Singing Out Against Hunger

If there’s an article about music on Pop Theology, you know Richard Lindsay has written it.  Check out his review of an interesting project by singer/songwriter Bryan McFarland, a musician who is singing to combat hunger.

I’m going to start by saying I’m not even an objective critic when it comes to Bryan McFarland. Over the years I’ve known him, he’s proven to be too genuine, too creative, and too insightful to think anything he did wouldn’t be worth engaging or listening to.

He was one of my campus pastors when I started at the University of Louisville in fall of 1993. I was way too serious a Christian at age eighteen. When I met him, Bryan was unlike any minister I’d encountered before. I’d never met a pastor who would sing the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” to the tune of Gilligan’s Island, or met a member of the clergy who was so obsessed with Animaniacs. I don’t mean he wasn’t serious. But he was serious about life and not just religion. He embodied a combination of earthy piety, ready humor, and the questing spirit of a true pilgrim that was a revelation to me.

If you had to take a vote on “guy most likely to quit his job and become a folk singer” it would have been Bryan. His guitar was always on call for worship services, campouts, or jam sessions in his office. He’s one of those musicians whose skill comes from living and breathing music as much as formal training. Sure enough, in 2003, he began a new phase of his ministry as a professional singer-songwriter.

His current recording project is called Until All Are Fed, and brings together his music and his work as Hunger Action Advocate for the Presbytery of Salem, North Carolina. I got to talk with Bryan in preparation for this review, and he was kind enough to let me listen to advance tracks as the project took shape.

Bryan says this album is “mashup of ‘We Are the World’ and ‘O Brother Where Art Thou,’” and I buy his description. The music on this album has a rootsy, Celtic, world-music, spiritual feel. It reminds me of the music of Mumford & Sons, not so much for its subject but for its striving idealism. The folky sound and passionate lyrics about relieving hunger for food and hunger for God make this music unabashedly uncool—as if it’s time to let go of coolness and stand for something.

The project had a fascinating genesis. Realizing that “I couldn’t just complain about the lack of contemporary music that speaks the faith and not do anything about it,” Bryan started raising funds for the album through the Web site The site lets listeners support independent artists by pledging the price of the album to production costs before the album is released. At the same time, artists can designate a portion of production costs and profits to a charity. Ten percent of production costs and twenty percent of profits from Until All Are Fed will go to the Presbyterian Hunger Program.

“This project just reared its head saying ‘Do me! Do me!’” Bryan says. “I wondered when I was going to do an album of hymns and sacred songs. Because of the charitable aspect, this seemed to make sense.” Bryan says the response has been moving. “I can’t believe in this economy in 3 months we raised 107% of production costs for a project people didn’t know about.”  Some Presbyterians might call the intersection of talent, charity, and technology that went into making this album, “providential.”

With the cash in hand, he was able to work with some of the best session musicians in Nashville, including instrumentalists that have recorded and toured with Garth Brooks, the Mandrell Sisters, The Chieftans, John Michael Talbot, and Michael W. Smith. We listeners can thank Bryan and his producer Shawn Conley for putting the infusion of talent to good use. When you put fiddle, piano, bass, tin whistle, and uilleann pipes with Bryan’s deft guitar playing and burly tenor voice, you get a stirring sound. He’s calling the band “Jacob’s Join,” which is another name for a potluck supper. It’s fitting, because this is an album where everyone brings something to the table and no one goes away hungry.

The album is structured like a worship service (another simile Bryan uses is “Frampton Comes Alive Comes to Worship”). Just to add a slice of real life, the “gathering song” is “Uyai Mose,” which starts from the perspective of a couple rushing in late for worship.  The first hymn is “Hope of the World,” a Reformation-era rocker with a mid-Century lyrical update by Georgia Harkness (one of the pioneering women of theological education). The stirring four-part vocal arrangement, along with guitar and doleful fiddle, sounds like something out of the old shape-note hymnals Sacred Harp or Southern Harmony.

The next track, “Lord Search My Heart” would be as welcome in a Zydeco bar in Cajun country as it is in the church. This is a nice song of self-examination without lapsing into the usual Presbyterian obsession with group chest-beating. (Seriously, you can’t get Presbyterians together for worship without them breaking into some pre-written litany of confession, read in a Calvinist monotone.)  Bryan follows with a couple of really lovely solo songs that fit his voice quite well – both with lyrics that get to the heart of the matter on hunger. “Christ You Walked Among the Grain Fields” is a nice update on the folk hymn tune “Beach Spring,” with lyrics by Presbyterian songstress Carolyn Winfrey Gillette.

“Lord, you shared God’s Kingdom bounty,

Yet you know our pain and need.

Some are poor in lands of plenty,

Often hurt by others’ greed.

Some possessed by their possessions,

Look for more to buy and keep,

Others long for simpler blessings:

‘Let my hungry children eat.’”

“Christ, Be Our Light” is in a more contemporary style, but shares the social justice theme. The 6/8 meter has a nice rolling feel with the guitar and tin whistle. A later track, “Bread for the World” starts with this simple solo style, then ends in a “We are the World” style clapping chorus through the magic of multi-tracking.

Tracks six and seven are the Bryan McFarland-composed songs on the album.  The title track, “Until All Are Fed” is simultaneously a song of protest and hope. “How can we stand by and fail to be aghast, how long ‘til we do what’s right? How could we stand by and choose a lesser fast, how long ‘til we see the light?” The answer: “We serve until all are fed.”

“Singing for OUR Supper,” takes a more rhythmic approach, with some upbeat percussion and a bit of Byrds’-style jangly guitar. Lyrics like “We are hungry and misled, undernourished and overfed” speak to the conditions of both spiritual and physical hunger. And increasingly, as the gap between rich and poor grows wider: “We all need daily bread, for more and more it’s daily dread; It’s hard to live and harder to survive.”

“Bendice Señor Nuestro Pan/Come Share the Lord” benefits (as do several of the tracks) from Bryan’s collaboration with a North Carolina local, Sally Ann Morris. Morris is a church music director in Winston-Salem, but is also an internationally recognized hymnodist, with compositions in the popular Catholic Gather series and the UCC’s New Century Hymnal. The collaboration led to an arrangement of a Spanish-language blessing composed by John Bell and the communion song classic “Come Share the Lord.” After this recording, it will be hard to imagine these two songs separately.

More John Bell and Morris, and more Spanish, round out the worship experience. Bell’s music makes an appearance in the form of a rousing sing-along of “The Summons,” the instrumentation bringing out its Celtic glory. “Pescador de Hombres (Fisher of Men)” is a treat with Leslie Rodriguez singing in Spanish and English to Bryan’s guitar accompaniment. It closes with a benediction from Bryan. “Go in Peace, Go in Love,” a Sally Ann Morris composition, with text by Mary Louise Bringle, ends the set as a kind of postlude, with a rocking back-beat and SNL-style saxophone.

The problems of global and domestic hunger are complex. The short of it is, we waste enough food in the United States alone to completely eradicate hunger around the world, and this is just one developed country.   Bryan hopes the album will be just the beginning of the musical work on hunger. He wants to work with churches and organizations across the country to perform this album live as a hunger action. “The key words are ‘activity, action, engagement,’” Bryan says. “Hunger is a downer of a topic, but hunger action is energetic, is hopeful, is making a day to day difference in the lives of people who wonder where the next meal is going to come from.”

For more information on hunger, check out the Presbyterian Hunger Project on Facebook and Bread for the World. Your giving won’t be misspent by either of these organizations. But the easiest and most enjoyable action you could take against hunger this year is to order Bryan’s recording, as either an MP3 download or CD. You can learn more about the project and order the album here.