Adventures in Teaching with the ACRL’s Information Literacy Framework: Preface

Oh, the lengths to which one goes…

What lengths would you go to in order to photograph the Grand Canyon? (LOC)


Once upon a time in my life as a philosophy-prof-on-the-way-to-librarianship, I decided that I was going to commit to using the ACRL’s Information Literacy Framework in my philosophy class designs. I created what I found to be a useful and engaging model for an intermediate or advanced philosophy class designed specifically to integrate the Framework into the course as a whole, one that I felt could easily be scaled down in principle for much shorter one-shot library instruction sessions or individual course units.

Unfortunately, every time I’ve tried to explain what I’ve done with the Framework, the folks to whom I’ve been speaking have had a hard time seeing what I’ve been up to and how my particular approach could be scaled for different instructional applications. This sad state of affairs seems to call for a much better explanation on my part!

So: In the next four posts, I’m going to do the following:

  1. Briefly describe the method I’ve used to understand and apply the guidance contained in the ACRL’s Toolkit for applying the Framework. This will be a sketch of my particular approach to what the Toolkit (drawing on the work of  McTighe & Wiggins) refers to as “backward design”).
  2. Present an example of a whole course designed in this way — my recent PHIL 230 (Studies in Philosophy) model, which I’ve used to teach Information and Computer Ethics, the Philosophy of Music, and Philosophy and Comedy
  3. Present a lesson plan for a one-shot library session or single information literacy unit for an intermediate philosophy class in which students are expected to do research work
  4. Offer an afterword in which I attempt to answer a few questions about how this all works (and sometimes doesn’t), with a hint or two about adapting it to different disciplines or courses and assessing outcomes.

Before I move on to methods and examples, a bit of context:

  • I’ve spent most of my teaching career as a philosopher at a regional private university, serving small classes of undergraduate students in a combined philosophy and religion program. The bulk of the work done by the program was service courses aimed at general education students, even at the upper levels — our 200 and 300-level gen-eds had no prerequisites, although smart advising pretty reliably steered first-year students away from them most of the time. In any given class I taught, there were always more non-majors than majors present.
  • I prefer active learning to pure lecture (although I do lecture when it seems to be helpful to do so). This is reflected in my course designs.
  • In most of my classes I expect students to do a fair amount of writing, but it isn’t always in the shape of the tried-and-true long-form research paper requiring x number of sources (a model I have come to dislike).
  • My approach to whole-class incorporation of the Framework may be a bit more of an adventure than other folks are willing to try; it deliberately hands a certain amount of control over course content to students, which is pretty risky. As one of my Information and Computer Ethics students said in the evaluations for that course, it is really easy to tell who did the reading and who didn’t in this model, and if a critical mass of participants aren’t reading, things have the potential to get a bit dodgy in ways that put a lot of extra labor on the instructor’s plate to remedy the investment shortfall on the part of the students. It also has the effect of shrinking or narrowing the scope of content in ways that are not always predictable, which may make it less than ideal for a course in which quite a lot of specific material must be covered.


Next week: Designing backward, in heels


Photo of a frighteningly brave attempt to get a good shot of the Grand Canyon (c. 1908) courtesy of the Library of Congress Flickr Stream.

Posted in Adventures in Teaching with the ACRL Information Literacy Framework, Library Business, Philosophy, serial, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Link Roulette!

As I pursued one of my favorite little hobbies this week — rooting about in the Library of Congress Flickr stream and looking for interesting oddities — I accidentally acquired a book recommendation.

It all started with this really nifty photo:

Ash (LOC)

The fellow on the right is apparently the actor Sam Ash (1884-1951)*, popular vaudevillian and movie actor. I have no idea (yet) who the woman in the photo is (there’s no caption or note on the image), but I am now Team Her, based on the look on her face right here. The photo is a part of what was obviously a fun promotional photo shoot with Ash — they are photographed taking pictures themselves on a little jaunt in the woods, and there’s a staged “cute” shot of him carving some more initials into that poor, carved-up tree as she watches from her perch on the fence. It’s the look on her face, though, that really makes the image work. There’s a terrifically funny story in it, somewhere.

That’s not, however, the story I discovered as I rooted around looking for more information. I thought that perhaps she would be a well-known associate of Sam’s, so I decided to start looking at various biographies online to see if I could catch a hint. I didn’t get very far, though — I got distracted by a throwaway bit in his Wikipedia entry.**

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 10.05.51 AM

Perhaps your eye landed on the same thing mine did. Perhaps not. Just the same, I was irrationally pleased to see that there was actually a musical called Houseboat on the Styx, in which Ash played Ponce de Leon. (Huh?) It immediately became necessary for me to find this show!

I did not find the show.

I did, however, find its source material: the classic John Hendrick Bangs novel of (roughly) the same name from 1895, in which the ferryman of Hades, Charon, finds himself re-assigned the job of Janitor on a fancy houseboat full of the notable deceased.***  The hard-core Riverworld fans of my acquaintance already know that this was one of Farmer’s inspirations for his own sci-fi fun with waterways and famous dead people. It’s a charming collection of absurd little vignettes, connected to each other only by their setting on the boat. It generated a sequel, The Pursuit of the House-boat, a few years later, in which the eponymous boat is stolen and the shades of the dead hire Sherlock Holmes to find it.

At this point, I should simply end by saying that I have just been sidetracked again by digging through musical scores and the other works of John Hendrick Bangs while listening to the band Styx, and will someday surface to discover that someone with better focus and self-discipline has discovered the identity of the woman in the photo.

I will count this a small victory for distraction.


* No, not that Sam Ash. Totally different guy.

**Actually, I got caught by two things, but this post is only about one of them. The second thing that distracted me from my search for the woman whose fandom I now claim as my own is the fact that Mr. Ash had apparently acted in the 1944 Captain America serial as the uncredited but unforgettable “Florist #2” in the first episode. Captain America is much on my mind of late, what with — ehem — recent developments.

*** If you prefer listening to reading, LibriVox has a free audiobook version. I think the reader for this one does a very good job; the recording for the sequel, however, isn’t quite as good.

Posted in Library of Congress Flickr Stream MAGIC, photography, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , ,

Memory Time


Still ticking

When I was a small child, I used to be utterly enchanted by my great-grandfather’s pocket watch.

At least, I think I was.

That is, I feel as if I was.

My memory (hazily connecting me to a past that is further away from awareness in every moment) suggests that my grandparents kept it hanging under a small glass dome, just hanging there, ticking reliably away. I seem to remember loving it, fascinated by the nearly magical intricacy of the thing, just as I remain fascinated by clockworks of all sorts as an adult. I remember it ticking, swaying a little on the hook that suspended it inside of that small dome, bright and loud and perfect.

Was it this watch, though, that always caught my attention, or was it another clock my grandparents kept in their house? I’m so far from the experience now that I can’t quite tell if I’m remembering the watch or something else, even though looking at it now feels so perfectly familiar and true and real. It’s as if some nagging voice keeps trying to get me to look behind a curtain that doesn’t exist to see a wizard who never was.

I might not have remembered it at all, except that the watch now sits before me again. It arrived in the mail today, carefully packed and marked with a post-it note indicating that it was to be given to me.

It is here now because my grandmother has died, joining my grandfather at last. Their ashes have been spread in the garden of the church they loved and served.

It is here now, perhaps, because my grandmother remembered that I loved it as a child, and arranged for me to have it  — or because she thought, without recalling exactly why, that I might like it. Maybe she had some other reason entirely for thinking I might like it. Maybe someone else suggested it.


Is this the way it was?

The dome it hangs under now is plastic, not glass — was it ever glass, or was it always plastic? Was the base always plastic, too, or was it wood, once upon a time? I can’t tell, and the more I look at it, the harder it becomes to sort out memory from wish.

The more I look at the watch, the less I want to try to sort it all out.

