Ideologies of the Acoustic Guitar in Contemporary Worship Music

Today I wrote a blog post for ‘Transpostions’  that introduces some ideas of the acoustic guitar, authenticity, and folk in contemporary church music. You can read it here. Please click through to the Transpositions site, especially if you would like to join the conversation. I’ve copied what I wrote below as well:

Last semester I taught a popular music history course. When we got to music of the early 1990s, one of my students started singing a contemporary worship song along with what we were listening to. I think my student was bang on – it isn’t much of a jump from Hootie and the Blowfish and Dave Matthews Band to contemporary church music. So why is it that musical styles from twenty years ago remain prominent in churches today? Part of it could be their ‘Goldilocks’ approach, emulating ‘contemporary adult’ radio trying please everyone with music that is ‘not too hard, not too soft’. Another important factor, though, is the rise of the acoustic guitar as the lead instrument in church music and the ideologies that are attached to its sound. The sound of the acoustic guitar is heavy with meaning, owing to its history of being heard as a sign of ‘authentic’ expression. So just how did the acoustic guitar become the sound of ‘authentic’ expression? To excavate this reception history takes us to ideas of ‘folk’.

While the ideas of ‘folk’ and ‘folk music’ have a long and complex history, key to this discussion is rural southern black music by the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson and others from the 1920s and 1930s. Captured by mobile recording equipment in the early days of the record industry, this music became emblematic of the struggles of the working class to a later generation of urban whites. The urban folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s – which included Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan – drew upon this music to promote causes including civil rights and worker’s unions. Seeger’s concerts often turned into group sing-alongs that proclaimed shared values. Of course, many issues arise when urban white musicians conjure up rural black music and apply it issues of a different time and place, but there is not space to deal with them here. Rural folk was characterized by a singer with acoustic guitar or banjo, and this musical form was imitated in the folk revival of the 1950s. Since then, the acoustic guitar has returned to prominence several times in popular music, carrying with it the same values. Just think of the MTV Unplugged fad, where again the acoustic guitar signifies intimacy and authenticity.

The acoustic guitar, or course, is also prominent within today’s church music. What is interesting in the movement to ‘praise choruses’ is how many of the values and musical forms of the 1950s folk revival are transmuted into the centre of the worship life of the Evangelical church, despite the fact that folk revival music was criticized by conservative Christians for being too socialist.

When Bob Dylan went electric at Newport in 1965, it caused controversy within the folk community. The electric guitar seemed to represent individual expression rather than group expression, performance rather than community. Paired with Dylan’s lyrics that became increasingly personal, this seemed a betrayal of the folk ethos. Dylan’s concerts – while powerful – were far from the sing-alongs of Pete Seeger. It is worthwhile to think carefully about how these ideologies of the acoustic guitar are brought into contemporary church music, and what it means when church music goes electric.

If you are interested in exploring this topic in more detail, keep an eye out for my article in an upcoming issue of Verge: a journal of the arts and Christian faith. And – shameless plug here – we welcome submissions for this academic journal on an ongoing basis.

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