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Will your musical tastes change?

A poet reflects on the 1970s Christian music scene.

Most mornings I select music for my not-so-intensive workout from my expansive and diverse collection – sometimes spinning a familiar favourite, and sometimes a record I know I haven’t listened to for years. For this purpose I choose a vinyl album: Neil Young, Ultravox, Roxy Music, B.B. King . . . . 

Not only does one side give me approximately 20 minutes uninterrupted exercise, but it gives my mind interesting places to meander. Last week one record I grabbed was DeGarmo & Key’s This Time Thru (1978, Lamb & Lion). For those who are too young to have been around then, I should start by saying that such music saved my life. 

If this sounds like ancient history, stay with me. There’s a lot we can discern about where we are, and where we may want to go, as we look back. What will make the music you listen to now – whether Christian or secular – worth returning to decades from now?

Early Christian pop

When I was a kid in the ‘60s the music that spoke to me came from the radio – Simon & Garfunkel, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles – and the music of my faith was sung by a congregation of ordinary people with varying degrees of skill, emulating a type of singing I couldn’t relate to. Within my parents’ generation of churchgoers, there was also a panicky dislike of anything from the long-haired world of youth. This made it difficult for me to straddle the divide.

In 1978 when This Time Thru appeared, the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry was young, naïve and energetic. Such performers as Randy Stonehill, Pat Terry and Phil Keaggy had proven they could make music on par with what secular radio was delivering. What distinguishes Christian music from its mainstream counterparts is the words; I am now a poet, so I especially look at the art of lyric-writing very closely – even though I know the immediate response we have to music, new or old, is more about the overall sound.

Listening to these records now, more than 40 years later with a better-developed ability to discern, has become an interesting experience. Musically speaking, many recordings stand up well; their musicianship is strong, their production is effective despite smaller budgets than rock superstars had, and some even show originality.

What distinguishes Christian music from its mainstream counterparts is the words.

Naturally, many of these records sound dated, and none of us would likely have been able to predict in what ways they would. Musically CCM was trying to cover the same territory that the secular record industry was working in at the time. This Time Thru and its follow-up Straight On (1979) were determined to rock, with Dana Key’s fluent guitar lines, and Eddie DeGarmo’s varying keyboard delights – Piano, Hammond Organ, Synthesizer and such. Looking back, I realize musical trends were heading in a different direction than DeGarmo & Key may have thought they would.

On their first two records, they had begun by emulating hard-edged progressive British and American bands, including Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but by 1980 on This Ain’t Hollywood – they were clearly aiming for a similar sound to what The Doobie Brothers were turning into radio hits. The positive side of this is that they also acknowledged the music of their hometown by featuring The Memphis Horns on several tracks.

It’s hard to know if such transitions had more to do with desired record sales, or the band wanting to progress in its development. Either way, they were making well-crafted music relevant to the needs of a particular market. It seems to me now, that the harder any musicians, across the decades, tried to fit the times, the more their music now feels distant to twenty first century ears. 

Looking back with a critical eye

To be fair, many of the musical stars of the ‘70s had trouble figuring out who they should be in the ‘80s. Probably Joni Mitchell’s worst album of her career (which is still well-worth listening to) is 1985’s Dog Eat Dog, where she gives too much control away to the talented but incompatible young musician Thomas Dolby, whose vision had little in common with her own. 

Contemporary Christian Music across these years provided more than music for a young audience. It enabled those who’d grown up in the church to see themselves in subculture heroes who also embraced the faith. This was important for many, like myself, through these years of change. 

Unfortunately, this often became the driving force behind the lyrics, too. On This Time Thru, the opening rocker “Emmanuel” simply tries to teach the truths of who Christ is and what he’s done, and on several songs such as “Chase The Wind” they make straw men to knock down in the name of the Lord: 

“They made you your own creator

And gave to you a pot of gold…”

Similar approaches abounded on pop radio too, but when you’re writing of ultimate things, such rhetorical techniques don’t carry sufficient weight. The harder some singers sought to justify their “ministry” to the church, the more their lyrics sank to the level of propaganda. To me DeGarmo & Key were far stronger at performing and writing music than they were, like many others, at writing lyrics.

Lyrical depth

It should, then, be no surprise, then, that lyrically the strongest track on the album is the beautiful R&B-flavoured “Wayfaring Stranger” – a traditional folk-gospel song I have subsequently encountered time and again in worthwhile more-traditional renditions, including by Emmylou Harris, by Johnny Cash, and (from the movie Cold Mountain) by Jack White. As much as I’m drawn to the simplicity of these more-recent versions, I still love the (ironically older) updating by DeGarmo & Key.

So, beyond simply letting musical style draw you, I would like to leave you considering the depth of the lyrics in the music you’re now collecting. Will it be strong enough to bring you satisfaction 10, 20, 30 years from now? Will it, like the strongest of the old hymns, continue to speak to you?

Stay tuned for a follow-up article about excellent song-writers and the lyrics of well-known worship songs.

  • D.S. Martin is the author of four poetry collections, including Ampersand (2018), and Conspiracy of Light: Poems Inspired by the Legacy of C.S. Lewis (2013), both from Cascade Books. His new collection Angelicus will be published in 2021. He is Poet-in-Residence at McMaster Divinity College. Visit his blog Kingdom Poets (http://kingdompoets.blogspot.com) and his website (https://dsmartin.ca).

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