It is beautiful, and I just want to stare at it the way I did (did I?) as a child. I want to stare at it and remember how my grandparents’ house(s) sounded and looked and smelled, and how they spoke when they talked to me. I want to stare at it and remember the crossword puzzles and pipe tobacco and books and games and stories and jokes and dogs that make up so much of what I remember of my grandparents.

I want to look at the pictures I have of them together and listen to the watch, still ticking, and tell myself all of my memories as stories of them, now suspended under glass and preserved and still ticking, even now.

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First Chair, Last Chair, Any Chair, No Chair

Experience suggests that conventionally trained symphony orchestra and symphonic band musicians (especially we non-pros) probably don’t think all that much about the physical arrangement of their performance spaces, once certain fundamentals are settled to their satisfaction: section leadership and playing room. The former speaks both to skill ranking, certain norms about sound production, and ease of play (in some large string sections, anyway), while the latter is just good sense (no one wants to jab their stand partner in the head with a bow or accidentally vent a spit valve on a friend).

The current “traditional” arrangement for symphony orchestras in the US (for much of which we can thank Leopold Stokowski) — strings front, winds back, fiddles stage right, lower-voiced strings stage left, oboe middling, etc. — isn’t actually that old, and is supposed to accomplish quite specific things relative to sound projection and blend. It is also a practical business for very large ensembles (the kind that require a conductor); once you’ve got more than 50 noisemakers on stage, the physics of sound (never mind the social mechanics of wrangling that many players) practically demand a conductor to herd the musical cats and use visual cues to keep the people in the wilderness at the back in the same time as the folks closer to front and center. It’s nearly impossible to accomplish good playing purely by listening and counting in a group that large (some concert hall acoustics make it fully, actually, entirely impossible). While one may joke about conductors,* they serve an absolutely necessary function for the increasingly hefty symphonic ensembles that started to become the norm in the 19th C. There’s a grand effect to it all when a really big symphony orchestra plays, a wall of well-mixed sound, and that only happens when someone’s there to guide the players well.

One of the charms of listening to a smaller ensemble, however — a group of no more than 15 or 20 — is that it becomes possible to move players and parts around in ways that reveal something more of what a composer might be after, leaving parts more nakedly present for the kinds of antiphonal play common to composers who built their music back when smaller, differently arranged ensembles were the norm. Hearing Mozart played by a massive group is quite different from hearing it played on a smaller scale, for example; everything nifty about it is there, laid out plainly in parts traded among players and sections, dancing across the ensemble in the form of a giddy musical conversation. It’s stereo before stereo, the kind of delicacy of effect that recording and mixing engineers have to work very hard to create in their preferred venue.

This weekend, I had the chance to be reminded of all of this when I attended a really lovely performance by the Shattered Glass Ensemble, a conductorless group that actively de-centralizes musical authority and order in its play, its stage layout, and its programming.

I will admit to not being entirely sure I would enjoy the music, although I knew I would be impressed by the players — I have a fussy little old lady’s taste in orchestral music (leaning pretty firmly toward the more melodic bits of the repertoire), and there was a fair bit of Shostakovich on their Psycho program (both his Two Pieces for String Octet and the ensemble’s own, expanded arrangement of String Quartet No. 3). I am not a huge Shostakovich fan, having both listened to his stuff and played it in a larger orchestral setting; I expected to like the selections from Philip Glass (from his Company score) on the program better.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, especially in the ensemble’s arrangement of the Shostakovich string quartet for a slightly bigger group, the de-centered assembly revealed things about that piece that I hadn’t quite understood before. Sitting in the dark, I found myself scribbling the following on my program: “Who knew Shostakovich was so goddamn clever?”** I cannot understate how much the choices made with regard to who-plays-what and who-stands-where in the ensemble’s performance of their arrangement changed my perception of the piece. It’s the sort of thing that gives the lie to any lazy claim that the piece is identical to the score, revealing a complicated relationship among composers, players, and the spaces and numbers in which they do their work.

