Author: Daniel, Bert

OldTestament Bluegrass

Recently, I completed a goal that had eluded me for about a half a century. I read through the entire Old Testatment from beginning to end. And, in a big way, Bluegrass was my inspiration! Even though my column generally falls on a Sunday, I write about religious matters only occasionally. Maybe it’s because I’m such a backslider. But I do appreciate how much the Judaeo-Christian Ethic has influenced western civilization and I also appreciate how much our music has been enriched by singers who had a “higher calling”.
I’ve learned a lot from my reading and I would encourage any of you who have ever thought of it, to actually sit down and read every word of the holy book’s first section. Give yourself about a year. Hopefully you won’t get bogged down in late Genesis, like I always did, and you’ll make it through to the end. You’ll find things in there you never would have dreamed of, from the Urim and Thummim (my preacher isn’t even sure what the heck that’s all about) to various acts of smiting. There’s a whole lot of smiting in the Old Testament.
I’m not trying to make light of holy writ. I’m just trying to point out that there’s a wealth of confusing material to wade through before you actually finish it. At last, I’ve overcome that barrier, and I can assure you that the effort is worth it. There’s so much beautiful symbolism and wisdom in the Bible that it would have to make anyone a better person to be exposed to all that.
I think being a Bluegrass fan is actually helpful for Old Testament scholar wannabees. As I read, I found it very interesting to compare Bluegrass song versions of Old Testament stories, to the actual religious document. The versions are not always the same. Often New Testament themes get mixed in with Old Testament stories. For example, in one version of a song called “God Moves in a Windstorm” comes the line: “Jonah went down from the side of man, called on Jesus to be his friend”. I can assure you that that is not the actual Old Testament version of the story. Trust me, I’ve read the whole thing! But Carl Story’s song “The Fourth Man” was a surprise. I never recalled from my childhood Bible study that there was a fourth man in the fire (along with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego). I always assumed the song’s lyrics had some New Testament poetic license creeping in. But just like the song says, there were four men observed in the fiery furnace and the “form of the fourth was like the son of God”.
I know that most of you have plans for your leisure time that do not include reading the entire Old Testament. That’s fine. Believe me, I can relate to that! But you ARE Bluegrass fans, those few of you who have read this far. And, I’m not going to cajole you by saying if you can read this much of my dribble you can read through any four thousand year old book. I’ve got a better suggestion for the average Bluegrass fan: a list of great Bluegrass music that you can just download onto your iPod, listen to and feel like you are instantly more of a Biblical scholar than 99% of the western world! Here’s my list of favorites:
1) “Dry Bones” (Norman & Nance Blake and the Morning Glory Ramblers). This traditional tune is kind of like a Cliff’s Notes for the Old Testament. There is one New Testament verse, but the other four verses cover Genesis 3, Genesis 5, Exodus 3, and Ezekiel 37. Bascom Lamar Lunsford also does a very authentic version of this North Carolina song.
2) “Go Down Yonder, Moses” (The Eddie Adcock Band). Moses obeys God in this song and so do Abraham, Lazarus and Joshua. This tune is a good example of what Bluegrass musicians can do when they get hold of a good Negro spiritual. There’s lots of good material in spirituals, especially about the Israelite’s escape from their own slavery in Egypt.
3) “Jezebel” (Doyle Lawson) This is about the infamous Phoenician princess (I Kings 16).
4) “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” (Doyle Lawson). More influence from Black spiritual music. In the first chapter of Ezekiel, the prophet describes a vision, in which he saw four strange wheels in the sky. The vision is so bizarre that some modern readers have theorized that it was an early example of a UFO sighting!
5) “Little Moses” (Joe and Janette Carter). A nice version of Moses in the bullrushes found in Exodus, chapter 2, (complete with lovely autoharps!)
6) “Pharaoh” (Crooked Still) A slow dirge, complete with mournful cello, that combines Old Testament and New Testament lore about the ruler of Egypt.
7) “River of Jordan” (Ricky Skaggs) The tune starts with John baptising Jesus, but next mentions the cure of Naaman, the Syrian, found in II Kings 5.
8) “Jacob’s Vision” (Ralph Stanley) More mixing of the Old and New Testament, but the story refers to the story of Jacob’s Ladder found in Genesis 28.
9) “Whither Thou Go” (Blue Highway) There are a lot of great female characters in the Old Testament. Take Queen Esther for example. This song mentions two others, Naomi and Ruth. I’ll bet you know someone with one of those names. I always think it’s cool to know whom some of those old Bible names actually refer to. Did you know that the name Obadiah (as in the book of Obadiah), is the same name as Abdullah?
10) “Daniel Prayed” (Boone Creek) I always liked the story of Daniel in the lions den because my last name is Daniel. Ricky Skaggs does a good version of this one too.
11) “Jonah and the Whale” (Roadoilers) I like this version of the old time tune “God Moves in a Windstorm” (mentioned above) because it stays pretty true to the Old Testament version. Admittedly, it's not very clear what type of animal could have actually swallowed Jonah. The Roadoliers are a local old time group from Marin and pretty much the whole book of Jonah is right there in their song! Other versions are by Sarah Ogan Gunning and by Blue Highway.
12) “Honey in the Rock” (Carter Family) This song comes with the warning: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign; Won’t be the water, be the fire next time.”
That’s an even dozen tunes to get you started. With any luck, you’ll (like Don Reno and Bill Harrell), be using your … “Bible as a Roadmap.” There’s surely a lot more Old Testament material out there musically. And if you’re like me, your interest will be piqued just enough by the above tunes that you’ll take the time to read all of the source material for so much of our great music. Either way, I hope you enjoy it!

Hello again from Grass Valley
Monday, June 14th

Well, we're still not up to speed with web site maintenance yet. Mary Tilden, our Assistant Web Master hasn't arrived yet (another RV issue) so we're going to limp along for another day.

The weather at the fairgrounds is spectacular. Absolutely gorgeous. The campgrounds are already about a third full, and jamming is everywhere. Music Camp got off to a great start last evening; all of the electric only camping area is set up and open for business; and there seems to be a pervasive sense of utter joy that's settled over the entire site. We watch as a small town begins to sprout up like a cluster of mushrooms in a meadow. All in all a wonderful beginning to our 35th Fathers Day Festival.Get Lost!
Posted:  6/15/2010

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