The Spirituality of Poets, Punks, Priests, & Prophets of Popular Music - Dwight Lee Wolter
I was stuck on the Long Island Expressway in hideous traffic. I was lonely, angry, hungry, tired and late. Someone wanted to merge into “my” lane in front of me and I would rather have died than let him succeed. But succeed he did, by wedging his car directly in front of my massive ego. Pissed, hurt and seeking solace, I turned on the radio.
Within five measures of the song, fond memories of my former girlfriend were so intense they could hardly be called “memories” as her sweet, sweet spirit was so present in my car that she became my soulful companion on my rush hour pilgrimage home. A tear slid down my cheek and into my smile. I gestured to allow yet another driver to take a spot in the lane in front of me. Why not? The driver was in just as much a hurry as I was. My sultry disposition had been transformed in an instant. What happened? Music happened.
It occurred to me, instantly and deeply, that it is often a song ~ more than a sermon, tweet, pet, prayer, family photo or favorite food ~ that touches people’s lives in a spiritual way. And it occurred to me that bars, clubs, libraries, living rooms and coffee houses are frequented by people who just may be the poets, punks, priests and prophets I need to pay close attention to, especially if their craft can transform and transport my spirit as profoundly as did the song I was listening to in my car ~ the song that was still not yet half over.
Spirituality is a river that flows both ways. Houses of faith, ashrams, holistic health centers, metaphysical communities and other businesses, organizations and fellowships often position themselves as repositories of belief, ethics, goodness and morality that they can offer.
But while people may walk into a church or elsewhere hoping to receive spirituality; they just might be ~ sometimes without even knowing it ~ walking into a church not to receive it, but to offer it, if we are receptive to listening to it.
All music is inherently spiritual, from the “sacred” music of Bach to Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” to Kanye West’s, “Jesus Walks.” George Harrison was a Hare Krishna. Paul Simon and Bob Dylan are Jewish. Johnny Cash was decidedly Christian. Leonard Cohen was born and raised as a Jew, but later became a Buddhist monk and lived in a monastery for five years. They all wrote profoundly spiritual music.
I wish more musicians would take their gifts and their power seriously and write songs that bear fruit ~ not only the fruit of entertainment ~ but fruit to feed their followers with the nectar of spiritual transformation that, I believe, we all crave. A singer in a bar on a Saturday night with a tip cup may reach far more people than a preacher on a Sunday morning with an offering basket. In an era when fewer and fewer people go to church, a popular song may be the only message, mantra, soundbite or sermon many people will ever hear.
My anger and panic about being late to pick up my kid from school that day, as I was stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway turned out to be a blessing. I did somehow make it to the school on time. And, I decided to start a narrative and musical concert series that would explore the relationship between various artists and genres, and the animating “spirituality” that infuses the music, while gathering guests and garnering funds to support the free feeding, clothing, medical screening and hair salon initiatives offered at the church I serve as pastor ~The Congregational Church of Patchogue on Long Island, New York.
The musical series I envisioned would explore the spirituality of music that may or may not mention religion. I would choose the songs, create the groupings of songs according to themes or eras that illustrated the spirituality of the artists; I would write the libretto, (the narrative between sets of songs of the featured artist, band or genre of the evening performance). The music would be performed live. The featured artists would be chosen from a broad swath of music. Just as no religion has a monopoly on spirituality, no one artist or genre of music does either.
Many of our favorite songs are spiritual anthems that flow from one generation to another. And while many songs seem to be written to one person in particular ~ others are more like pastoral prayers for “peace, love and understanding” for everyone, as Elvis Costello once sang about. Rolling Stone Magazine even alluded to the songs on an album by Paul Simon as “hymns” proving that you don’t need to be religious to be spiritual; just as you don’t need to be spiritual to be religious.
“The Spirituality of Popular Music” has, in the past seven years, brought many thousands of people, and tens of thousands of dollars that purchased goods and services for people in deep housing, health and food insecurity. It has proved to be a great attraction to people of various faith and non-faith traditions and organizations; as well those who are decidedly and happily not affiliated with any groups. Many people who attend “The Spirituality of Popular Music” never attend church services; and many people who attend church services never attend “The Spirituality of Popular Music.” Some people, however, have indeed become members. Many hundreds more have developed a relationship as friends of the church and of God, however they understand and define God; than would never have happened if there had not been “The Spirituality of Popular Music.”
People are spiritually hungry, but fearful that the food of faith has been tainted by the church. People who attend this series, held in a church, seem to feel truly safe and welcome. No matter where they are on life’s journey ~ whether they follow Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, booze, sports, shopping, L. Ron Hubbard, Sigmund Freud, the Big Bang, their Higher Power, G.O.D. (Good Orderly Direction), or if they prefer to follow themselves ~ they can rest assured and know that they are truly welcome.
It is my belief that at the core of a spiritual experience, religious discipline or musical encounter… is transformation: a dramatic change in the shape and nature of our attitudes and relationships. Through spirituality, we see hell transformed into help; loneliness transformed into companionship; self-destruction transformed into self-respect; and even addiction transformed into recovery. Through spirituality, we see hope rise like a weightless angel from the crypt of hopelessness. The spirituality triggered in us by music may deliver us to the threshold of change that words, thoughts, attitudes, actions, dogma and doctrines alone may not accomplish.
So far in this ongoing series, we have presented, among others: The Spirituality of Bob Dylan, U2, Prince, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Van Morrison, the Beatles, the Beatles’ White Album with Orchestra, Joni Mitchell, and many others. The genres have included “The Spirituality of the Blues; Bluegrass; and Broadway Musicals. The themes we have presented have included The Spirituality of Heaven and The Spirituality of Addiction & Recovery. Next up is The Spirituality of Tom Petty. The artists must be authors as well. Therefore, we do not do the Spirituality of such as Elvis Presley or Judy Collins. We receive suggestions all the time. Do you have one?
As a conclusion, for now at least, I want to suggest you listen to Kanye West’s song Jesus Walks. It is a bit rough, which is one reason I offer it here. You may bristle at the language and the anger. That is the way I feel about some of the Old Testament prophets. But… that’s another story.
Dwight Lee Wolter is the author of three books on forgiveness, and pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue.