As I was helping out a bit in the archives at work last week, I came across a familiar name in an unfamiliar context: the name of Lowell Mason, which (as it turns out) refers to two very different men who are a part the ongoing development of religious music in the United States.
The first Lowell Mason (the one with whom I was originally familiar) was the “father of American church music”, born in 1792 in Massachusetts. I’ve written a little about him here on the blog before — he was both a great composer and arranger of hymn tunes and a great advocate of the kind of formal musical education that ultimately aimed at killing off the informal, communal musical traditions of his time (the sort of music one learned in church-affiliated “singing schools” and song gatherings, often done using shape-note practice).* He was a great believer in music’s moral power, beyond its capacity for eliciting pleasure or intellectual and aesthetic appreciation.
The second Lowell Mason, with whom I was not familiar until this past week, is “Little Lowell” Mason, still-living southern gospel singer with a still-living mission as of this writing. He’s a very old man now (born c. 1937), but he still tours and sings; he was even in my former home town, Storm Lake, in 2014, although I never knew it at the time. While his size (Mr. Mason has dwarfism) was originally presented as a hook in promotional materials (he, like others, was presented as a “singing midget”, a term no longer preferred), it is mostly irrelevant to the deeper content of his musical ministry, which is quite different in tone and style from that of the composer whose name he shares. Where the Father of American Church Music was formal and lofty in his philosophical aspiration, the still-living singer is, in his way, a triumph of that earlier, participant-driven informal religious music tradition. His is a cheerfully popular style, the sort of music that demands tapping feet and clapping hands and singing along.
One wonders what the first Lowell would make of the music of the second; leaving aside the former’s likely disdain for the “sensuous” content of purely popular styles in general, both men nonetheless have in common a certainty that one reaches toward the divine through music, and if their forms of religious joy may look or sound different, they nonetheless seem to be aimed in the same spiritual direction.
*For an interesting look at the first Mason’s approach to music education — and his idea of what music really ought to be for, morally speaking — see Mary Browning Scanlon’s reproduction of a letter he wrote to his son in 1855, as printed in the Music Educators Journal, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Jan., 1942), pp. 24-25+70 .