Monday, April 15, 2013

Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry or Why Don't Christians Sing Like They Used To?

The lovely Delta chanteuse with the dusky voice might be all but forgotten if it weren't for her biggest hit "Ode to Billy Joe."  That would be tragic, but understandable.

Bobbie Gentry was a big star in her day, even for a time co-hosting a network prime-time show with Glenn Campbell.  She incorporated the blues of her native Mississippi Delta into a true crossover art form --she is hard to peg as country, rock or blues.  And her voice is utterly arresting.

So what happened to her?  At one point, she just stopped singing and she walked away.  Details of her subsequent life are sketchy at best.  Why?  Nobody knows.

One of her lesser known hits is "Glory, Hallelujah, How They'll Sing!"  It is a slice-of-life poem about being carted to an all-day country sing:

Up at five and done with the chores, the family piles in the pickup
Meetin' at the church house all the folk's from miles around
And packed between mama and daddy and all of the kids is a bushel basket
Heading for an all day country singing and dinner on the ground
Where they'll sing, glory hallelujah how they'll sing...

Ladies dab their throats and brows with hand embroidered linen
Cool their dampened feedsack bodices with cardboard fans
Fans that advertize on one side Lanie's funeral parlor
While Jesus on the other side out stretches nail-scarred hands
And they sing, glory hallelujah how they'll sing...

Do me so, la so me do
Do re me, fa ti do
Do me so, la so me do
Do re me, fa ti do

A Deacon in a white nylon short sleeve shirt leads the singing
A book of matches in his pocket, and a ball point pen
Inside the cover of the matches is the deacon's name and address
Enroll him in a course thats offered to outstanding men...

And he sings, glory hallelujah how he'll sing

Now lets turn to page three forty in our Broadman hymnals
A pinned roll banded hand prepares to strike the opening chord
A small boy whispers to his mama, do natives* go to heaven?
And they lift their voices to the sky, sing praises to the lord

And they'll sing, glory hallelujah how they'll sing

Now, I've been to a few all-day singing type events in my time.  When I was minister in small-town Greensboro, Alabama, one of our dear older couples would pile us in their car to take us out to the country (if you think that Greensboro is the country, you have another thing coming!) up to the old Mount Hermon Methodist church for a Sunday night sing.  Those people sang loud and they sang well.

When I was young, the Christian Reformed Conference grounds in Western Michigan likewise sometimes hosted singalongs, as did the one Christian Reformed Mega-Church, Sunshine.  The staid, dour Dutch, so reserved in so many areas of their lives, sang with gusto.  Glory Hallelujah how they sang.

And, our two wonderful years at old Seventh Reformed Church on Grand Rapids, Michigan's West Side introduced us to a church that loved to sing.  They loved to sing whatever was put in front of them from the sturdy but neglected hymns of the old Blue (Green) Trinity, Psalms and gospel revival hymns.  Something like 9-10 on any given Sunday, between morning and evening, with a pipe organ perfectly  matched to complement, but not overwhelm, congregational singing.

Now, we in our effete Presbyterianism might take theological issue (or even an issue of taste) with what they chose to sing.  I guess, to paraphrase D.L. Moody, "I prefer how they sang to how you don't." And that's my question.  What is happening to singing in the modern church, and particularly in my particular part of it?  Some have remarked that public singing has become a rarity and the church's worship therefore stands out as something altogether odd.  We don't gather to sing the way people always have from time immemorial.  We go to hear people sing, which is altogether different.  We are used to being entertained, not participating.  That explains but doesn't excuse.

Like Bobbie Gentry, we just walk away from singing.  I notice it in my own congregation.  Sometimes our singing is barely audible.  Our self-consciousness keeps us from singing "loud praise to Christ our King."  We sing a wide variety from the ancient to the excellent hymns of today.  Not all are my particular favorites.  But I feel compelled to sing.  The HOly Spirit presses it out of me.  I do not have a good voice (just ask the nursery volunteers when the sound man forgets to cut the mike!).  No matter.  God deserves loud praise.

Quite frankly, I think we don't sing loud because we don't really have the sacred affections that Edwards wrote so eloquently about nearly three centuries ago.  The only thing that will help our singing is if the Holy SPirit puts the song back in our hearts.  I long for that to happen.  I long for a church that worships more with reckless abandon than with reservation.  Decently and in good order, of course.  But, with full hearts that must inevitably give rise to full voices.  The only place I've come close to this experience in the current day were at Banner of Truth or Sovereign Grace conferences.  The question is why don't the people sing like their pastors do at those conferences?  Perhaps I'll just have to wait for Heaven when we will all sing as we ought, and our timidity will flee away.


  1. My wife loves going to Presbytery to hear the men sing. She says it sends shivers down her spine because it sounds like an army. I think she has something there.

    Great post as always, brother, though clearly you have not been to a happy-clappy church recently. They sing 7/11 songs for an hour!

  2. In my own church, I have found it highly difficult to sing having come to the conclusion that the musical aspect of our worship is a corporate idol. The songs are of mixed quality, and it's a long story, but music trumps preaching and doctrine in my church. As long as we insist on doctrinal minimalism to the point of having passive-aggressively forced out a pastor, and on blotting that sin out of our corporate memory, it's difficult to see anything but hypocrisy in the words that come from our mouths no matter the volume.

  3. Actually Bobbie spent the years 1967-1981 at a hectic pace. As late as 1981, she was still under contract with the Alladin casino in Vegas for a major sum of money. In 1968 the William Morris agency had booked Bobbie over three years in advance. She started to slow down this hectic lifestyle after the birth of her son ,Tyler, in 1979. Stellar investments like a minority stake in The Phoniex Suns basketball team allowed her to retire on her own terms.

    1. That is fascinating. I've become a big fan --she has a one-of-a-kind voice.