If you get the chance to hear Shattered Glass play sometime, you should definitely go!



*There are many conductor jokes. One of the more popular examples:

Q: What’s the difference between a bull and a symphony orchestra?

A: The bull has horns in front and an asshole in the back.


**Yes, yes, I know. The rest of you who’ve moved on to the 20th C. and beyond and who like the old boy’s stuff knew this already. Don’t be smug. Technically, I knew it already. This time, though, I really appreciated it for a change, which I think speaks very highly of the players and their arrangement.


Posted in aesthetics, live music, music, Philosophical Mess-making, review, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , ,

A Little Southern Harmony

In a previous post, I spent a little time looking at shape note music and sacred harp singing, mostly in the context of considering the authenticity — whatever one takes that to mean — of various settings of “What Wondrous Love is This”. Because I am such a dreadful magpie about this sort of thing, I have found myself distracted from thinking about authenticity and the aesthetics of vernacular music by the curious, interesting properties of the written texts used to share, preserve, and perpetuate vernacular musical practice (hymnody in particular). They encode tunes, teach style and musical theory, outline the performance practice of singing, provide a handy guide to the structure of communal worship, and embody a variety of theological norms (sometimes didactically, in their text, and sometimes structurally or symbolically, by virtue of their editorial choices).* They also, perhaps accidentally, hint at the broader politics of religious life and music’s role in that life, and at internal disputes among composers, hymn writers, and others invested in the practice of music for congregational worship.

Consider, for example, a comparison of The Methodist Hymnal (1905) to the 1911 and 1991 editions of B. F. White’s The Sacred Harp.** All of these collections include a popular and very widely-published tune called “Boylston”, which was supposed to have been composed in 1832 by Lowell Mason (1792-1872; AKA “the father of American church music”). Mason was both a prolific composer of hymns and a prominent popularizer of European formal music; he is also, as it happens, credited with a substantial contribution to the slow demise of the older shape note/sacred harp tradition, which he actively campaigned to replace with formal musical education, performance, and composition for congregants and church musicians alike.

“Boylston” appears twice in The Methodist Hymnal of 1905, both times (naturally) accompanying text written by Charles Wesley.

Methodist Hymnal (1905), Detail

Note the “title” here, which speaks to the purpose of the text sung. Some hymnals use the first line of text to name the hymn, while tune books may alternate between using the first line of the text or some other text-derived name and the title of the tune itself. The other use of “Boylston” in The Methodist Hymnal (388) is titled “The Christian Life.” The abbreviation “S.M.” after the tune name refers to the meter of the hymn (short meter, iambic; metrical designations are used in hymnals and tune books to associate text with tune.

While Dr. Mason himself may not have been a friend to the shape note tradition, his music still appears in The Sacred Harp from at least the early 20th C. forward. Here’s its entry in the 1911 edition, accompanying text from 1707 by the great English hymn writer Isaac Watts (1674-1748), AKA “the Godfather of English Hymnody”:

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 2.08.53 PM.png

Text at the bottom reads: ‘Original title to this hymn was “God All in All,” in hymns of “Spiritual Songs,” book two, published 1707, by Dr. Watts. it is based on Psalm 73, 25. It is claimed by some that this tune was not originally composed by Lowell Mason; that it was taken from Pilsbury. It is conceded, however, by most writers, that at least the tune in its present shape was either composed or rearranged by Dr. Mason among the large number of others he composed in 1832.’


One can imagine an editorial committee in 1911 reluctantly adding that very civil explanatory note about the tune’s composition, probably in response to ongoing disagreement in their own musical and religious community about it. The caption, interestingly, is omitted in the 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp, in which “Boylston” also appears earlier in the collection; it seems that the old dispute about authorship (and perhaps also the competition between Mason’s approach to church music and the shape note tradition) is no longer something of current interest to the editors and users of the book. By 1991, Mason had already won.


