Kate Campbell’s latest CD, For the Living of These Days, sets a rigorous standard for itself by opening with Woody Guthrie’s “Jesus Christ.” It is a challenge for a self-identified gospel album to maintain direct contact with the harsh realities of life, and avoid drifting off into pie-in-the-sky denial of popular American religion.
Guthrie’s “Jesus Christ” opens this collection by posing what seems to be its central question about how the contemporary, “Christian” America might respond to the direct presence of the character and message of Jesus. That question is posed most directly by the 10th track, Bobby Braddock’s “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport?”
The collection of songs on For the Living of These Days mixes older hymns and new compositions. Nowhere is the tension greater than in tracks five, six and seven, where Harry Emerson Fosdick’s “God of Grace and God of Glory,” from which the disc’s title comes, sits between a musical adaptation of a prayer by Thomas Merton and a song named for the painful meditation of St. John of the Cross, “The Dark Night of the Soul.”
In the first of these three songs, Campbell takes a prayer from Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude and sets it awkwardly to music. The resulting dissonance befits a Trappist social activist and stands in sharp contrast to the grandeur of Fosdick’s hymn. A similar dissonance may be found in the latter song, written by the aloof orator for social justice who still managed to captivate America’s establishment.
The movement from a Trappist monastery near Bardstown, Ky., to the cathedral-like edifice of RiversideChurch in New York City is countered by the next move to the Carmelite monasteries of 16th-century Spain. “Dark Night of the Soul” is an original composition by Campbell and Walt Aldridge. Campbell and her musical companion on the entire album, Spooner Oldham, stay true to the soul and blues musical traditions which they claim as their inspiration (For the Living of These Days was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala.), urging embrace, rather than avoidance, of the “Dark Night” for its “wonders to behold.”
The listener is allowed to recover during “When I Let Jesus Take My Hand,” written by Spooner and Karen Oldham, before confronting “Terrible Mercy”, a song by Campbell and Mark Narmore, which seems to have been inspired by a Flannery O’Connor quotation printed in the liner notes: “Go warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy.” This song takes on the denial of tragic events (the Holocaust, racial violence, the Trail of Tears, environmental destruction) with a pronouncement of judgment and deliverance in a prophetic voice resembling Amos of Tekoa.
By album’s end, the brutal, rough edge has been sufficiently maintained that most listeners will be grateful for the arrival of the familiar, soothing hymn “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” It has become painfully obvious that our “sin-sick souls” need healing.
Still, for those too familiar with the biblical tradition, the undercurrent of woundedness remains, as we cannot help recall that the old hymn alters the text of Jeremiah 8:22, where the prophet asks “Is there no balm in Gilead?” and laments the lack of healing. In Genesis 37:25, “balm” is part of the cargo of the Ishmaelite merchants from Gilead, to whom Joseph’s brothers sell him to be carried down to Egypt as a slave. One more time in Jeremiah 46:11, the balm of Gilead brings no healing, and so the hope and expectation of this old spiritual struggles against the weight of the world.
This can be difficult music. It could not be more different from the shallow, sugary nature of most of what gets labeled “contemporary Christian music,” which must be successful for a reason. The depth and complexity of For the Living of These Days, however, will reward careful, repeated listening.
Mark McEntire is associate professor of religion at Belmont University.
Buy McEntire’s book, Raising Cain, Fleeing Egypt, and Fighting Philistines: The Old Testament in Popular Music