“Music Is Prayer:” Reconsidering Secular Music

[1] Historically, as the splendid Thrivent production 500 Years of Lutheran Music demonstrates, Lutherans have been eclectic and creative in our choices of music for liturgy. Recently, however, the choices have seemed to narrow to either “traditional” or “contemporary” music. The former features the organ, a baroque instrument rarely experienced outside of church. The latter features the so-called praise band, which tends to evoke soft rock or pop. Praise music also frequently involves repetitive tunes and more or less banal lyrics that are often theologically suspect. Going back to an earlier heritage, Lutherans might explore ways to include more complex and diverse secular music in worship. In a workshop conducted at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) in May, 2010, the six musicians who constitute an amateur jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock band, called “The Groove Daemons,” did just that. Building on Duke Ellington’s maxim that “music is prayer,” we invited workshop participants to consider the theological, spiritual, and ethical implications of six secular tunes.

Music is Prayer: Reconsidering Secular Music by Jon Pahl

[2] The name of the band is itself spiritually and ethically significant. The “groove” is what musicians seek — the synchronicity of players with sound that is “being in the zone,” or being “one in the Spirit,” so to speak. And “daemon” is a Greek word for “spirit power.” So, as the “Groove Daemons,” we seek to represent (and invite listeners to join us in) the power of being “one in the Spirit” through music. In other words, if (as Ellington offered) “music is prayer,” then we try to exemplify through our music nothing less than the power, joy, and blessings of prayer.

[3] Five of the musicians are related to LTSP somehow. Jon Pahl is Professor of the History of Christianity in North America, and plays the alto and tenor saxophones. Carmine Pernini is a third year seminarian who plays the double (acoustic) and electric bass. Rodney Smith — also a third year seminarian — plays drums. Richard Mandel, on keyboards, is a Jewish dentist who is willing to play with a bunch of Lutherans. Steve Meyer is an LTSP M.Div graduate, and a singer in the band. The Rev. Dr. Martin Lohrmann received his Ph.D. from LTSP in 2010, is pastor at Christ Ascension Lutheran Church in Chestnut Hill, and joins the band on guitar and vocals.

[4] Each of the musicians chose a song that he found “theologically, ethically, or spiritually significant.” We played the song, then reflected on it briefly, and invited workshop participants to reflect along with us. The six songs covered a span of secular music from 1929 to 1978, ranging in styles across jazz, swing, rhythm and blues, and rock ‘n’ roll. The workshop incorporated other music, but the basic point of these six tunes is that secular music often has deep theological and ethical significance, once we begin to pay attention. By recalibrating our theological and ethical imagination to consider the worshipful elements of secular music, we can get beyond the constricted thinking that limits music for worship only to “traditional” or “praise” tunes.

Duke Ellington, Mood Indigo, 1929 (Carmine Pernini)
[5] Duke Ellington said, “You pray to God with music.”1 Simply put, music is prayer. Ellington had a prolific songwriting career. Some of the song titles give a hint as to what kinds of prayer the Duke was offering: “Ain’t Nobody Nowhere Nothin’ Without God,” “Praise God and Dance” (based on Psalm 150),” “Heaven,” “Is God a Three-Letter Word for Love?,” “The Lord’s Prayer,” “Hallelujah,” “It’s Freedom,” “Every Man Prays in His Own Language,” and “Father Forgive.”

[6] Mood Indigo has been labeled Ellington’s first big hit. The song is essentially a blues. It comes from Ellington’s period at the Cotton Club in Harlem from 1927–1929 when Ellington went through a divorce. Like many other blues, Mood Indigo tells the truth about some of the symptoms of the human condition: heartache, pain, and loss. Luther, who himself knew something about the experience of heartache, said: “But where there is true prayer, there must be utter earnestness. We must feel our need, the distress that drives and impels us to cry out. Then prayer will come spontaneously, as it should, and no one will need to be taught how to prepare for it or how to create the proper devotion.”2 The blues often tell the truth about heartache, pain, and loss, and in this instance Mood Indigo’s melancholy minor chords are the structure around which the musician “spontaneously” prays, or improvises over.

[7] Ellington wrote that every person “prays in their own language and there is no language that God does not understand.” He went on: “I believe that no matter how highly skilled a drummer or saxophonist might be, if this is the thing he does best, and he offers it sincerely from the heart in, or as accompaniment to, his worship, he will not be unacceptable because of lack of skill or of the instrument upon which he makes his demonstration, be it pipe or tom-tom.”3 Put another way, Luther said in The Large Catechism, “For God does not regard prayer on account of the person, but on account of his Word and the obedience accorded to it.”4

[8] Luther went as far as to say, “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.”5 Prayer, including in its form as music, is powerful. Ellington’s musical prayers helped change the way we understand sacred and secular music. Ellington premiered three Sacred Concerts in 1965, 1968, and 1978 that were performed in a church. Janna Tull Steed said Ellington’s prayers “led a movement that redefined the settings in which jazz was deemed acceptable. He brought what some called ‘the devil’s music’ into the sanctuary and reclaimed its sacred origins.”6 Similarly, Ellington’s hymn “Come Sunday” is numbered among the company of those by Isaac Watts, the Wesleys, and Martin Luther in The United Methodist Hymnal. Ellington’s musical prayers broke down barriers between how we perceive the boundaries of sacred and secular. He changed which prayers, or music, were acceptable in church settings. God hears our prayers. So, let us pray.

Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, All the Things You Are, 1939 (Rodney Smith)
[9] All the Things You Are was composed by Jerome Kern, with lyrics penned by Oscar Hammerstein II. It was written for the 1939 Broadway musical Very Warm for May. At some point after its Broadway debut the tune was recorded by the well-known band leaders Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, and Frankie Masters, which gave it popularity well beyond that of its stage performance.

[10] The words set to this song gently work their way into your mind and heart. They are not trite or coy but evocative and romantically brooding, almost like a psalm, you might say.
You are the promised kiss of springtime/ That makes the lonely winter seem long.
You are the breathless hush of evening/ That trembles on the brink of a lovely song.
You are the angel glow that lights a star/The dearest things I know are what you are.
Some day my happy arms will hold you/ And some day I’ll know that moment divine/
When all the things you are, are mine!
[11] During the 71 years since this song was composed, it has been performed by a dizzying array of artists ranging from vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald to instrumentalists like Charlie Parker, Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Michael Brecker. These musicians and many more each put their individual voice and interpretation upon the contours of the syllables and melodies, which pose a harmonic challenge for improvisers, with frequent modulations and difficult chord changes. Jazz critic William Zinsser called it a “Bach-like tune” in that it modulates through five keys in its thirty-six bars.

[12] The seemingly endless possibilities of encountering this song are similar to the myriad ways that we can encounter Christ. Hammerstein’s lyrics suggest some of these moments: the eschaton of an embrace with a promised season of life; the times of loneliness and despair when God seems as a mere chord of whisper on the night air; the all-encompassing creativity of God in nature and in the expanse of all we know. We look forward to the reality of our completed selves in perfect relationship with Christ, indeed, that “moment divine.”

[13] But who is it that we really seek in that moment? In the Passion narrative of John’s Gospel, when Jesus was arrested, he asked them “Who are you looking for?” They replied, “Jesus of Nazareth.” But history has taught us that there are all kinds of ways to find Jesus! Who is it that you are you looking for when you think of the One who is the origin, reason, and fulfillment of all things?

[14] Is it Jesus who calms nature with a word and brings grace and mercy wherever he goes? Is it Jesus the master healer of body, mind and soul? Is it Jesus the worker of miracles, who has dominion over everything, even death? Is it Jesus the humble servant, who is above all, but does not place himself there, but rather at our feet, caring for us in a way that no other authority ever would?

[15] Who is it that we seek when we seek the One who can be all things to all people? Is it Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who in order to leave not one sheep out of a hundred behind, went to the Cross for all of us? Is it Jesus, the Resurrected One, who first appeared to a woman whose love for the Christ brought her to the tomb that morning before any of the disciples? Or is it Jesus who thought of God like a mother hen protecting her chicks?

[16] This tune and its changes can remind us of the constant One who appears to us in so many ways. There is Jesus in those who share his preferential option for the poor and marginalized. There is Jesus in those who uphold the law and risk themselves for the safety of others. There is Jesus in those who feed the sheep, providing the daily bread to others. There is Jesus the Teacher in those who watch over and encourage us using their time, skills, knowledge, and prayers. There is Jesus in those who help carry us when we are too weak to carry ourselves.

[17] As we hear the complex, shifting changes of this jazz standard, we can be reminded that the ways in which we can encounter Christ are as infinite as the universe God created. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. And even then, just as a soloist can only offer one unique voice or sound to a song, so can any one of us only catch a glimpse of all the things that God is.

Frankie Lane and Carl Fischer, We’ll Be Together Again, 1945 (Richard Mandel)
[18] America, between the years of 1941 and 1945, witnessed lovers and families torn apart by the ravages of war. At the time, the many relationships forged between men and women teetered on the prospect of whether departed loved ones would ever be reunited again: “No tears, no fears/Remember, there’s always tomorrow/So what if we have to part/We’ll be together again.” These words constitute the chorus of the song, and were written by Frankie Laine. Pianist and songwriter Carl Fischer added music, and the song, We’ll Be Together Again, was recorded in 1945. It has been covered by vocalists Billie Holiday, Jon Hendricks, Louis Armstrong, and Rod Stewart, among many others, and instrumentalists such as guitarist Joe Pass and trombonist J.J. Johnson.

[19] The tune would seem particularly appropriate in the lives of women during war-time. Wives, girlfriends, sisters, and moms, alike, left behind on the “homefront,” faced problems that they may have been ill-equipped to deal with. The song strongly commemorates their spiritual commitments and physical hopes. So long as there is life, there is a tomorrow, yet occasionally there are circumstances in life — of which war is surely one — that might dictate a parting from loved ones. That parting is, usually, temporary. Yet the song affirms that when two people are spiritually connected, they (“we”) will always be rewarded with the chance to be together again.

[20] An eternal spiritual connection, whether to a loved one, to one’s god, to anything living, or even to one’s own cause, is preserved despite the experience of parting ways. As the biblical book the Song of Songs puts it: “Love is as strong as death.” Memories can endure forever, and can withstand and triumph over the inconveniences and misfortunes associated with separation. When the separated are apart, there are those moments of temptation and sadness that enshroud the circumstances, always attempting to sever the permanence of their existing connection. However, when both share a mutual love, then parting will be evanescent by nature. The separated will be together again. Not war, not strife, not the inconvenience of distance, not even death, will keep them apart. And when the spiritual commitment is true and strong, as it can be for one’s faith in god, then as Thomas Haynes Bayly wrote in his 1844 poem titled, “Isle of Beauty”: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” These words were re-echoed and paraphrased in Laine and Fischer’s somber yet hopeful tune, that is usually played as a medium tempo ballad — not fast, but not too slow. The song evokes the war years and its separation and hope, and is a dedication especially to the brave and courageous heart-forsaken women of World War II. Those women captured and held on to their memories of that simple kiss, that certain smile; they knew that they would be together again with their lovers, spiritually reunited, for when wrapped in an eternal commitment parting is never a goodbye.

Joe Zawinul, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, 1966 (Jon Pahl)
[21] Mercy, Mercy, Mercy was recorded by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet in 1966, and reached #11 on the Billboard charts — remarkably high for a jazz tune. It featured Cannonball Adderley on the alto sax (who died in 1975), Nat Adderley (his brother) on trumpet, Joe Zawinul on electric piano, Victor Gaskin on bass, and Roy McCurdy on drums.

[22] The tune was written by Zawinul, who was born in Austria in 1932 and who died in 2007. Something of the inspiration for the song can be gleaned from the fact that Zawinul wrote and produced many tunes in tribute to the Civil Rights Movement, and especially a 1969 tribute to Jesse Jackson entitled “Country Preacher,” also recorded with this quintet.

