News Column

Covenant Presbyterian bonds over bluegrass

August 15, 2014

By Micaela Hoops, Herald Democrat, Sherman, Texas

Aug. 15--"Blest be the tie that binds," says the 18th century English hymn.

The tie that bound Covenant Presbyterian Church last Sunday evening was burgers, Blue Bell and bluegrass. The congregation migrated into the dining hall to enjoy their burgers and ice cream anticipating the old known and unknown tunes to be played later. On the flier, the church had promoted the event with "grillin' and chillin' ... and listening to music of our very own."

Satisfied with their meal, people drifted into the sanctuary. Footsteps pounded from above as children ran playing in the balcony.

It was Dr. Lisa Thomas who had suggested a bluegrass concert as a church social event. "I already promote a lot of truly American music," said Thomas, who has a doctoral in music from the University of North Texas. "Even though Bluegrass began with what immigrants brought to America it became American because immigrants would write about their everyday life in America."

Thomas, the pianist and organist at the church, opened the performance with the hammered dulcimer "which had the nickname of the lumber jack's piano," she explained.

She played "My Old Kentucky Home," "All the Pretty Horses," and "Scarborough Fair" illustrating that tunes traveled with immigrants in the 1600s becoming well known American music.

Not only did the Irish, Scottish and English settling throughout the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky and the Virginias create their folk music, Thomas said, but also the African slaves who brought the design for the banjo, a quintessential instrument in old country music known as bluegrass.

Don Sharp, performing that evening with the bluegrass group, the Upper Grassmen, said bluegrass came out of mountain music. Bluegrass, as we know it, traveled out of Appalachian culture and became popularized throughout the country by the phonograph.

Before handing the stage over to the other musicians, Dr. Thomas played her last piece, "Blest Be the Tie That Binds." Together, the congregation opened their hymnals and with low voices sang the hymn.

Dr. John Williams, his daughter Emily Williams and their friend Callahan Harrison took the stage to perform a favorite song, "Wagon Wheel." It was originally written by Bob Dylan and completed by Old Crow Medicine Show. In the spirit of true folk music it is well known. Williams, chaplain of Austin College, said, "everybody who comes to Austin College knows this song." The three performers asked the crowd to sing along.

Sharp described bluegrass as "the music of stories. Every bluegrass song that you have, it tells a story." Interim Pastor Denise Odom similarly described hymnal music much which hold some origin in folk music, saying "the stories they tell are really important."

The hymn Thomas played, Blest Be the Tie that binds, was written by John Fawcett, a pastor of the 1700s, who, for financial reasons, had to leave his parish. Borrowing a Scottish tune, Fawcett wrote the words to express his devotion to his congregation, explained Dr. Thomas. "Folk music is all about people," said Thomas.

Odom, who enjoyed the music with her congregation, said that in worship services, "the old songs that everyone knows" are the most moving. "It helps people experience their faith in a way that just words can't do," she said. "Amazing Grace is a great example. People sing that song and experience the grace."

Thomas also mentioned Amazing Grace. She said it was written by a slave trader, and it may have been heard from a slave on a slave ship. Through trouble, the slave managed to share a tune that is now almost universally known. "One of best ways that they are learned by the people is through song. ... It just becomes a part of your everyday life rather than just memorizing the words," Odom said.


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Source: Herald Democrat (Sherman, TX)

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