Folk Music as Proper Worship

The late 90’s and early 2000’s spawned a musical era of cookie-cutter pop, rap songs with the same lyrics, and a general sense of distaste with the music industry. The commercialization was insultingly blatant, the lyrics were shallow and vapid, and the music was exceedingly predictable—so much so that the University of Bristol designed a software program that could accurately predict the success of any given pop song. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with performers like Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, or Kelley Clarkson, but all they did is set up a generation that was thirsty for something worth listening to.

Enter folk music. Given a platform in the 60’s, praised in the 70’s, and driven underground by 80’s hair-rock, folk has returned in recent years with a vengeance, thanks largely in part to social media and low-cost recording techniques. In spite of a recent attempt to over-saturate the market, the genre continues to grow, as listeners devour the image of musicians playing their own instruments and writing their own lyrics—lyrics that speak to everyday problems or challenge the listeners to think. The songs have a shred of substance to them, the musicians look and act like normal people—and who doesn’t love an electric banjo? If there was any doubt to the legitimacy of folk music, it was erased when Mumford & Sons’ encore record, ‘Babel,’ won album of the year at the 2012 Grammy’s. Critics may have been at odds over the album, but the common folk loved and appreciated it.

Yet for every ‘Babel,” there are a thousand other albums that never sell but a few hundred copies. Artists like Josh Ritter and The Tallest Man on Earth (references which should definitely increase this article’s credibility with hipsters) remain relatively unknown—which somehow increases the allure of folk in general. Everybody likes having a secret that nobody else knows: Ever heard of Joe Pug? No? He’s great; you should go look him up.

Amidst this great multitude, this horde of banjo’s and upright basses; amidst the good, the not-so good, and the terrible—there runs a shining grain, not unlike the one that Martin Luther held when he spoke “If thou couldst understand a single grain of wheat, thou wouldst die for wonder.” This grain of wheat—this common thread of folk—is the honest expression and sincerity that music in general has been so tragically deprived of in the last few decades. Contrary to what agents and producers tend to think, people can only listen to so many songs that talk about smoking pot in an Escalade or a famous singer breaking up with her umpteenth boyfriend.

The sincerity of folk is wonderful because it reflects, in some small way, what worship music was intended to be. Reading through the Psalms, one gets the feeling of spontaneous emotion expressed through the frame of rhythm and verse. The Book of Worship consists of authors who cry out to God in anguish, praise him in wild ecstasy, and supplicate him in the midst of crushing apathy. This isn’t surprising, given the fact that the man who wrote a majority of them was pretty expressive himself. When the Ark was brought to Jerusalem, “David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, and David was wearing a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel were bringing up the Ark of the Lord with shouting and the sound of the trumpet.” (2 Samuel 6:14-15) This isn’t a four-chord reaction to the power of God; this is a organic, impromptu celebration. It’s dancing in the delight of the sovereignty of the Lord—and it looks a look like an open field folk concert.

This is not to exclude the necessity of Jesus Christ as the center of worship, but there is an aspect of common grace that is transferable onto Christian worship; any decent pagan can find delight in Creation, but only a Christian can respond to the personal Creator behind it. Good music can be enjoyed by anybody, and sincerity and spontaneity are not the pillars of praise. That said, a Christian can worship with the breath of the wind, the pulse of the ocean, and the twang of a steel-stringed guitar because they are things made to be delighted in. It could be that God sits up on his throne during a Bob Dylan show and says to the angels around him, “Watch this—I gave that man his talent, and my daughter, standing there in front of the stage, can see it. Bob Dylan is praising me, and he doesn’t even know it: my child knows it though. Look at that, watch her sing his songs to me.” It may be that God delights in our appreciation of his world, whether it is snow-capped mountains or The Lumineers.

C.S. Lewis said that “the most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance.” Perhaps the most valuable thing that folk can do for a Christian is to express that same rare emotion, that same raw experience of created life, in ways we have not thought of. Our modern problem is no longer that we will miss the forest for the trees, but that we will miss the forest for the nymphs. Folk helps us combat this malaise; it helps us to appreciate the sea for Poseidon. It highlights the Creation, and we in turn can highlight the Creator.

So amidst the hordes of Dylan-impersonators, the technically deficient fiddle playing, and open-tuned acoustic guitars, look for that single grain of wheat—that childlike sincerity. It may not be found in every song, or with every band—but generally, it is there. Give an ear to it, listen to it. Cultivated appropriately, this grain can grow into an acceptable harvest—it might just turn out to be proper worship.