OLD TIMEY RELIGIOUS MUSIC – Marilyn Armstrong

For a woman who is essentially religiously neutral, firmly clinging to my position of “no opinion” like a limpet on a wet rock with the tide coming in — I really love church music. I cannot help myself. Play me some Christmas carols and I am singing (croaking?) along with heartfelt enthusiasm.

Blame my elementary school teachers, not to mention all those little Christian girls with whom I grew up.

rhyming HallelujahMy parents neglected to mention I was Jewish. They failed to mention religion at all for the first 8 years of my life. I knew we didn’t have a Christmas tree. I knew my mother didn’t eat ham or bacon, but the rest of us ate it and my father cooked it.

I wanted Christmas and felt deprived every year when my friends had millions of presents and a big tree and we had Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, two electrified plastic statues in our front window — the family’s nod to the holidays.

No menorah. No synagogue. No indication of any kind of holiday in progress except for our two plastic friends.

I didn’t know what a Jew was. I knew what a Catholic was because several friends went to St. Gerard’s, the nearby Catholic school. I knew what nuns and priests were. I could say the rosary, because Mary taught me.

I knew what Lutheran was, because Carol got time off every Wednesday afternoon to go for religious instruction. I had heard about Sunday School. And Mass. And services.

One day, at school, they showed a series of films designed to teach us to not be anti-Semites or racists.

It was a strip film with sound. Joe was on a trapeze trying to do a flying somersault. The catcher, clearly Jewish because he had a big star of David on his chest, was the catcher. But Joe, a blatant anti-Semite, wouldn’t take Joe’s hands and fell to the floor. Splat.

“Don’t be a shmo, Joe.
Be in the know, Joe.
Be in the know, and you won’t fall on your face.”

Then we got a lecture on being nice to Jews. I went home and asked my parents, “What’s a Jew?”

Mom turned to Dad and said these immortal words, “Albert, we have to do something about this.”

Shortly thereafter, my peaceful Sunday mornings were interrupted by boring classes at the nearby synagogue. I would come home pumped up on bible stories which my mother, the atheist, would promptly debunk. It wasn’t long before I was allowed to stop attending. It was clearly not “my thing.” If they’d let me out on Wednesday afternoon at 1 pm like the Christian kids, I’d have gone with more enthusiasm, just to get off from school early.

That being said, my enthusiasm for church music remains unabated. I love hymns, the organ, choirs. The blending of voices tugs at my heartstrings. I sang my heart out in the glee clubs of childhood and the All-City Chorus (Mozart’s Requiem — I was an alto) in High School. And in college I was a music major.

It made my mother more than a little nervous as I wandered around the house singing the Mass in Latin. I did explain to her that the history of Western music is church music. From plainsong to Hayden, Bach, Mozart and all the others who have followed.

Organized religion is the primary consumer of choral music. I am by no means the only person who can be lured into a church by a good choir.

little church 33

If Sunday morning services were all music without the rest of the yada, yada, I’d be there. From gospel to the local children’s choir, it’s all beautiful to me.

I suppose finally discovering I was of Jewish origin should have grounded me somehow, but it didn’t. Not really. It set me on a much longer path that I am still walking. Forever the seeker, I have learned it’s the journey that matters.

Destination unknown.

28 thoughts on “OLD TIMEY RELIGIOUS MUSIC – Marilyn Armstrong

  1. Hey Marilyn, This ol’ fiddle player nearly wept a tear reading your story. Then I discovered Hank Williams, Sr. and nearly swooned. Except for his son he is about my favorite. As soon as I finish this I am going downstairs play Swing Low Sweet Chariot, I Saw The Light and Circle Be Unbroken. Around here we call that Grandpa strangling the parrot again. My mother was a organ player at church until she died. I know what you mean.

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    • I really love the music. I don’t necessarily love the churches where it is sung, though that depends on the church. I just am sad that so many churches have given up these great songs and gone over to … I don’t even KNOW what you call the “new” hymns. Boring would be a good start!