One wonders what Mason himself would make of the use of his composition in a shape note collection, given his own interest in superseding that particular tradition and moving folks on to proper formal notation. As the ongoing use of The Sacred Harp attests, the tradition hasn’t yet died out in spite of Mason’s best efforts, although it has long since ceased to be the dominant form of musical worship practice in Protestant Christian congregations the United States. The popularity of shape note practice in some parts of the South seems to have hit a high point just before WWII, long after Lowell Mason’s death, and many of the very oldest original texts for the practice still remain in use, although some of this may be attributed to active efforts to preserve the material for historical purposes.

Here, for example, is the cover of a 1939 reprint of William Walker’s foundational collection, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (typically referred to as Southern Harmony), much of the content of which was eventually absorbed by The Sacred Harp (B. F. White, as it turns out, was Walker’s brother-in-law):


This edition of the text is interesting for two reasons. The first is because it provides a then-contemporary snapshot of one of the longest continuously running singing meetings still using the original Southern Harmony in the 20th and 21st centuries, the annual Big Singing in Benton, KY (which will meet once again at the Marshall County Courthouse on May 26-27 2018). The 1939 edition was reprinted by the WPA through the Federal Writers’ Project of Kentucky, sponsored (and copyrighted) by the Young Men’s Progress Club of Benton. In addition to reprinting Walker’s material as it appeared as of 1847, the 1939 reprint tells the story of Benton’s Big Singing, founded by  James R. Lemon, his brother George, “and a few others” in 1884. Lemon was deeply attached to Southern Harmony, and the Benton Big Singing meeting clung to it even after the collection went out of print in 1854. Among the photos included in the prefatory matter created by the reprint’s editors, there’s a lovely crowd shot of the courthouse lawn, from a time in the 1920s and 30s when as many as 10,000 people might descend on tiny Benton to sing (which tells you how important this practice was in its community). The Federal Writers’ Project came across the Big Singing and its problem — a badly aged, out-of-print text available in dwindling numbers — and joined in the efforts of the Young Men’s Progress Club of Benton to reproduce the collection and tell the story of the Singing as a part of an effort to document the unique customs of Kentucky.

The second interesting thing about this piece of Southern Harmony — more specifically, about its continued use — is that it strikes a blow for the four-shape side of the dispute between four-shape and seven-shape systems (which folks who listen to musicals a lot would recognize) of musical representation, even after Walker himself switched to his own seven-shape system.***  Preserving the four-shape system, in fact, probably played some part in the FWP’s assessment of the value of reprinting the text in 1939. Even now in Benton, four shapes still rule the day — singers there still use Southern Harmony, now supplemented with The Sacred Harp (which is in current use in several different communities in the tradition) and other texts of the kind. Numbers have dwindled (200 or so instead of thousands), and the participants tend to be older now, but they still sing.

Oh, and “Boylston” is not in it, although three other Mason arrangements — “Rockingham,” “Ripley,” and “Eltham” — are. Make of that what you will.




*A little technical aside: hymnals and tune books (particularly in the shape note/sacred harp tradition) are not identical things. They may be distinguished from each other by size or shape, but one of the most significant differences is in terms of the content that relates to their purpose. Hymnals in the US (especially in the period from the 19th C. onward) often serve as guides to the order of worship services, and may include ritual descriptions, a psalter representing responsive readings as ordered according to the liturgical calendar, and other material relevant to the norms of worship practice of some given community or denomination. Their musical contents are often indexed by liturgical purpose or use, by composer/author, by meter, and by a title sometimes drawn from the first line of the hymn’s text. Tune books, on the other hand, were originally written for use in “singing schools” and in all-day singings rather than regular church services, and usually include introductory matter on music (teaching basic music theory, introducing the shape-note notation, tips for good singing technique, etc.). The word “hymn” technically refers to the poetic text, not necessarily to the tune.

