Monday, March 12, 2007

Signposts Along the Road

(With thanks to All Music Guide’s Thom Jurek, who knows a good prayer when he hears one. He’s heard two in the past couple months.)

Here is a not-so-secret secret. I am a Christian, and I despise Contemporary Christian Music. Riddled with cliches, prone to drab loss/cross and grace/face rhymes, and safe as milk, these slick, soulless Infomercials for Christ are usually the last place I look for spiritual value.

But I do look. And I do listen. And sometimes I find the ineffable and the transcendent in the strangest places: Van Morrison breaking free of language altogether and soaring off into one of his otherworldly scats, Miles Davis playing a muted trumpet, Bob Dylan (yes, Bob Dylan) singing any of the raw, open wounds disguised as songs on Blood on the Tracks, summoning up new vistas of loss and regret and longing, Sufjan Stevens quietly mourning the death of a friend to bone cancer. These are all spiritual signposts for me. They crack my heart open, and they point the way home.

The Christ Tree by The Trees Community is one of those signposts, but for more than thirty years it’s been a signpost that’s been buried and forgotten. The album, originally released in 1975, reportedly sold fewer than 500 copies on its original release, and quickly went out of print. Now resurrected and reissued as part of a 4-CD box set, and the recipient of universally glowing reviews, the album may finally win the surviving members of the community the respect and acclaim they so richly deserve.

The story of The Trees Community is part and parcel of the Woodstock era, even if the music is not. It goes like this: a bunch of hippie Christians get kicked out of their Manhattan apartment building/commune, buy a bus, and set off in 1971 to tour the country, explore different modes of Christian spirituality, and make music together. It ends up as a seven-year road trip, with stops along the way at Trappist, Benedictine, Franciscan and Paulist monastic communities, evangelical and social outreach groups of every denomination, and a Hutterite farming collective. An extended stay at Thomas Merton’s Gethsemane monastery results in the two live concerts released as part of the box set. An abortive, early studio album called A Portrait of Christ in Music is never released at all (but is included in the box set). And, finally, in 1975, The Christ Tree arrives as the community’s first and last official album.

Altogether it’s a miraculous thing, as unearthly as any music ever recorded, and as eerily lovely as the post-modern classical music of Henryk Gorecki or Arvo Part; four hours of utterly uncategorizable transcendent beauty. The short summary is that fourteen people play more than eighty instruments and sing. The even shorter summary is that you’ve never heard anything like this in your life.

The 12-minute “Psalm 42,” which opens this collection, sets the tone. It incorporates elements of Balinese chant, American folk song, Indian raga, African polyrhythms, Scottish bagpipes, Tibetan gongs, and something called Mexican bell wheel Sanctus. The voices weave in and out in contrapuntal harmonies, rise to glorious crescendos, recede to whispered pleas, as the words of the ancient psalm reverberate through the recording studio, bounce off the walls, and ascend to heaven. This isn’t world music; it’s universal music: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.”

And it’s utterly outside of time. Everything about this music ought to be trippy and dated. It is not. Cut off from commercial trends, wandering the country without access to a radio, totally bereft of a cultural (or countercultural) context in which to place themselves, The Trees Community simply created music without precedent. Nobody told the nomadic hippies that they couldn’t mix contrapuntal vocal techniques with eastern instrumentation, so they did. And the end result is something brave and lovely and utterly strange: worship music that sounds like it comes from anywhere but planet Earth.

That’s not to say that listeners won’t find plenty to latch on to in the earthly realm. “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,” Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel of John. In the impossibly moving “How Long is a Little While?” The Trees Community gives voice to the cry of countless grieving sufferers throughout the world. How long? How much can we bear? This is a spiritual blues that bears, yes, some connection to Mississippi Delta blues. And Tibet.

Like I said, there’s nothing like it in recorded music. Do yourself a great favor and pick up a copy.

Rickie Lee Jones’ new album Sermon on Exposition Boulevard is another of those signposts. Jones has had a long and illustrious career as an unregenerated boho, the female yin to Tom Waits’ Hollywood gutter poet yang. Here she offers a mostly extemporaneous take on the Gospels, inspired by spiritual philosopher Lee Cantelon and his book The Words, a latter-day spin on Jesus’ teachings presented in the language of the hipsters and the down-and-out.