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    • Your name rang a bell for me, but I had to look you up and realized you really ARE a hell of a fiddle player 🙂 I have always wished that instead of piano, which was much too big an instrument for me (I’m really short with rather small hands), I had learned an instrument that I could have fully mastered. I love bluegrass fiddling. Were you part of the double-album “May the Circle Be Unbroken?” I think I played those albums until the grooves wore out. I have worn out their DVDs too — and am on the third set of them.

      I remember when my son was just five and that recordset was on the “hi-fi” (I miss THEM too), he looked at me, very solemnly and said: “This music makes you move your feet!” He had discovered rhythm.

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  2. I’m not particularly religious either but I do love the traditional Christmas carols. I used to enjoy going to community Carols nights when I was still able to get to them by myself. Now though they seem to be more like family-oriented pop concerts with only a few proper carols so I don’t really miss going. I don’t mind the odd “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Jingle Bells” for the kids but not a whole concert of twenty-somethings singing pop songs I don’t know with a couple of carols tacked on as an afterthought.

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  3. I never appreciated ‘churchy’ music until I was an adult. But I grew up hearing the Mormon version of it. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (or whatever they’re calling themselves now that ‘we’re’ not Mormons any longer) was a staple of Sunday in my family home. I’d roll my eyes and sneak away as soon as I possibly could to listen to CCR or Led Zepplin. I missed out I think. And when the movie that a couple of your shared songs were featured in “O Brother Where Art Thou” came out, I promptly went out and bought the CD with the songs on it. I LOVE those. These days ‘The MTC” is a feature of my Sundays. Something uplifting about hearing those words. In Utah, I don’t know what the Jewish population did, nor even if there were any here, initially. I never met one until I was in my 20s. Strange that. They looked just like me! Not that I had any stereotypes about Jewish folks. Just never encountered any. Same with the people of color (that color being black). They just weren’t here. Now? The population is growing and there’s a large Jewish community in Salt Lake City. I went to their counseling center for a while. Good folks. ❤

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  4. What a fascinating childhood Marilyn. I went to a Church of England school and apart from three catholics, I think we were all Cof E. My children went to school with every religion on the planet, but the one child I felt sorry for was Jehova’s Witness and she had to sit out all school assemblies, Christmas plays etc.
    What I liked best as a child in church were the rousing hymns and the church organ. I love religious music of all sorts from Jewish cantors to Russian Orthodox. Although I don’t think our family can claim any Jewish blood, my mother always said the Jews must be God’s Chosen People as they are so good at everything from music to medicine!

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  5. music puts a smile on your face, and makes tender the heart, it’s a good start, I have to say every time I see Julie Andrews, I see her running over the hills with the von trappes, what a sound track, but weren’t the producers Jewish too, it’s a crazy world as you say.. happy days Marilyn

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  6. Love those last two lines, Marilyn!
    And I’m the same where religious music is concerned… all those childhood hymns from the daily ‘assembly’ we all used to attend. I still know and love them all ( and recall many of the ‘variations’ on the offiical lyrics we would sing 😉 )

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        • The last time we actually made it to Christmas Eve service — which was the last time they held it at midnight rather than at EXACTLY dinner time (bad planning for most families!) — I was horrified at the music. There wasn’t a single carol in the bunch that I remembered or sang. Supposedly this “appeals” to the kids. I don’t think so. I don’t think THEY like bad music any better than we do!

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          • I do miss the traditional carols. It strikes me as odd that when supermarkets are stuffed with Christmas goods, they will not play caols, only popular seasonal songs… in case they give offence.

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  7. I hit the first video – I love Oh Brother Where Art Thou! More than church hymns 😉 Actually, I do like hymns and Christmas carols and hate when I go to a “modern” church with someone and they play that awful “praise” music.

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    • Me too. I like the old ones and I love the harmonies. They weren’t part of “my” religious (such as it was) service, but we sang them in school every year and if you grow up in the U.S., you can’t help but hear them. The new stuff is drivel.

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