I’ll just get this right out of the way: I think religions are dumb. All of them. People may laugh at Mormons and Scientologists and make fun of their obviously ridiculous origin stories, but the only difference between those myths and the ones on which, say, Christianity are founded is that the ones in the Bible are older. Being older does not make them more legitimate. They’re stories, engineered for the purpose of comfort, moral guidance, and social control.
So, why do I like gospel music so much?
I got to thinking about this recently when I was at a jam at a friend’s apartment and we played I’ll Fly Away.
No, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings were not at my jam. But, at the end of the song I looked around the room and realized that all four of us were Jews–secular, pot-smoking, guitar-playing New York Jews. And yet we were all sitting around singing songs about Jesus and Heaven and all this other stuff none of us buy into. I think there are a couple of reasons for this.
First, all of us were big fans of traditional American music. Like it or not, traditional American music mostly comes from the Bible Belt, and it’s pretty hard to get into this stuff without listening to some songs about Jesus. And at some point, you’ll find yourself singing along to one of those songs, and then you’ll realize what the words are and you’ll be like, wait, what the hell am I singing?
I recently had this exact experience with another Gillian Welch song (yes, I’ve been on a big Gillian kick lately). Check out By the Mark.
“I will know my savior when I come to him/By the mark where the nails have been.” Hard to get more Jesus-y than that. But it sounds so fucking good! Why is that? Other than the fact that Gillian Welch is awesome, I mean.
There are a couple of reasons: First of all, a song’s lyrics don’t actually have to make any sense for the song to be good. A good melody and a sweet voice go a long way. But there’s more to it than that. I think the thing is that gospel songs are inherently hopeful. They’re about finding a happier life, a home where things make sense, where they aren’t so hard. In a gospel song, that place is heaven, of course, but you don’t need to believe in a literal heaven for that sentiment to lift you up. When someone, say, the great Sam Cooke, sings, “Farther along, we’ll know all about it/Farther along, we’ll understand why/Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine/We’ll understand it, all by and by,” I don’t have to believe in God, Jesus, or Heaven to say, “Amen, brother.”