Wednesday, July 01, 2009

"I Will No Longer Sing Hymns ..."

... that are under copyright.

This is the bold and seemingly silly declaration of one David Beresford, writing in Gilbert, the magazine of the American Chesterton Society. (A scan is linked above, courtesy of Musica Sacra).

Beresford seems to be staking out the crotchetiest of crotchety-old-man territory here. His article is a familiar laundry list of everything wrong with music in Roman Catholic parishes over the last, oh, forty-seven years or so:

First came the tambourine, wielded by earnest young ladies who were trying to get everyone to sing "Cum-Bye-Yaw." Then ... our parish advanced to folk-masses complete with lead and bass guitars, electric piano, and drums in front of the altar. ...

The following songs were sung during Mass on a regular basis: "One Tin Soldier," "Share the Land," "Imagine" -- yes, by John Lennon -- "The Rose," "You Light Up My Life," "Let it Be," and "Blowin' in the Wind." I do not know why these were chosen out of all that was available on the radio at that time. I can see no reason why we did not sing "Convoy," or better yet, "A Boy Named Sue." In fact, a good argument can be made for singing "A Boy Named Sue" {which] has all the elements that the modern innovators like: a non-traditional family, ambivalence about gender, and the implicit message that girls (and by extension, men with girl's names) are subject to societal oppression.

This is droll, but it is also tired material. We've all read Why Catholics Can't Sing, or at least the testy comments on the Usus Antiquior blogs. And as he admits, the worst excesses have long since passed; "instead of Beatles songs at Mass, [we are now] given insipid, gender-neutral translations of the psalms set to sacchartine melodies."

Beresford goes on, however, to make a more interesting, and contemporary, point, not about secular songs but about most recent sacred music: that "these hymns are now private property, and I cannot escape the suspicion that the Mass is not meant to be carved up by copyrights into private enclosures in which we are only allowed to sing or pray 'with permission of the publishers.' "

In other words, information wants to be free. Paging Larry Lessig! Or, prophetically, "Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me." Yes, GIA turns out to be Pharaoh -- and here we thought it was Rupert Murdoch.

Joking aside, here is a theological point worth considering: that copyright laws, and the associated fees, are a form of captivity for congregations. This isn't so much about the modest payments that we are asked to make for licensing -- they will break the bank of only the smallest parish. It is, seriously, the principle of the thing. Christian worship -- and the grace of God which is conveyed in that worship -- is free by its nature. Ought it be something for which we depend upon human permissions?

Beresford answers with a firm "No," and announces his determination that, "while at Mass, I will no longer sing hymns with copyrights attached to them." And when he comes a cross an old hymn which has been altered (and the modern alterations of which are therefore copyrighted), he will "sing the old words out loud (very loud) complete with thees, thous and thys."

But hold on a second. The question of copyrighted hymns leads naturally to the question of copyrighted Bible translations, which these includes nearly all of them except the KJV, Geneva and Douay. Not to mention the more delicate question of paying guest preachers (presumably, one pays one's own pastor not for Sunday morning but for the work he or she does during the rest of the week, with the understanding that it all culminates -- and begins anew -- on Sunday).

And even if we put those concerns in abeyance, Beresford's solution is certainly boorish. One really shouldn't disrupt worship, and one really should sing along to the best of one's ability. (There are some comments at NLM which put this matter more sternly).

But still, his article strikes a not with us -- an old and uncopyrighted note. Many of the hymns written since the 1930s -- meaning those under copyright -- are either musically weak or theologically thin, or both. And yet these -- the worst of the tradition -- are the ones we pay for. Surely the time has come for a parish hymnal consisting entirely of public-domain material.

6 comments:

Pastor Joelle said...

It's an interesting dilemma. Are song writers supposed to "give" the church their work? Of course not but Beresford has a point. As you do about most "contemporary" crap. (all that "jesus is my boyfriend" stuff gives me the creeps)

I always wondered why the ELCA (or the Vatican) couldn't just pay good songwriters to write good solid stuff for us and then all the congregations have the right to use them whenever. I said that to Jon Yylvisaker once and he said he proposed the very thing - the ELCA was game but the songwriter's union would not allow it.

Soulbuick02 said...

His article reminds me of a friend who insisted on saying the Lord's prayer "the correct way," in a very loud voice. I reprimanded him, though perhaps to little avail. That sort of thing is not only disruptive, it's downright disrespectful.

As to copyright obligations being a form of captivity for churches, I wonder if paying for candles, vestments, instruments, and so forth ought to be considered in the same light? Christian worship is free by nature, but the materials with which we enrich it are not. I somehow doubt the people who make such things would feel motivated enough to continue their trade if they were expected to donate all their labor...

It is, however, a sad situation that so much contemporary music which falls under copyright law is of notably inferior quality. I'd love to see a public domain hymnal -- I bet it would be the best on the market!

Diane said...

well, my husband is a songwriter, so I don't want to paint the songwriting business with too broad a brush. I happen to think that his material is very good, even though it IS new.

but, most of it hasn't gotten published.

you have a good point on copyrighted Bibles. I just had this fantastic idea of having a recording of church members reading the gospel of Luke and offering it to the congregation, but how do I deal with the copyright of the NRSV?

Father said...

I agree with all of you; Beresford is clearly overstating whatever case he has.

In fact, seeing to it that workers are paid is an important Biblical value -- "thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn," and less obliquely in Jer. 22:13 and so forth. This certainly extends to intellectual workers, whose livelihoods are now threatened at least as severely as those of industrial workers.

And the idea that we don't need new hymns -- which I sort of develop in the next post -- isn't one to be taken seriously, either. Of course we do. (And fast, because the last batch really didn't pass inspection.) But how to arrange payment?

I am beginning to wonder if the future isn't a lot more local than the immediate past, in the sense that a *congregation* would commission a new hymn (or some other work of art) and pay the creator -- but that no further property rights would entail. (Just as none entail to a Bach oratorio).

Artists, who already make pathetically little, probably wind up making less this way. But I'm just not sure copyright protection will last through the next generation or so.

mark said...

Soulbuick02 - the public domain hymnal would not be on the market, because it would be public domain. Why not just put one together and post it online?
Fr. Egg - are you again suggesting that we simply go back to the good old Common Service Book & Hymnal? Is the 1917 edition now public domain? Perhaps posting that work online would answer both your prayers.
As for the new material, let your brother & cousin eat cake! :))

Father said...

Unless I specifically state otherwise, one may as well assume that everything I write is a plea for the Common Service Book. "Everything" including not only the occasional meanderings on worship, but also the denunciations of Dick Cheney, the sermons (if only parishioners saw the footnotes!), and a couple of unreadable novels.