Over the course of this summer, I have accomplished a decades-long goal: to begin learning to play guitar. Despite good intentions, attempts at practicing, and even the “long-term loan” of a guitar of my dad’s, I’ve simply never been able to prod myself into the necessary rhythm to get very far.
But this summer is different. My daughter, not quite two, has recently begun watching the beloved children’s show, Sesame Street. She watches “new” versions from the last few months, or fifteen-year old episodes (you should check out the outfits)— she’s not picky. She does have some favorite moments though—and most of these involve music.
Following her, I began picking out a few Sesame Street tunes on the piano, like “C is for Cookie,” or Elmo’s theme song, “Happy, Happy Dance.” Realizing these songs were only two or three chords, I bravely pulled out…the guitar. Starting with simple chord patterns, and playing just about every day, I slowly realized I was learning to play guitar. My hands began to remember the patterns, I suddenly figured out how to strum (in a way which was slightly less awkward), and I have now learned nine chords (yes, F major is one of them, thank you very much!).
Playing through my growing Sesame Street repertoire has been our family’s practice for much of the last two months. My husband provides lead vocals, while our daughter will bob along, or be inspired to grab her maracas or “baby guitar” (a plastic, child-sized ukulele which is impossible to tune). But, today, something new happened. She chose my music for me. Rather than our cycling through my Sesame Street playlist, she went up to my music shelf and pulled out, of all things, a thick binder of Catholic church music I compiled while playing piano for my youth group choir in high school. We called ourselves Stained Glass (yes, it sounds like the 90’s—that’s because it was).
With the dog-eared pages of the binder now open in front of me, my little girl scrambled up to the piano bench and demanded, “more ‘tar!” (meaning I was to play “more guitar”). Having weird flashbacks of my high school youth group compatriots, I flipped through the lead sheets, landing on “One Bread, One Body.” Believe it or not, save a quick chord change or two, I was able to play the whole thing…with correct timing, turning my own pages, and singing myself!
As I began to excitedly turn the pages, I quickly followed up with other hits from the Catholic Top 40 playlist of the 80’s 90’s, like “On Eagle’s Wings,” “Roll Away the Stone,” “Peace is Flowing Like a River,” and “Pan de Vida.” I was so proud of myself. And, I felt a weird sense of kinship with generations of Catholics, gathered around a guitar, singing Catholic music. I was one of them!
Perhaps this whole episode does not sound amazing to you, but these fairly simply-structured songs were as a light dawning for my little family. Like my “C is for Cookie” practice sessions, most of the above-mentioned songs have a simple chord structure which repeats, and lyrics (or at least a refrain) which are easily memorable, and even invite creativity with new verses or words which pertain to the moment (In our house, “C is for Cookie” frequently becomes “P is for Papa,” etc.). All three of us could become involved in these immediately accessible tunes. My daughter was loving it, with shouts of “more ‘tar!” left and right. “C is for Cookie” may be children’s music, but it’s music which is meant to engage loving tiny human beings into active, intelligent participation. In this unplanned family jam session, I felt like I was seeing a parallel universe: “They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love” is the people’s music—and it may even be the People of God’s music.
While I am a die-hard advocate for four-part hymnody, want to sing the actual chant versions of the sequences-thank-you-very-much, and am an organist myself, I think I’ve had some strange, tangible, and communal insight into why Catholic music inspired by folk idioms worked so well. They worked well because people could sing them, grasp them immediately, and make them their own. They spoke to the people, and the people responded in praise.
I should also, say, though, that these songs “worked” well. We know that the above-mentioned songs hold a special place in many of our hearts, and continue to serve as staples among numerous Catholic parishes. We should also be grateful to the many composers who pioneered such music, easily rendered with mixed ensembles of instruments, and flexible enough to be sung by choirs or, in my own case, high school youth groups.
When I think about the “people’s music” in 2019, I can’t ignore the phenomenon of “praise” as a genre. My college students are certainly aware of Catholic praise music—and I run into praise songs in Catholic parishes wherever I go. Cookie Monster has made me realize that I should, perhaps, have more patience for praise music. Perhaps I should admit that I’m relieved when my hands are too full with a two-year-old to hold a hymnal and a song I have memorized is played. Perhaps there’s something good about music which only has a few words to remember. Perhaps the line from Sacrosanctum Concilium about adapting “more suitably to the needs of our own times” (SC 1) is meant to constantly flex—from year to year, decade to decade, generation to generation, and from the “Allelu” of 1966 to the “Great Are You Lord” of 2013.
So I’m grateful to our friends from Sesame Street today. As the current theme song states, Sesame Street invites us to become “smarter, stronger, and kinder.” I certainly learned something from my exposure to this children’s classic television show—which, too, has flexed constantly, adapting from year to year, and generation to generation, to the needs of our times.