**It may seem a bit anachronistic to compare a 1905 hymnal to a more contemporary edition of a sacred harp collection, but it’s not too poor a comparison. The Sacred Harp (originally published in 1844) has only been subject to four substantial revisions (1869, 1911, 1936, and 1991), with an appendix added in 1850, 1859, 1960, 1967, and 1961. Each of those revisions and appendix expansions involved adding new material and clarifying or rearranging the order of present material in order to keep the book in current use (or so the Music Committee’s preface to the 1991 edition assures the reader).

***Walker’s defection from four-shape notation took the form of a new collection entirely, The Christian Harmony (1867), in which he retained and re-harmonized the bulk of the material he had first assembled in Southern Harmony.


Posted in aesthetics, music, traditional music, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The Rabbit’s Revenge

My very few regular readers are thoroughly familiar with one of this blog’s sacred annual traditions: The Bunny Story, meant to be received in the spirit of a little light pre-Festivus Airing of Grievances. Those new to the tale should click the link in the previous sentence in order to enjoy a prior instance of comedy gold and incidental vocabulary improvement. The short version, for those who don’t feel like following links: When I was a very small child, my parents hid a GIANT inflatable Easter Bunny in a coat closet. When I unexpectedly opened that closet in search of hidden Easter eggs, the horrid thing jumped out and tackled me (it had been wedged in tightly against the coats — Dad was in a hurry). While my parents — who are lovely people, please don’t get me wrong — were naturally sympathetic to my horror and distress at being bum-rushed by a blow-up bunny, it was also undeniably the funniest thing they had seen all year. They reacted accordingly.

I’ve found that some readers don’t quite get that I’m not telling and re-telling this story because I’m upset or unhappy — apparently, my delivery has been straight enough that they don’t see that I also find the whole thing hilarious. This leads them to believe a) that I am angry at my parents, who apparently scarred me for life, and b) that my parents are the sort of horrible, horrible people who play mean practical jokes on their offspring. Nothing could be further from the truth!

That said, they aren’t above the occasional payback dig, especially after they’ve had to read both my increasingly silly retellings of the story and other people’s occasionally over-serious interpretations of same.

For example: My mother, the very Essence of Kindness, the Soul of Generosity, a Veritable Beacon of Graciousness and Good Manners, sent me the following in 2016, after two years of having to deal with the fallout from my bit of bloggy foolishness:


Everyone’s a comedian.

Yes, dear readers. She sent me a VERY LARGE BUNNY CARD. Ha, ha. Ha.

In recent years, my mother has developed and refined a sophisticated greeting card-based form of meta-comedy.* This year, in an ominous gesture that foreshadows future packages that I should probably fear to open, she sent me this:


Actual terrier included for scale.

Yup. Take a long, hard look at that image. Study it. Think about what those words really mean on that EVEN BIGGER card. Savor it. Enjoy the puppy juxtaposition. Then realize that this isn’t really the main gag. It is not the best part.

No, this right here, this bit from inside the card, is the best part:


Well played, Mother. Well played indeed.


* Mom sends musical cards with loud, inescapably cheery songs to my brother (long story) at certain times of the year, so the bunny thing is actually pretty darn subtle, all other things being equal.

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What Wondrous Tune Is This?

I am not really the sort of person who would normally have a favorite hymn (although I have worked as a church musician). Weirdly, I happen to have two: “Be Thou My Vision” and “What Wondrous Love Is This” (sometimes just titled “Wondrous Love”). It may be more accurate to say that I have two favorite hymn tunes:

  1.  “Slane” (to which Be Thou My Vision is usually sung), and
  2. The unnamed, anonymously composed modal popular tune from the late 1600s or so (usually Dorian, sometimes written in a sort of modified Aeolian) associated with the words to “What Wondrous Love Is This,” (see also) first collected and printed with the hymn’s lyrics in the 2nd edition of Walker’s The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1840).*

I’m especially attached to a particular performance of “What Wondrous Love is This” by a bluegrass band called Blue Highway:

It’s a simple arrangement for voices (with a wee bit of a mandolin intro for flavor), and it’s terrifically effective, harkening back to the origins of this kind of hymn performance in a capella  shape-note or “sacred harp” singing. It should come as no surprise that this particular pairing of hymn text and tune was popularized (after its initial publication by Walker) in B.F. White’s classic shape-note singing collection, The Sacred Harp (1844).  This is not composed music, in the most formal sense. It originally lives in a world in which hymnody adopted “popular” tunes that congregants were likely to know and deployed them for the purpose of worship. When sung in the sacred harp/shape note style, the congregational engagement in the song typically begins with a solfeggio exercise of a sort (fa sol la mi) to get the tune, after which the group sings the actual hymn.

