My Mother's Hymnbook but not Mine


At the moment I, and others, are exposing the darker underbelly of our personal soundtracks to those interested in the 30 day Song Challenge over on Facebook, and in that I think that I am confirming my reputation among my critics and friends (and that list overlaps significantly) as a musical Philistine. That can only be reinforced in this post where I am, essentially saying that I really, really, really don't like Johnny Cash's "My Mother's Hymnbook" very much...
A number people have recommended it to me in the light of my enjoyment of Tom Jones' "Praise and Blame" and Robert Plant's "Band of Joy" so I borrowed it off a friend. But try as I might, listening to it day in day out over a number of weeks, I'm afraid I just couldn't warm to it. I like Johnny Cash at his best, but even though this was reputedly Cash's own favourite from his mountain of recordings, I just don't get it... Actually even the songs I do like, I prefer in versions by other artists like Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch... I posted a short, and somewhat disparaging review on LivingSocial a few weeks ago, but after a couple of responses, decided to ameliorate it and take it down from my facebook wall until I had enough time to work out why I responded with such strong antipathy.
If truth be told this could be my mother's hymnbook as much as Cash's. Most of the songs in this album are those that were staples on Sunday radio in Northern Ireland when I was a kid, and are still sung the length and breadth of the country in Gospel Halls and tent missions, sometimes to a guitar, as here, or often to an accordian (my least favourite instrument bar bagpipes at any distance less than a couple of miles, or a violin in the hands of a 6 year old beginner). I was never a fan of that style of music, in either it's sacred or secular form, and my negativity hasn't mellowed with age. But it wasn't just the music... It's the lyrics...
There is nothing wrong with a simple faith, indeed there is much to commend it but the spirituality behind many of these songs is simplistic at best. That sounds harsh, so harsh that I dropped that line from the LivingSocial/Facebook review, but I stand by it and would like to articulate why (social networking sites are not necessarily the best place for such discussions).
9 out of the 14 on this album express a yearning to leave this world and its troubles behind to go to the better place that it heaven. Not only does that represent an eschatology that would make N.T. Wright foam at the mouth, I really believe that songs such as these foster a distorted view of the relationship of the Christian to this world as well as the interface between heaven and earth. Where they were sung out of a real yearning produced by grinding poverty or oppression, as probably was the case with Cash's mother, such sentiments are understandable (although they could be symptomatic of Marx's identification of religion as the opiate of the people), in the same way that the lyrics of the gospel songs shaped by the experience of slaves often express a similar longing, but with them there is also a yearning for freedom and justice, which has found resonance in subsequent generations, even though the freedom being longed for is less tangible.
However, when the songs of slaves or white share-croppers become the substance of middle-class, white, suburban, sentimental, pseudospirituality, suitably delivered through the ether onto a nice shiny ipod... or even worse, becomes the core songbook of a whole section of the church that then becomes, as the epigram puts it "so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good" then it I don't care whether the great JC... Johnny Cash that is, sings it... I still don't like it...
And actually... if truth be told, I don't like the production on this either...

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