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Heavenly Hootenanny

How folk music -- and the counterculture -- entered the Catholic Church

THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL of 1962 -- 65 transformed Roman Catholicism. The church redefined itself as "the People of God" and began allowing priests to speak the Mass in their own languages. With such reforms, it eroded traditional walls between the hierarchy and the laity, with results that have been debated to this day.

While recent discussion of the Council has turned largely on questions of sexuality, with conservatives accusing Vatican II of opening the priesthood to sexual deviance, for most believers the original effects of Vatican II most conspicuously involved the conducting of the Mass. What people like the liberal priest Andrew M. Greeley welcomed, and conservative Roman Catholics like William F. Buckley despised, were new, relaxed guidelines for church liturgy and, not least, church music.

To critics and supporters alike, the change was symbolized most powerfully by the spectacle of acoustic guitars near the altar. Depending on your point of view, folk musicin church was either the midwife to Roman Catholic progressivism or the Trojan horse that smuggled it in.. . .

Certainly the new Roman Catholicism was not for everyone. In a dyspeptic book published in 1990, musicologist Thomas Day tells the story of a friend at a Mass in the early 1970s: "The time came around for the Handshake of Peace... My friend turned to the elderly lady at this point and, holding out his hand in friendship, said, `May the peace of the Lord be with you.' The old lady scowled. She looked at the proffered hand as if it were diseased. `I don't believe in that [expletive],' she replied and, without missing a breath, went back to the quiet mumbling of her rosary."

There is a tendency to think that this woman -- raised on a Latin Mass performed by priests who expected no noise from the pews -- represented the pre -- Vatican II era. But some Roman Catholics, notes Day, already had a rich tradition of singing and praying aloud. In Germany and Poland, the Mass was often accompanied by enthusiastic singing. And it is hard to imagine total lay silence in the Italy that had produced the Verdi Requiem.

But in the United States, where the tone had been set by Irish priests, the quiet, controlled, ascetic Mass was the norm. Here, Day writes, "the flashy organ playing in French churches or thunderous hymns in the churches of Bavaria (not to mention the orchestras for High Mass) were unmistakable signs of decadence."

Americans had always been liturgically timid, accepting at face value the Motu proprio of Pope Pius X in 1903, which had established what Day calls "a sort of trinity of song acceptable to the Church" -- Gregorian chant, Renaissance a cappella polyphony, and modern polyphonic composition. So the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, issued by Vatican II in 1963, was particularly freighted. Article 121 of its Sacrosanctum Concilium section charges Roman Catholic composers with the sacred task of creating new music: "Let them produce compositions having the qualities proper to genuine sacred music, not confining themselves to works that can be sung only by large choirs, but providing also for the needs of small."

At first, some composers believed that even music composed in this new, liberal spirit should derive from Gregorian chant. But as the changes in the Mass were phased in, from the First Sunday of Advent, 1964, to the First Sunday of Advent, 1965, it became apparent that the Mass would have an entirely new feel. The priest was facing the communicants. He was speaking English. The Mass was often punctuated by hymns to be sung by the congregation.

Critics declared the new Mass stillborn. "An aesthetic fiasco," said one in 1966. "The idea of recruiting the congregation into hyperactive participation simply hasn't worked," said another. So many people accepted this wisdom that Day titled his book "Why Catholics Can't Sing." But it is interesting that the critics do not agree on whether there is too much singing (by over -- enthusiastic troubadours), too little (by a displeased silent majority of Catholics), or too little good singing (by congregations not acculturated to singing out loud).

In any case, nobody could ignore the changes. They could detest Vatican II, but they could not pretend that it hadn't happened. New contemporary hymnals began appearing in the United States around 1965, and they sold widely. "The People's Mass Book," "Our Parish Prays and Sings," "The Hymnal of Christian Unity," and others were adopted by hundreds of parishes, and there is no Gregorian chant in them. Except for the Church's official imprimatur on the copyright page, they look like Protestant hymnals.

. . .

But the new Roman Catholic hymnals were only the start of a musical revolution. New ideas came from the ambient culture -- and in the United States, in the 1960s, that inevitably meant folk or rock music.

"Guitar Mass" became a standard joke, sure to provoke rolled eyes and smirks. Day recalls "attending those first parish `folk masses' back in the 1960s. . .. At the entrance they sang `Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.' At the Offertory there was `Kumbaya.' . . . Hands clapped. Guitars twanged."

What Day describes as "egotistical and narcissistic folk songs" may be more charitably understood as many Roman Catholics being in sync with both American culture and the spirit of Vatican II. Having at last emerged from their psychic and geographic ghettos to reach educational and socioeconomic parity with the rest of America, Catholics were fully attuned to American popular culture. They were hippies, Yippies, Jesus People, and commune dwellers; or they were soldiers who fought in Vietnam and Republicans who voted for Nixon. They were Americans.

