What is it about the Southern Harmony tunes? There’s something that just gets me about them – they get inside me and speak deeply to my soul.
In a recent episode of Krista Tippett’s On Being with Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, two amazing banjo players and musicians, Washburn talks about hearing Doc Watson for the first time. She remarks that although she was studying law in China at the time, that ancient melody played on banjo and sung by Watson revealed the heart and truth of America. Washburn talks about the African roots of the banjo and this music:
“As people were being boarded onto the slave ships, the people said “throw your heart down here; you’re not going to want to carry it to where you’re going.’ A lot of the slave masters figured out that if they had a banjo player on board, playing the music of home, more of the ‘cargo’ would live to the other side. So the origins of the banjo in America are the bitterest of roots … and it formed an amazing origin to what became a blend of traditions from Africa, Scotland, and Ireland, when those banjo players from Africa and the fiddlers from Scotland and Ireland started playing plantation dances together. That’s what started what we know as that early Appalachian and that early American sound. That sound is based in this bitter root but with this hope ‘that I can live – I can survive.’
It is that truth – the bitter root tinged with hope – that appears in the Southern Harmony tunes, I think. And so whatever words we apply to them both benefit from and should contribute to this deep soul truth.
In this case, the lyric gets close, but for me, doesn’t go deep enough.
When the summer sun is shining over golden land and sea,
and the flowers in the hedgerow welcome butterfly and bee;
then my open heart is glowing, full of warmth for everyone,
and I feel an inner beauty which reflects the summer sun.
When the summer clouds of thought bring the long-awaited rain,
and the thirsty soil is moistened and the grass is green again;
then I long for summer sunshine, but I know that clouds and tears
are a part of life’s refreshment, like the rainbow’s hopes and fears.
In the cool of summer evening, when the dancing insects play,
and in garden, street, and meadow linger echoes of the day;
then my heart is full of yearning; hopes and mem’ries flood the whole
of my being, reaching inwards to the corners of my soul.
It’s close – so close – dancing around the edges of meaning, offering a glimpse of some deeper words to come.
And they don’t here. But maybe that’s a good thing in this case. Maybe this hymn is an opening, an invitation to offer the ‘next ten words, and the ten after that’ because our bitter roots tinged with hope need more words and more ideas and more play.
Meanwhile, set to the tune Holy Manna, these words open the door to something deeper, something maybe unnamable.
Like, maybe, truth.