[23] Zawinul was classically trained in Vienna, where he undoubtedly experienced the Catholic liturgies of his native country. “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” then, I hear as a modern-day Kyrie. Its repetitive opening is like the repetition in the Kyrie, where Christians say (or sing), repeatedly: “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.” Written as the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak, I take this tune to indicate Zawinul’s identification with the African American struggle for freedom, and the calling down of God’s mercy on America where Jim Crow segregation still ruled in fact, if not in law.

[24] The energy of the song impels us to turn mercy into activism. At its heart, after the repeated opening lick, is a crescendo that also ascends to a long high note, like a wail. After a stop time — a brief moment of silence — the tune then goes back to restate the theme, into which one could easily fit the lyrics: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, now!

[25] When he introduced the song on the 1966 recording Cannonball Adderley said this about it:

You know, sometimes we’re not prepared for adversity. When it happens, sometimes we’re caught short. We don’t know exactly how to handle it, when it comes up. Sometimes, we don’t know just what to do, when adversity takes over. And I have advice for all of us; I got it from our pianist, Joe Zawinul, who wrote this tune. And it sounds like what you’re supposed to say when you have that kind of a problem — It’s called Mercy… Mercy… Mercy…. The tune is a modern kyrie. It invokes an infinite mercy for a troubled people.

Stevie Wonder, Superstition, 1972 (Steve Meyer)
[26] Stevie Wonder is one of the most celebrated musicians of our time. He has won 22 Grammy awards, the most of any male vocalist. Many of his songs have theological and ethical significance, once you start listening. But before Stevie Wonder became an icon in music and advocacy, he was Lil’ Stevie Wonder — a “brand” carefully crafted by Motown who sang fun-loving singles like “Uptight,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Signed, Sealed Delivered,” and others. But shortly after his 21st birthday he negotiated a new contract giving him complete artistic control of his image and music. He also earned a million dollars from that contract, though everyone involved in the negotiations knew that Motown owed him more. More importantly, Stevie Wonder came away with the opportunity to express himself; to say what was on his conscience. He began to articulate not only his individual insights, but he began to speak out against the racial hatred, the systemic inequalities, and the superstitions he saw in Detroit and around the United States.

[27] In less than a year, Stevie Wonder’s image and music changed drastically. He went from Lil’ Stevie Wonder to a decidedly more Afrocentric image in his 1972 album Talking Book, where he donned a dashiki on the cover, and Innervisions, in 1973, which featured the anti-drug tune “Too High,” the anti-poverty (and anti-racist) “Living for the City,” and the great jam “Higher Ground,” clearly a call to transcend petty problems with spiritual heft (laced with funk).

[28] From then on, Stevie Wonder became a secular preacher. He was instrumental in the passage of a holiday to commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., through his 1980 Hotter than July album that featured “Happy Birthday,” a tribute to Dr. King. Most recently, Wonder has turned his attention to the theme of love — undoubtedly the central Christian ethical maxim — in an album and tour entitled “A Time 4 Love.”

[29] “Superstition” was released in 1972 and hit #1 on the U.S. Billboard chart. The funk tune has an angry edge, suitable to its main point, made in the repeated chorus: “When you believe/in things/that you don’t understand/then you suffer. Superstition ain’t the way.”

[30] But it was noy until 2005 in Philadelphia when Stevie Wonder closed out the Live 8 concert with his hit that I came to realize the full significance of the tune. The Live 8 program raised money for and awareness of the two plagues of poverty and HIV/AIDS, particularly in Africa. It was through the Live 8 campaign that I learned of a terrible superstitious practice in which some HIV infected men were told that they could cure their disease by having sex with a female virgin.

[31] As we rehearsed this song, I listened to the lyrics of the second verse especially as I sang them: “Very superstitious/Wash your face and hands/Rid me of the problem/Do all that you can/Keep me in a daydream/Keep me goin’ strong/You don’t wanna save me/Sad is the song.” And I thought about some of the superstitions whose sad consequences we all live with. For example, consider the legacy of the intersection of slavery and Christianity on this continent — where slaves (so slaveholders thought) had no souls to save! Slaveholders wrapped their practices in the Bible, and imagined African religions as superstitious, but the Christian beliefs and practices were also laced with superstitions that caused people to suffer. When we fear another, fear the unknown, and wrap that fear in a vast misunderstanding of how nature works, and how God works — no matter how dressed up in piety — people suffer. Bottom line: Superstition Ain’t the Way.

