Marshall V. King is a freelance writer, specializing in food, community and travel, based in Goshen, Indiana. He attends Assembly Mennonite Church. You can learn more about Marshall at his website, hungrymarshall.com.
1. The Avett Brothers, “Salvation Song”: This band, led by brothers Seth and Scott Avett, plays a lively mix of bluegrass and country that’s dubbed folk rock. If you see them in concert, the energy is more punk than the Grand Ol Opry. “Salvation Song” is milder and easier to follow than some of their songs. The lyrics of this song are simultaneously so direct and yet layered. It’s easy to listen to the song and think of covered wagons and westward exploration or of immigration to a new country that we’re more familiar with in this country. Either way, what’s at its heart is a sense of hope. As Nick Rynerson wrote on the “God and Country Music” blog of Patheos.com, the lyric “We came for salvation/ we came for family/ we came for all that’s good/ that’s how we’ll walk away” shows that the Avett Brothers “get what many in the church do not: love and grace are more powerful than cynicism and selfishness.”
2. Brad Yoder, “Wake the Dragon”: As a journalist (and as a human being), I have the tendency to poke at something that shouldn’t always be poked. Brad Yoder, an excellent Mennonite singer-songwriter, tells of this human impulse so well in this song. “Mama let me wake the dragon,” he sings. It’s a boyish, playful song, but one that reminds us that sometimes when we think we’re just messing around, we may also be playing with fire.
The song is like a mashup of Bruce Cockburn’s “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” and a children’s book. It’s a child asking for permission to wake the dragon and make him dance and sing. “I want to wake the dragon and watch him burn down everything,” Yoder continues.
There are cautions in the song about not making too much noise in the presence of the dragon. It explores the temptation to do that which we know really wouldn’t be wise. And yet we’re tempted by the mystery anyway.
3. Iron and Wine, “Waitin’ for a Superman”: Sam Ervin Beam is a singer-songwriter who, unlike Yoder, doesn’t go by his name. He calls himself “Iron & Wine,” apparently drawn from the name for a dietary supplement he came across.
Beam’s music is subdued, acoustic music that drills into the inner life. In “Waitin’ for a Superman,” he sings about how heavy life is and how much we need the superhero who can lift our burdens. But the song also ends with him saying that the sun is too heavy for Superman. “It’s getting heavy/ Tell everyone who is waiting for Superman they should hold on best they can/ It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift,” he sings.
In these heavy times, in times of turmoil, this song is a beautiful juxtaposition. Though Beam may not, we have faith. We have a belief that there is a Creator God who won’t necessarily rush in to fix things the way Superman would have, but loves us and provides nonetheless. That’s my interpretation, not Beam’s.
4. Josh Ritter, “Southern Pacifica”: I was at a Josh Ritter concert in Chicago. From the first row of the balcony, I was watching him through the screen of my phone. I was posting to social media. And then my phone died. I had to pay attention and something amazing happened.
As Ritter sang, I felt hot tears running down my face. Lacking distraction, the music touched deep emotion.
Ritter’s library is full of amazing music. “Southern Pacifica” is drawn from his childhood experience of seeing graffiti-laden trains pass through Moscow, Idaho. The character in the song tells someone to pass on greetings to Roxy Anne and what you should tell her if you see her. He expresses that longing to reconnect. It’s a song that still stirs something within. Perhaps it’s the closing lines that remind us of how the need to connect sometimes means seeking something that still calls us. “Southern Pacific/ Take me to meet/ Whatever is hunting/ For me.”
5. Carrie Newcomer, “Betty’s Diner”: I’m a food guy and so we need a food song, or at least one set in a diner. Carrie Newcomer is a Hoosier musician who studied at Goshen (Indiana) College and still credits some of her northern Indiana upbringing and time at GC with setting her on a path that seeks peace and justice. Her music draws on the wisdom of people like Parker Palmer.
In “Betty’s Diner,” a song that’s now becoming a musical, a collection of characters come seeking comfort and sustenance. It’s a model of the Christian church as it should be. Sometimes it happens as it should in a church and sometimes it happens in a diner. “Here we are all in one place/ The wants and wounds of the human race/ Despair and hope sit face to face/ When you come in from the cold/ Let her fill your cup with something kind/ Eggs and toast like bread and wine/ She’s heard it all so she don’t mind,” Newcomer sings.
If only the church was always so welcoming.
6. The Chieftains, “The Rebel Jesus”: I didn’t grow up with this Christmas song, but it’s become one of my favorites. It’s a Jackson Browne tune that the Celtic group made their own. Browne’s lyrics don’t hold back in exploring what he believes has been done to Jesus’ message of upheaval.
“They” fill churches with pride and gold, “they” guard with guns. During the Christmas season “they” may give to the poor, but they don’t really let “their” guard down fully to follow the Christ who came as a babe, but delivered an unsettling message of what it means to follow him.
In the last verse, Browne sings that he’s a heathen and pagan who doesn’t mean to offend, but sides with the rebel Jesus. In a season of Advent, even a season in which people seek holiday joy, the song is a stark reminder that amidst the joy, we also have a responsibility as followers of Christ.
7. Cloud Cult, “To the Great Unknown”: This past summer, I lost a job and it took time to gain a new life. After hearing Craig Minowa of the Minnesota/Wisconsin-based band Cloud Cult on the radio show “On Being” with Krista Tippett, I was struck by his deep soul and how he approaches the world with awe and an awareness that we all have to survive hard times.
“If the dream doesn’t come, you just wait,” he sings in “To the Great Unknown.”
When I put the CD in the player at the start of a June road trip, this song had me sobbing. This song and others from “The Seeker” became the soundtrack for my summer as I navigated how to love, hope and start a new way of working. There are so many amazing lyrics in the song, starting with “May you find grace when overtaken by the tempest./ May you find humor in the cynic and the pessimist./ May you find faith in the Great Unknown.”
This song, perhaps as much as any this summer, kept my heart soft and hopeful as I tried to “walk through fire in our [my] dance shoes.”
8. Emmylou Harris, “It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go”: In 1994, “Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers At the Ryman” came out and it became one of the CDs in my small collection. I’m surprised I haven’t worn it out over the years.
For me, Emmylou embodies grace and the spirit of old country music where musicianship mattered more than flash. In this song, there are images of people in Ireland and Chicago showing hate and Emmylou sings about the heritage that leaves our children. It’s a message that has endured for me about how hatred gets taught and conveyed. “It’s a hard life wherever you go/ And if we poison our children with hatred/ Then the hard life is all that they’ll know.” In the concert, she went on to sing “Abraham, Martin and John” as a tribute to assassinated leaders.
9. Nanci Griffith, “Across the Great Divide”: I know it’s Kate Wolf’s song, but I think Griffith sang it better on “Other Voices, Other Rooms.”
With simple percussion and guitar, Griffith sings about time and how we reflect on it. The finest hour is at sunrise and then it’s gone. The rivers change direction and we’re powerless. But we can take in the beauty of it all and stay present.
10. Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”: This song has become part of the recent modern soundtrack in the United States. The image of the “baffled king composing hallelujah” and how we sometimes can barely eke it out but yet we sing hallelujah is salve for a modern society fraught with turmoil.
The story of the song is amazing too and one that shows how sometimes something can sit dormant and then grow to become a phenomenon. Cohen, who died in November, recorded the song in 1975 and it got little attention until Jeff Buckley recorded it years later. Buckley died and since then others have recorded it. YouTube videos of street performers playing the song get millions of views.
I still like Cohen’s version best. It mixes the biblical imagery with his gravelly voice.