Digging roots

Culture | This year's "Great High Mountain Tour" is introducing Americans to this country's authentic music

Issue: "Memorial Day 2004," May 29, 2004

IT HAS BEEN A HARD FEW WEEKS FOR AMERICAN culture. As Americans were trying to share the concepts of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law with the Iraqi people, other Americans were subjecting them to the unsavory side of American culture: sexual license, perversion, radical feminism, cruelty as entertainment.

Which is the real American culture? Or, rather, which side of that culture will prevail, not just in Iraq but in the United States? Those worried about the state of American culture will find it healing to take in "The Great High Mountain Tour," crossing the country in May and June.

When the O, Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack opened the ears of millions to authentic American music, many of the performers went on the "Down from the Mountain" tour for a series of stunning concerts. Since then, the same producer, T Bone Burnett, put together the soundtrack for the Civil War epic Cold Mountain, where he goes even further back into the roots of American music. Now, musicians from both movies are performing in the "Great High Mountain Tour."

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The show starts with the Sacred Harp Singers, who take us to the origins of what would become the music of the American people. This began in churches, which sponsored small-group singing circles that taught ordinary, largely uneducated people to sing. They learned the do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti notes, each of which was represented in their songbooks as a different shape. Thus was born the "shaped note" tradition. The most famous songbook was called "The Sacred Harp," a collection of hymns and gospel songs.

The great contribution of the shaped-note musical groups was harmony. Performers did not sing for an audience but stood facing each other in a circle, so that they could listen to each other. The goal was to have their individual voices blend into a wonderful whole that was greater, stronger, and more beautiful than any of them could sing alone. It was E Pluribus Unum in music, and those harmonies can still be heard in popular American music today.

After that primal musical opening, the concert offers a fast-moving series of sets, featuring superstars, legends, and new musicians who are keeping these traditions alive and making from them sounds that are new, while being continuous with the old. The luminous Alison Krauss, with her superb band Union Station, was the star. So was the legendary Ralph Stanley, who not only keened the haunting memento mori "Oh, Death" but "lined out" for the audience the call-and-response to "Amazing Grace" like an old-time rural preacher.

As if these two would not have been enough, the concert includes pleasure after pleasure. What lifted the spirits especially were the new, young performers who were not yet so famous but who are carrying on the traditional music and contemporizing it for a new generation.

Tim Eriksen started as a punk-rocker, but his search for authenticity led him to early American music, and it is his strong, raw voice that defines the sound of Cold Mountain. The Reeltime Travelers have brought back the string band. Ollabelle had its beginnings with sophisticated New York musicians on the East Side who got together to sing gospel music after Sept. 11. Now they do hip versions of blues and country, along with gospel. Then there were the other fine young musicians: Dirk Powell, Jerry Douglas, Riley Baugus.

A favorite had to be the 12-year-old mandolin prodigy Sierra Hull, who performed with her 14-year-old brother Cody. Her goals in life, according to her website, are to join Alison Krauss's band, to record with Rounder Records, to get married and have a good Christian family, to have her own bluegrass and gospel group, and "most of all" to inspire someone and "to always look to God for everything."

The songs were about family, lost-love, hard-times, good-times, loneliness, death. There were at least two splendid songs about birds. At least half of them, though, were about the Savior, redemption, pilgrimage, the Bible, eternal life. There was more explicit mention of Jesus and far more theology than in most contemporary Christian music concerts. And the sacred and the secular fit seamlessly together, the embodiment of a Christian worldview.

Did Christianity influence American culture? Has Christianity shaped the arts? Listen to this music. Christians who wish to make an impact their culture today, and Christians who would like to see how a biblical worldview can comprehend all of life and manifest itself creatively would also do well to listen and learn.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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