Backed by junkyard percussion, plucked ouds, and distorted electric guitars, Rickie Lee encounters the Jesus of the gospels, stripped of 2,000 years of musty tradition and ceremony, and improvises on a lyric that is the antithesis of all that is safe and antiseptic. Scatting and soaring like Van, repeating her lyrics like rosary beads, she moves into dangerous territory indeed:

I wanted to pray
I wanted to let you go on your way
I wanted to know why they laid there
Dying in the streets next to the restaurant
Where people were eating and yes
I wanted to pray

How do you pray in a world like this
You know, I see the people on TV
And they close their eyes
and they bow their heads
And they say "Let us pray"
And it feels so cold and meaningless
And I wanted to pray
And I said
Tell me father
Tell me mother
Heavenly mother
And they said

When you pray
Pray alone by yourself
In the secret room of your heart
Don't go out into the church filled with people and pray
God hears every secret that you say
See all those people praying on TV and the churches
They like to make a big parade out of what they're doing
They think God hears them louder if they say it
Over and over and over and over and over again

But I say, God, but I say this
You are the prayer
Your eyes are the prayer
Your hand on your cheek
You are the prayer
Those words you want to speak
They are the prayer
That dance you make
When you're by yourself
Just before your mother calls you on the phone
You are the prayer
I tell you what
You gotta take it back from them
Because the prayers belong to you
All you gotta do is say hey hey
I'm down here too, I'm down here too
I'm down here too
And I hear you in the trees
And I hear you
And I'm near you
I wonder why there's so much suffering

I want to say thank you, thank you
Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you
I wanted to say thank you, thank you
I wanted to say
I wanted to say
You are where I like it best
You are where I like it best
You are where I like it best

That's the Lords' prayer
"You are where I want to be"
So, amen, just amen
Amen, all by myself, amen, amen
I'm so lonely, just amen
And I'm rising, rising, just amen
You can look through my eyes
Hear through my ears
Look through my eyes

It is, as Madonna says, like a prayer. It’s unorthodox, in both the musical and theological senses, and I wouldn’t advise using it to construct any creedal statements. What it is is a cry from the heart, and it will crack yours wide open if you let it. It’s raw and unfiltered. It’s disturbing. It’s beautiful. And it will let you hear an old, familiar story in a new way.

They are two remarkable albums, two new signposts for me. The reason I listen to music is to encounter moments like these. I’m thankful to still find markers along the roadside.


Zena and Joshua said...

oh, i don't know, andy. i found "trees community" utterly unlistenable. its ambitious, but i grew up in the aftermath of the jesus movement, and TC is reminiscent of a lot of the worst of that time and those impulses, for me.

this is another one of those "your subjective opinion is worse than my sublime subjective opinion" moments. i'm really glad you find transcendence in those songs.

and i know you generally make good recommendations, and i've had the new ricki lee jones album on my radar. i'll have to check it out.

Andy Whitman said...

It's certainly ambitious (a trait I wouldn't normally associate with music that came out of the Jesus movement). I do find it beautiful, albeit a bit challenging. And, because the lyrics are mostly derived directly from Scripture, I find it far more aesthetically pleasing than the didactic sermons that characterized much of the early Jesus music and the "Is it Jesus or your girlfriend?" coyness that characterizes a lot of the fuzzy sentiments I hear in current Christian music.

But, different strokes ... and jots, and tittles. My history is wrapped up in the Jesus movement, but I really don't miss those days. For me, one of the things I appreciate about The Trees Community is that, in spite of their cringe-worthy name, they made music that transcended their trippy era. Maybe how we hear this music depends on the individual histories we bring to it. You said you "grew up in the aftermath of the Jesus movement." That's a phrase I usually associate with natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. It wasn't a natural (or supernatural) disaster for me, so I may be more positively disposed to the sentiments than you.


Anonymous said...


Can we put a definition on contemporary christian music? Just wondered if you thought that this covered bands with all "christian" members singer predominately "christian" lyrics...or does this also extend to bands with all members being christians or some who do not sing what are definitively christian lyrics?

St. Izzy said...

1) It's going to be difficult to rush out and get a copy of the box set. It's all gone. No more.

I listened to some clips and wanted to hear more (they reminded me in a way of the most musical of the All Saved Freak Band's albums, For Christians, Elves, and Lovers), but the Trees Community, the distributor, everyone is out of stock, and they say the boxed set won't be reprinted. The one album is set for re-release, but that's it.

2) As a one useful determiner for CCM, I look at label. CCM is usually put out by labels that identify themselves as "Christian" and that will put out nothing that is not explicitly Xn.

What I have more trouble with is the line between Jesus Music and CCM.

