Oh Wally, Wally! – How to Define Profanation?

Wally (right) and Beaver, no so vexed!

Over at CCW’s blogsite
our CMAA Indy colleague Andrew Motyka (busy guy!) has the third installment of different folks’ take upon (Portland) Archbishop Sample’s now well-known “Letter on Sacred Music.” Some of the archbishop’s concerns not only focus upon the music in and of itself, but upon the “performance practice” of that same music. Is a bell-tree acceptable when singing a Ricky Manalo song, but a drum kit an absolute travesty? If we have to sing Scholte’s “They’ll know we are Christians…” must we use the infamous “strum diddy strum strum” pick pattern on a thousand guitars, or could we lipstick the pig by using a reggae back-beat which the folks will grin ear to ear over? Well, that’s not where I’m going to go in this response.

The concern about profanation of musical aspects within the Mass (and presumably all ritualized worship such as the LoH) has vexed the Church likely before the recognition of the parody Mass (L’Homme arme comes to mind.) I have to wonder what set of circumstances is in play when the fulcrum point of profanation is finally overwhelmed by secular association to certain musical motifs, that it should be obvious to all present “hearing” Mass in any particular moment? Familiarity with secular musical motifs is subjective, not easily quantifiable, and more often than not culturally based.

For example, I have never programmed Jaime Cortez’s immensely popular “Somos el cuerpo de Cristo” for decades as off the page, not to mention the recording, I couldn’t disassociate its refrain from the Beatle’s “Oob la di, oob la da….” (I won’t finish the line out of respect for the subject matter.) Sometimes the instance verges on near-plagarism as in the case of one song in OCP’s library by a very popular “Spirit and Song” composers that interval by interval almost quotes George Harrison’s “Here comes the sun.” Other lit-wags have excoriated songs such as “Here I am, Lord” (Schutte) repeatedly for its resemblance to the theme music for the “old” TV comedy “Gilligan’s Island.” Let’s move onto more serious considerations. Would we sing “What Child is This” during Christmastide had not RVW written his famed “Fantasy on Greensleeves?” For that matter, if we knew the exact source of the amalgam hymntune KINGSFOLD, would that make us less inclined to use the nobler hymn version we generally associate with “I heard the voice of Jesus?” We know of patriotic and worship tunes whose genesis is “Bar the door, Katy!) certifiably within the confines of public houses all over Europe. I have a student volume of folk songs from the British Isles compiled by Stanford that is rife with tunes, some well known, others obscure, that are now found in popular hymnals. Do we thank St. Thomas More’s Chris Walker alone for that reality. Not really. But let’s confine the rest of discussion to the factors concern profanation to “isle tunes” for brevity’s sake.

The likely candidate for most prominent secular tune that’s successfully crossed over many times is O WALY WALY. If one thinks of just the music, it’s an oddity. It demands sheer lung power for each phrase, it has a tessitura demand beyond many other songs, and despite other concerns, it is constantly set and reset to new texts and sung well. Now, the test of profanation has to include the text wedding of the original tune. Like many of those Stanford-collected songs, the original text likely remains a lost love lament common to popular song since Morley madrigals. I’m sure text and tune crossed the pond in the 17th century quite in tact, so it became cross-cultural as well in the colonial south. At this point I want to ask then, why haven’t I encountered a hymntext set to BARBARA ALLEN or SHE WALKED THROUGH THE FAIRE? (Maybe Dr. Ballou has, as a harpist and musicologist, had that fortune, I haven’t personally.) Let’s face it, would anyone be singing Bell’s “The Summons” if there was a pervasive knowledge and association with the original lyrics of KELVINGROVE? Who’s to say? But where does one draw a line between appropriating SUO GAN or ASHGROVE (from Wales) for famed texts, and Walker deciding “SKYE BOAT SONG” (Scotland) would make a nifty vehicle?

On this side of the pond, has anyone ever encountered a hymntext set to “The streets of Laredo?” On the other hand, though I’ve never found one, it wouldn’t surprise me if there is a hymn set to “Shenandoah” somewhere out there. Here’s the deal, unlike the Beatles or Gilligan associations proximity to recent cultural memory, no such association exists for these seminal, beautiful ballads I’ve mentioned. Is it only time passage that mitigates a profanation association? One can parrot “O say can you see” having its origins as a flagon-hoisting huzzah song in old Brittania pubs, but when played or sung with reverence and dignity at any ballgame or historic gathering, its integrity (sorry, couldn’t resist using that word) holds strong by the strands of tears on peoples’ faces. Well, I think that’s enough grist for the mill of discussion as regards how we discern and discriminate such issues. Were it just as easy as we old hippies used to think it was when someone drags up that somebody somewhere (not me) used “My Sweet Lord (doo lay doo lay doo lay)” or “Jesus is just alright with me” back in the day in the crypt church!

It does, however, lend a lot of weight to the PiusX/Marht/Kwasniewski paradigm arguments of sticking pretty darn close to the musical patrimony, no?