Scripture in Music (Part 2) – Scripture in Secular Music

You can read last week’s class on Brahms “How Lovely Is They Dwelling Place” here.

Scripture for this week can be downloaded here.

While Christian music is becoming more mainstream than in the past, generally speaking the chart toppers in the secular world have little basis in scripture. However, there have been several notable examples in the 60s, 70s and 80s that appropriated scripture for a variety of purposes, from protesting a war, to summarizing a movement, to something thrown together to fill some needed minutes on a new album. Today we’ll be taking a look at three songs that use scripture to convey a variety of different messages in wildly divergent styles.

The Byrds – Turn, Turn, Turn (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) 

Pete Seeger arranged the original setting of these verses to music in 1959, adding only seven words of his own (Turn (repeated 3 times) and I swear it’s not too late). The song has been covered by dozens of artists but the most notably by the American Folk Band, The Byrds, in 1965 (3 years after Seeger’s own version). The song was one of several that popularized folk rock music into the mainstream, and was seen as a call for peace as the Vietnam war was kicking into higher gear. The song reportedly took 78 takes over five days to get the material for the final cut and is credited as being perhaps the oldest lyrics in a number 1 hit (Solomon was thought to have written it in 1011 BC).

Despite using most of the King James Version of the Bible verbatim the song rearranges many of the couplets, flipping some and stringing others together that are in separate verses of the text, and some are omitted altogether. As we listen to the song I want you to observe which couplets have been flipped, which have been connected from separate verses, which are omitted, and which are repeated. Depending on how much we catch the first time we can go back over the verses as needed.

NOTE: For those of you following on the blog at home you can check my answers here.

Why do you think certain phrases are flipped? Is there a general pattern to the way Seeger has rearranged couplets and how does this change the overall tone of the piece?

What’s omitted, repeated? Why are certain passages left out and how do you think this changes the piece (if at all)?

What is Solomon trying to say in this portion of scripture and does this match up with the way Seeger interpreted (appropriated) it?

Trivia: 45% of royalties for this song are donated to an advocacy group committed to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict without the demolition of Palestinian settlements (ICAHD).

Boney M. – Rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137:1-4, 19:14) 

Our next song is a Rastafarian hit, popularized in 1978 by the German disco group Boney M. which became a UK #1 hit. Originally arranged in 1970 by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton, the song embodies many tenants of the Rastafarian faith. “Babylon” is interpreted as representing any oppressive authority figure, and Zion refers to Africa. Rastas believe Africa to be the birthplace of mankind, so remembering Zion is remembering paradise, a paradise promised by the supposed second incarnation of Christ, Haile Selassie I. The bridge also features the last verse of Psalm 19 (a popular prayer favorite of a certain pastor of our mutual acquittance). Rastas also tend to relate to the twelve tribes of Israel, making this Psalm a natural choice. It has even been adopted by some Unitarian churches in their hymnal.

Again the King James Version is used here, with verse 2 and the second half of verse 3 omitted. Since this is a disco hit, it has a markedly different tone than the Psalm. As you listen think about how the Psalm is portrayed. What might be a reason for the bridge? How have the Rastafarian composers arranged the song to align with their particular faith. How does this change your perception of the Psalms used?

Trivia: This song is featured in the 2009 Rayman spin-off “Rabbids Go Home”.

U2 – 40 (Psalm 40:1-3) 

Following the studio sessions for their third album “War”, U2 did not have a good ending track. With studio time running out the song “40” was quickly arranged using the first three verses of Psalm 40, and subsequently became a staple of live performances in the 1980s and again in 2005. Live performances often featured long periods of the audience singing after the band had left the stage. The first verse uses verse 1 and the first half of verse 2, the second the second half of verse 2 and verse 3, with the chorus adapted from verse 3.

How does Bono interpret these three verses in the way phrases are arranged and in the overall tone of the piece? What would you think about this being a hymn?

Trivia: Weirdly enough the song was written, recorded, mixed and played in about 40 minutes which has nothing to do with the title.

Couple of final overall questions:

In what ways do you think these songs expose people to the Bible and might be used to lead them to faith?

Does scripture have a place in secular (popular) music?

What were your reactions to these songs both in relation to your faith and just generally?

Next week is our last Scripture in Music class. I’d tell you what we’re going to cover but I’m still not sure 🙂 .

1 Comment

Filed under Faith + Life, Trubedor

One response to “Scripture in Music (Part 2) – Scripture in Secular Music

  1. Pingback: Scripture In Music (Part 3) – Contrasting Reactions to the Greatness of God | Ben Trube

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