faith grew up, I realized that the song promised no such nonsense.
This is not a prosperity psalm in the modern usage of the term “prosperity,” as if God is waiting to fill our material treasure chests if we are just good girls and boys. This is definitely not a psalm offering the key to a painless religious life. How could it promise that to the long-suffering people of Israel or to their Christian kin who follow a crucified Lord?
No, as my faith grew up, I discovered that the One in whose house you and I will always dwell is also the One whose nature is that of goodness and mercy. That is why the song begins: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want” and ends “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” In other words, you and I can never travel to where God is absent and we can never descend so low as to step outside of God’s loving presence.
I am thankful to God for songcatchers who did not let the 23rd Psalm become an ancient relic of a distant time. And, on this day in particular, I am thankful for Isaac Watts, a songcatcher born in the 17th century, who took the distant words of the 23rd psalm and made them sing anew. His masterful hymn, My Shepherd Will Supply My Need, ends with words that still sing Gospel like few others: “Here would I find a settled rest, while others go and come; no more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home.”
One day when I am in one of those awkward moments being asked to answer in 10 words or less what I do for a living, I hope I will be able to answer: “I am a songcatcher.”
How about you?