Andy Whitman said...

Scott, as St. Izzy said, there are record labels out there that cater exclusively to a Christian audience. This is music written by Christians for Christians, and its scope is usually fairly narrowly defined as having explicit Christian content, Scriptural references, "wholesome" messages, etc. Word and Myrrh are two of the largest CCM labels. There are dozens of others, usually catering to niche markets within the larger Christian music world (Christian punk, Christian rap, etc.).

As is I'm sure quite obvious, I am not a fan of this music, although I am a fan of quite a few Christians who make music. It's a big ol' complex world out there, and I appreciate musicians who bring their Christian worldview to bear on all kinds of topics and issues.

St. Izzy is right that there is a blurred line between CCM and "Jesus music." The original practitioners of this music, which dates from the Jesus movement of the late 1960s, weren't part of any industry research or demographic trends. They were making music because they loved Jesus and wanted to tell the world about him. And no doubt there are people in the CCM industry who are operating from the same perspective. But at some point the Jesus music grew up and became a big business, and became far more conservative in terms of acceptable subject matter and tone.

It's difficult to draw exact lines, but I know what CCM is not. Larry Norman, one of those Jesus Music pioneers, sang in 1972, "You say all men are equal/All men are brothers/Then why are the rich more equal than others?" CCM label heads would go into convulsions if any of their artists delivered that kind of social commentary today. Somehow, somewhere probably in the mid-to-late seventies, the music was transformed from its genuinely radical, countercultural roots into the soundtrack for Red Staters who vote solely on a candidate's stance on abortion and gun control and prayer in school.

I actually kinda miss Jesus music. I don't miss CCM at all. And I love it when Christian musicians do an end run around the whole monolithic structure and just head for the bars and coffee shops, which is where good musicians of all theological and philosophical stripes belong.

Anonymous said...

I am not a big fan of coffeehouses and the general pretense that surrounds them and often the people inside, though...some are okay. I was wondering...since this is something that came up some in my college days, if you had any opinion on Tooth and Nail and labels such as that. Labels...that obviously get a lot bank from Christian tweens, teens and 20 somethings...that also have a fair amount of support from the non-christian community (as long as its not fat mike, lol)...and bands do not have to "christian" or christians to sign. Just wondered what your take on that might be...if you know of them.

Andy Whitman said...

Scott, yes I'm familiar with Tooth and Nail. There are talented people there, just as there are talented people throughout CCM. My only point here is that the Christian worldview encompasses all of life, and not merely the fairly narrow focus of what historically constitutes CCM. If coffee houses aren't your thing, then substitute any venue of your choice that doesn't mean "church."

Anonymous said...


Don't worry, I am generally the first one to sprint from anything that smells like CCM-related material. Just as I have no difficulty substituting venues for church. Okay, as long as its not Bogarts in Cincy, lol.


Anonymous said...

Unregenerated boho is right.

Praying in your closet is a good thing, of course, as is gratitude, and I admire the general drift of Rickie Lee Jones' song. But the fact that she can't write the song without taking cheap-shots at churches and the people in them is a defect. For the record, we're not on parade and we don't think we're better than others; we're there because we know we're not.

And your "years of musty tradition and ceremony" is probably just a rhetorical flourish, but an odd one. The idea that you can recover Christianity by stripping off the tradition is like trying to dig up a tree to find the seed. The seed ain't there - or, rather, the seed is the tree.

Andy Whitman said...

Hi, Craig. It's good to find you here. I remember you from my days, which was a long time ago.

I don't disagree with what you're saying, but I'm also sympathetic to the views that Rickie Lee Jones expresses in that song. The Church is an indispensable part of the Christian life. And it's also part of the problem.

Of course, much of that is because unregenerated bohos like me are in it, and I'm not being ironic. I am part of the problem. But surely you can appreciate what a poor advertisement Christians often are for Christianity. So Rickie Lee sees hypocrisy. Me too. And I sometimes see it in my own life, and I'm not proud of that. But I don't mind her pointing it out, or mind her focusing on Jesus rather than an institution, musty or not. I'm trying to do the same.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your response. You're right that there are two sides to the story. The Church is both ark of salvation and refuge of sinners, and all too often the former is obscured by the latter. But it seems the former is often neglected or denied, maybe especially by unregenerated bohos, which is too bad, since remembering it would be part of the remedy.

I'm flattered and a little surprised to hear that you remember me from r.m.c. so many years ago. I, of course, remember you as well, but that's probably obvious from my being here.