Bruce Springsteen, Badlands, 1978 (Martin Lohrmann)
[32] I didn’t know Bruce Springsteen’s work very well until I was going through my youth director’s record collection. He had a copy of Springsteen’s Nebraska and recommended it to me. That record is just Bruce sitting in a room by himself singing about the struggles of working people, young people, troubled people. It has a song about a cop chasing a criminal whom he knows is his brother, one about a kid’s pride in his family’s new used car, and lot of tunes about driving around in the middle of the night. In short, it is about regular folks in a tough world.

[33] Not long after listening to Nebraska, I got to know this slightly earlier and much more rocking song called “Badlands.” Even though it is musically different than the subdued Nebraska, the themes are the same. That is what I love most about it. “Badlands” combines the exuberance of rock music with attention to the ups and downs of hardworking people.

[34] “Badlands” is a story of a guy who is down on his luck, who works hard but does not get ahead. He says, “Workin’ in the fields till you get your back burned / Workin’ ‘neath the wheel till you get your facts learned.” The song looks at real troubles, pokes around at the sore spots, and still refuses to let pain or despair win. To this end, Springsteen gives us a great line of defiant joy: in the midst of confusion and trouble “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” Nothing and no one has any right to take our God-given joy from us!

[35] “Badlands” looks for goodness amid pain and for beauty in everyday life. Even more, Springsteen’s character roots this defiant joy in the three biblical things that abide: faith, hope and love. “I believe in the love that you gave me / I believe in the faith that can save me / I believe in the hope and I pray that some day it may raise me above these Badlands.” It does not get much more spiritual or liberating than that: faith, hope and love. Throw in some old-fashioned three-chord rock and roll and we have ourselves a song that can move us in body and soul as it reminds us that it ain’t no sin to be glad we’re alive.

[36] There are, to be sure, some challenges to incorporating a broader range of music than usual in worship — notably questions of copyright clearance, and the shock factor that might hit some congregations if a band all of the sudden broke into “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” some Sunday. But there are arrangements of thousands of jazz standards and secular tunes that can be purchased for public use. And with some education through a worship committee and congregational teaching, Lutherans ought to be able to appreciate the theological and ethical depths of any kind of music. In any case, the choices we make for music in worship should not be limited to a narrow range of options between “traditional” and “contemporary.” As a matter of Lutheran ethics, we are free to experiment. Doing so can break down the barriers between “Sunday” music and “everyday” music, and help Christians remember that God is truly all in all and that music is prayer.7

1. Janna Tull Steed, “Nothin’ without God: Duke Ellington’s Prayerful Music,” The Christian Century, 111 (October 12, 1994), p. 924.

2. Martin Luther’s Large Catechism, The Book of Concord, Kolb & Wengert, eds., p. 444.

3.Duke Ellington, “Program notes from the Sacred Concert on September 16, 1965 at the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.”

4. Luther’s Large Catechism, p. 442.

5. This oft repeated quote comes from the Foreword to George Rhau’s Collection, Symphoniae iucundae, as cited in Edward Foley, Ritual Music: Studies in Musicology (Beltsville, MD: The Pastoral Press, 1995), p. 89. The quote goes on to conclude: “when man’s natural musical ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His product and His gift; we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four, or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace. A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.”

6. Steed, p. 924.

7. The band’s members studied at The University of Pennsylvania, Berklee School of Music, Hart School of Music, and The University of Chicago, among other schools, and combine dozens of years of professional and serious amateur performance. For full playlist (jazz standards, r and b, jazz fusion, and rock ‘n’ roll) and possible booking for a workshop or other event, contact Jon Pahl: jpahl@ltsp.edu.

Jon Pahl

Jon Pahl is the Peter Paul and Elizabeth Hagan Professor of the History of Christianity at United Lutheran Seminary.