This is music for worship, not music for performance, a distinction my singers used to draw often and emphatically back when I (briefly) conducted a Presbyterian church choir — they strenuously objected to applause after they sang the anthem precisely because the music offered at that point in the service was meant to be an act of congregational worship, not entertainment. Shape-note singing is a practical method for this kind of worship as well as for singing-as-community-reinforcement, which also happens in non-religious contexts; fans of the Durkheimian concept of collective effervescence may feel free to put their oar in here.

Interestingly, this particular hymn has a substantial popular presence outside of the Sacred Harp tradition, and takes on a number of different forms, including pop/country/folk versions aimed at various Christian genre markets (see here and here, for example), pop or folk instrumentals (like this), and formal art-music choral and instrumental adaptations (most famously Samuel Barber’s piece for organ). It occupies an especially well-loved place in the choral repertoire:

How would a serious conversation about aesthetic value and authenticity relative to this hymn begin? Which of these many performances is an “authentic” one? While it’s tempting to rely on history as the touchstone for making that sort of determination, I’m not sure I want to. This particular tune usage nicely illustrates how porous the divide between folk, popular, and art styles can be, historically and practically speaking, and I don’t think it necessarily makes sense to think of one approach to the song or another as a cover or adaptation or evolution of the song while positioning another (say, the shape-note version) as the only authentic original.**

My Presbyterian choir members might have suggested that the purpose or function of the song — worship — is the thing that unites all authentic versions of the tune, and that the discussion about authenticity could begin with the function or purpose of singing of it. The Blue Highway version (and perhaps the other pop-Christian versions) might then be understood as the less-authentic or inauthentic instances of the song due to their commercial, non-worship purposes, but even that isn’t a simple line to draw — whatever their commercial aims, these sorts of performances and recordings are often explicitly positioned as music for worship and community use, and their marketing aims for it.***  The case for these genre forms as worship is perhaps easier to make for Blue Highway’s performance (done in a context in which the music is specifically known by its audience to be practically and historically rooted in hymnody and worship practice) than for some of the other C-pop examples, but it’s not impossible in any case.

My own leaning toward technique or style as a point of differentiation provides no tidy lines or answers here. I want to tease the commodification stuff out from the worship and community stuff — I think that’s what really has to be done in order to come up with a robust and actually useful account of aesthetic authenticity for music — but I have to confess that examples like this do confuse things rather a lot.

Meanwhile, it’s Good Friday and I have the weekend off, which seems to me like a fine time for singing!



*If you’re curious about Walker’s Southern Harmony, which is an important resource for the history of hymnody in the United States, check out the full text of the revised 1847 edition at the Internet Archive.

**The exception, perhaps, is the Barber piece, which deliberately deploys the old tune in the context of a sort of compositional exercise in developing variations. For Barber’s piece, the question of authenticity might not even come up — it’s such a different sort of thing from the others that it occupies another aesthetic space entirely.

***The commodification of worship and religious identity is its own fascinating set of puzzles. Anyone who wants to play with examples beyond the marketing of Christian identity in music and film in the US ought to try to draw an instructive distinction between, say, Ken Hamm’s ridiculous Ark museum (to which I will not link) and the roadside attraction/vernacular art classic/genuine shrine that is the Grotto of the Redemption. Then visit the Grotto’s gift shop, and think some more.

Posted in aesthetics, music, Philosophical Mess-making, Philosophy, traditional music, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment