“Contemporary is temporary.”
I heard this statement exclaimed over a microphone before hundreds of people recently. The speaker was soliciting an organist to come play for him as he sang. As a couple of younger guys started toward the instruments, he further clarified, “…an organist who knows old songs.” The musicians reversed their direction immediately. He then made the exclamation that contemporary music, at least as it relates to gospel music, in his eyes, is temporary. As much as I want to debunk this statement and declare that the speaker was incorrect in his assessment, the more I think about it, he was correct. Hear me out…
In 1937 when “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was recorded, Mr. Thomas Dorsey was chided for it being too contemporary, or being viewed as sounding like “the blues”. Thirty years later when “Oh Happy Day” was recorded, the Hawkins family was actually ridiculed by their own church in some cases because their music was being played in clubs. Interestingly, if you named either of these selections today, neither would be considered “contemporary” nor “controversial” by today’s standards.
Just like fashion, jargon, and hairstyles change, music also evolves over the years. I want us (and by us, I mean those in gospel music and the church) to be careful in our synopsis of what is and what is not acceptable, impactful, or longlasting as it relates to music and music ministry. We are often guilty of trying to “spiritualize” our own musical taste. Let me give you another example.
“You need to know the hymns of the church!”
I’ve heard this exclaimed so many times at musicals when someone, usually older (in age or musical style) decided to sing an impromptu version of their favorite hymn that they felt fit into this moment of the church service. While I agree that hymns as we know them play an important part in the history of the church (I consider myself to be a pretty good connoisseur of hymns), I’m not so sure that we should make this statement emphatically as if hymns date back to the Bible days. Newsflash: Most hymns we sing today (and reference in statements like the one above) were written between the 18th and 20th centuries. So Jesus never actually heard “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross” in person. This alone proves that the mandate to know hymns is personal preference. The idea is not spiritual, nor is it a defining line of musical aptitude. It’s just a preference.
Think about it. People in their 50s and 60s grew up when James Cleveland and Thomas Dorsey were still living. By the time I was born, Reverend Cleveland only lived about 8 more years, and Mr. Dorsey was already deceased. I grew up on music from Hezekiah Walker, O’landa Draper, Darryl Coley, Commissioned, The Winans, Kirk Franklin and others from this era. I was only about 9 when I first heard my absolute favorite choir, Ricky Dillard and New G singing “More Abundantly” on the radio. My grandmother thought this era of music was ridiculous, and my parents only tolerated it because I liked it.
I’m just beginning to also think about the fact that young people born in the 90s and early 2000s wouldn’t even have those same references. To my niece and nephews “Every Praise” would probably be the equivalent of a hymn, or maybe “The Anthem”, or maybe even “Shackles” by Mary Mary. Now, why would I demonize the style in which they sing about Jesus, just because it’s not the style my predecessors preferred?
My point? Let’s be careful how we express our disdain for what we don’t understand or enjoy. The speaker in the opening line of this blog must have forgotten that the style of music he considers traditional and enjoys was once new, albeit that was possibly 50 years ago. He was right. Contemporary is temporary because gospel music is ever evolving. What’s new today will be old tomorrow. But we must never forget that what we revere as a standard today was probably once the “temporary contemporary” that our predecessors didn’t approve. Hymns lasted. “Precious Lord” and “Oh Happy Day” have lasted. “Every Praise” and “You Deserve It” are currently being sang in every church everywhere. And whatever else God inspires musically in the earth will last as well. Here’s the thing: there’s room for it all.