The seminaries, far from being bastions of tradition, were important incubators of Roman Catholic folk music. The music by composers like Joe Wise, Ed Gutfreund, and Sister Miriam Therese Winter could make the Mass exciting and strange. Instead of sitting, standing, and kneeling, the new music might encourage swaying in a circle. It might even be accompanied by interpretive dance or drumming.Perhaps most powerfully, the music provided opportunities for women to lead the congregation, and even allowed African -- American folkways into the liturgy. Joe Wise, for example, was a prot of the black priest Clarence Rivers, who had heard Wise play in Memphis and had given him $3,000 to record his music. Wise made a monaural demo tape, later found a publisher, quit his job running a coffeeshop, and toured with his blues -- and gospel -- inflected folk songs.

Songs by Roman Catholic composers are typical folk songs not only in their musical style, but in their allusions to nature's bounty. When they sang "I saw raindrops on my window" ("Joy Is Like the Rain," 1965), or "Spirit filled yet hungry we await your food" ("Take Our Bread," 1966), they were simultaneously hailing the religious dimensions of nature and the political environmentalism of the times. These themes are even more explicit in Gutfreund's "Encircle Us" (1978): "Feast on the bread of life again. . .. God comes to nourish and feed ev'ryone."

Roman Catholic folk songs also emphasized intimate relations over distant, obedient ones -- symbolism analogous to choosing lay leadership over clerical diktats. In the spirit of Vatican II, the God of these songs is kinder and gentler, more a benevolent father than a judgmental overlord. Wise, himself a rather gentle soul who retired to the Arizona desert to lead journal -- writing workshops and paint watercolors, makes this point by treating our relationship with God as a partnership: "Yours as we stand at the table you set," he sings in "Take Our Bread." "We are the sign of your life with us yet." For Winter, later a professor of "liturgy, worship, spirituality, and feminist studies" at Hartford Seminary, God is a facilitator of human amity, one who asks us "to care for each other."

Finally, Roman Catholic folk songs encourage a noncreedal universalism. Their religion is not about doctrine or catechism but about the generalized spirit. Whereas traditional liturgical music reminds people of the complexity and fanciness of Roman Catholic ritual, these folk songs could easily be sung in a Methodist, Lutheran, or Presbyterian church. Gutfreund's "Alleluia, Praise to the Lord" (1978) does not mention Jesus, resurrection, or atonement. It could appeal to Muslims or Jews. It could be Unitarian.

. . .

As early as 1964, the National Catholic Reporter ran a story about Sacred Heart, the "hootenanny parish" in Warrensburg, Mo.: "Hardly a Sunday goes by, say the ushers, but a stranger will nervously edge up to one of them during Mass and whisper, `Pardon me, but is this a Catholic church?"' Throughout the `60s and `70s, the movement grew steadily. According to one observer, by 1978 folk music had "invaded" Roman Catholic churches everywhere. Musical experimentation was an international phenomenon, celebrated in every country that had Roman Catholics.

It was also decried by mourners from Auberon Waugh (son of the British novelist Evelyn Waugh) to America's Patrick J. Buchanan to Hutton Gibson, leader of the Australian Alliance for Catholic Tradition (and father of movie star Mel Gibson). "It all seems a pity at first," reflected the essayist Annie Dillard, "for I have overcome a fiercely anti -- Catholic upbringing in order to attend Mass simply and solely to escape Protestant guitars. Why am I here? Who gave these nice Catholics guitars? . . . What is the Pope thinking of?"

Guitars, to answer Dillard's question, were not exactly what the pope was thinking of, but rather what some liberal Roman Catholics in America hoped the pope was thinking of. Once Vatican II gave priests the latitude to permit changes in the liturgy, the popular liturgies were going to find homes in the churches where Simon & Garfunkel and Peter, Paul & Mary were at first feared.

In the end, the Church provided a place for the aesthetics of the late 1960s, but without liberalizing in any other sense. Compared with Episcopalians, say, or Methodists, the Roman Catholic Church's official stands on other matters changed the least: Neither abortion nor birth control would be approved, and women never became priests.

Because Vatican II had given the folkies permission, aesthetic changes were almost entirely decoupled from politics. The hierarchy retained its tight, conservative control on what Roman Catholics were supposed to believe, even as the iconography of liberalism -- the sandals, guitars, and hugging -- seized the day, easily.

Mark Oppenheimer is the author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture" (Yale), from which this essay is adapted. He is speaking on Oct. 31 at Harvard Bookstore.

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