Musical Indoctrination

Occasional Pop Theology contributor Steve Sudeth shares his thoughts on “raising up a child in the way he should go” with particular attention to musical indoctrination. Hopefully, this is just the first in an on-going series of theologically compelling music around which parents and children can engage. More after the jump.

I was hoping for replacement
When the sun burst thru the sky.

Neil Young, “After the Gold Rush”

As we were preparing for the arrival of our son, Caleb, many decisions carried with them a sense of sacred immediacy.  Though there were probably more practical and pressing issues to sift through before his birth, the question I spent the most time wrestling with was: “What is going to be his first musical experience?”  

I knew a couple things for sure: it had to be vinyl (I wanted him to experience the ‘pop’ and ‘hiss’ of the needle touching down for the first time), and it had to be at home in front of the same stereo with which I had spent countless hours on my own musical journey. The big question was “what are we going to listen to?”  I thought hard about “Revolver” by the Beatles, “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, and “Exile on Main Street” by the Stones but ultimately decided to go with “After the Gold Rush” by Neil Young because it was a song that I had sung to him before his birth.

The proud papa, Steve, with son Caleb and first-listen Neil Young.
The proud papa, Steve, with son Caleb and first-listen Neil Young.

As I put the record on, held Caleb, and started to sing to him, the gravity of the moment hit me.  It was a holy, blurry and tear-filled moment that I can only hope he appreciated as much as I did.

I feel that so much of these past five months of life with Caleb has been one kind of indoctrination or another. There are the fun and easy kinds of indoctrination like buying him a Chicago Bears blanket and teaching him the song to sing when the Blackhawks score a goal. Then there are the kinds that take much more thought and deliberation before I find the best way to introduce him to something.

Finding a Bible that I was cool with took some time.  When cruising through all the kid Bibles I kept finding the same two problems.

  1. The stories have been so sanitized and stripped down that they lost most of their beauty and mystery.  I don’t need a smiling Isaac looking lovingly at a passive knife wielding Abraham while a Disney-like ram sits patiently to take Isaac’s place.   
  2. The storybook Bibles tended to be horrifically insensitive to stereotyping. Every main character is white…except if they’re a slave. “The Princess Bible” ideology and the “everything is cool as long as you have Jesus” theology made these unacceptable to me as a representation that I wanted to share with Caleb.
If this is what counts as "sacred" for our children, what are our musical expectations for them?
If this is what counts as “sacred” for our children, what are our musical expectations for them?

Since then I’ve found a couple that I’m cool with and enjoy reading with him (Sparkhouse Bible and the Beginners Bible are good starting places), but they still feel a bit watered down. I get that they are geared to be more accessible and easier for a kid to understand, but I think that at this moment in Caleb’s life, he’s not at a place of engaging with and owning the stories yet…so why introduce him to anything less than what I would read?

It’s the same with music.  We were given a couple CDs by Rockabye Baby! that are supposedly lullaby versions of famous pop music.  While it may be cute to hear U2 and Radiohead played on a marimba, why not just listen to Kid A? I don’t want Caleb to one day hear “Let Down” from OK Computer and say “what have these guys done to my bedtime music?!?”  So I began the process of trying to find a balance of music that is both musically and spiritually enriching that doesn’t dilute the power of either endeavor.

When putting together my playlist of aesthetically- and spiritually-enriching songs, I started to look at three things: lyrics, tonality and performance.  

Lyrics matter, but they aren’t the only things that matter. If we only judged music by the words that were used, over half our pop songs would have never made it. I often think this is the biggest mistake people make when analyzing music, they go straight to the words without paying attention to what the instruments are saying. Each of the songs that I’ve chosen has a lyrical depth that points beyond themselves.  Most of them could be considered a longing for connection, of sorts, with either the unknown or an other.

Tonality matters.  What does the song sound like? Most of the songs I chose struggle between a sense of desperation and hope for what lies beyond. It was also important for me to introduce him to all the great sounds that have developed over the years. I wanted Caleb to hear Stevie Wonder’s keyboard playing, Emmylou Harris and Marvin Gaye’s vocal tone, and the crunch of Neil Young’s guitar.

Performance matters. Because I’m going to be listening to this with my five-month-old son, I wanted each of the songs to have some movement to them.  I wanted to be able to dance with Caleb. It’s that simple. This unfortunately eliminated a ton of great songs just because they didn’t have enough “oomph” behind them.

After much deliberation, I decided to structure my playlist like a double LP. Each record has an A side of soul music and a B side of rock. I found that Caleb could listen to music for about 25 minutes at a time, just enough to get through one side of a record, and so I organized these songs for his attention span.

Side A: The support of a Father.  This side is about how much I love him,  how much God loves him, and how we will both be there in the hard times.

“Reach Out, I’ll Be There” – Four Tops.  If there has ever been a prayer from me to my son, this is it. “Reach out, for me. I’ll be there to love and comfort you, I’ll be there with the love I’ll see you through”

“God is Love/Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” – Marvin Gaye.

“God is Standing By” – Al Green

“Lean on Me “– Bill Withers

Side B: With an open heart.  This side deals with questions of disappointment, evils in the world, and the need to let go of our expectations. “Carry Me/O Children” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds provides the perfect end to the first record because it represents  the cry of hope from a desolate place  that I have found all too common on my faith journey.

“Theologians” – Wilco

“Here I Am” – Emmylou Harris

“How Come” – Ray LaMontagne

“Carry Me/O Children” – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Side C: Don’t Give Up. These are all songs about when something goes wrong and how to deal with it.  I guess you could call these musical “coping mechanisms.” It was important for me to show Caleb that there is a balance between depending on God as well as the community that surrounds him.  (How did I not include “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel?!?! I’m a terrible music fan.)

“Have a Talk with God” – Stevie Wonder

“What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” – Jimmy Ruffin

“You Are Not Alone” – Mavis Staples

“Don’t Give Up on Me” – Solomon Burke

“A Change is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke

Side D: Rejoice. I take great encouragement in these songs. Whether it’s a blessing from the Stones, U2 offering redemption after the betrayal, or the comforting words of love from Crazy Horse, all these songs give me great reason to rejoice in the life we’ve been given

“Shine a Light” – Rolling Stones

“Until the End of the World” – U2

“Love and Only Love” – Neil Young and Crazy Horse

There is it, my son’s first (and certainly not last) indoctrination to the world of musical spirituality. Granted, we will continue to listen to the rest of my record collection as he gets older, but I wanted these songs to be the building blocks for his own journey. I’d love to hear what songs you are indoctrinating your loved ones with, please share!

If you have time, give a listen to my Spotify playlist: