Folk Mass music pioneer Ray Repp dies at 77

The church lost an icon this week when Ray Repp died on April 26, the Third Sunday of Easter, after a long battle with cancer.

Repp was the creator of the first folk Mass music with his Mass for Young Americans. His folk music Psalm settings, first composed for his scripture classes in seminary, filled a void in the immediate time after the Second Vatican Council when people needed music to sing that connected with their hearts and the time in which they were living. His music was the music of his time: accessible, written for guitar and voices, and available when the church needed it. His lyrics spoke to themes of community, brotherhood, peace, justice, and unity, and they resonated with those excited about the winds of change they felt sweeping through the church.

By Flip Schulke – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain

Repp’s Mass for Young Americans was published by FEL (Friends of the English Liturgy) in 1966, as FEL became the first publisher of then-contemporary religious folk music in English for the reformed liturgy. His songs had already spread across the nation by that time. Many dioceses reacted by banning guitars in liturgy, which only fueled the enthusiasm for Ray’s music among young people. As the popularity of this music spread, parishes photocopied the music for congregations to use, eventually leading to a copyright lawsuit filed by FEL against the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1976. The Archdiocese responded by prohibiting the use of FEL’s music in its parishes, and some other dioceses followed suit.

Repp will be remembered as a composer whose music met people, especially young people, where they were. He helped them rediscover their singing voices and join in the song of the church, and it connected with their passion for social justice. Whether fans of folk music Masses or not, Catholics today can thank Ray Repp for helping a generation to find its voice and engage with the liturgy in new ways.

 

25 comments

  1. This article is unintentionally hilarious.

    “His folk music Psalm settings, first composed for his scripture classes in seminary, filled a void in the immediate time after the Second Vatican Council when people needed music to sing that connected with their hearts and the time in which they were living.”

    That is, they filled a void created by the unwillingness to implement the teaching of Vatican II on the primacy of Gregorian chant, polyphony, and other forms of sacred music that serve the spirit of the liturgy rather than the spirit of the age.

    “Many dioceses reacted by banning guitars in liturgy, which only fueled the enthusiasm for Ray’s music among young people.”

    This is just like what happened with the old Latin Mass — by banning it, it became more seductive!

    “Repp will be remembered as a composer whose music met people, especially young people, where they were.”

    Perhaps that is true, but with an emphasis on “where they WERE.” Why is music of this style still being used? It seems to please relatively few and annoy very many.

    1. *tsk*tsk*

      De mortuis nihil nisi bonum

      The good music professor shows he’s about a half-century out of date with commentary like. “Why is music of this style still being used?”

    2. May I ask: how often do you encounter the music of Ray Repp at Masses you have attended, since when?

      I remember the first folk music at Mass in 1970. FWIW, it was better executed and received than the four hymn sandwich on the chord organ that preceded it. If it was a conspiracy, it was a strange one amid hourly Masses otherwise so perfunctory in order to move crowds in and out with utmost efficiency.

      That transition faded. It’s not music I would welcome now. But I grasp the why/where of its albeit temporary salience.

      And not all practitioners of Catholic sacred music stormed out and took their toys with them. People like Ted Marier saw and understood the why/where and didn’t grouse but, in decades of experience-based experimentation with congregations, devised more durable responses to challenges presented.

      Because they were hopeful rather than resentful.

      1. Re: encountering Repp’s music…..despite having largely faded in the USA, Ray Repp’s music is alive and well in English-speaking parts of the developing world — in some cases even being incorporated into authorized national collections.

        Although few “young Americans” today have heard his Mass, parts of it are still very well known across swathes of South-East Asia (at one time in East Africa as well, before being edged out by more regional settings). I am myself rather nostalgically fond of that (ninefold!) Kyrie.

    3. Geez – skipping over the principles of the liturgical renewal outlined by VII and focusing on secondary and tertiary bullet points. VII provided the structure with liturgical principles and folks then implemented these following the guidelines set out by VII bishops and national conferences. Sorry – you again miss the liturgical point and defend the accretions acquired over centuries – there is always a balance in liturgy between what goes before and cultural impact…….is there really a difference between the spirit of the liturgy and the spirit of the age? The very point of the VII bishops was to merge these two – value in both/and rather than either/or.

    4. Maybe it’s not prudent to respond to such a sour comment, but why not acknowledge that some of the older generation were edified by the use of this kind of music in the liturgy?

      It sounds as silly to us as the Bishop of Boise’s remark that versus populum has built up the faithful. However, we’d be making the same mistake projecting ourselves backwards in time that Baby Boomers make when they project themselves forward. Cultural context matters. And Repp’s music was already out of fashion by the ’80s (if it is “still being used” it’s rare!), so it’s pretty clear that it was time-bound.

      It’s an obituary, for crying out loud. Time to be charitable. Eternal rest grant unto him, and may perpetual light shine upon him.

  2. It’s worth mentioning that the lawsuit between FEL and the Archdiocese of Chicago was nothing to do with Ray Repp. Dennis Fitzpatrick of FEL was the instigator of that particular episode.

    1. Always helps to have FACTS – thank you. Another historical myth put to rest. As Bonhoeffer said well, Folly!!! Consists of fools who accept or talk themselves into accepting whatever their ideological bias says. We do live in the *Age of Folly*

  3. I wasn’t around (well as a Catholic – I was an 7-11 year old Lutheran as all this took shape) but looking back now find it strange that folk music was “needed” now that the mass was in English and the reformers wanted the people to sing. Coming originally from a protestant background (Lutheran), my reaction has always been: “Gee couldn’t they have just started with a foundation built by high church Anglicans or American Lutherans “? I suppose the answer is that traditionalists couldn’t bear to go to those models and the “cutting edge” reformers were drawn like moths to the flame of the zeitgeist that happened to be emerging at the time(of course folk /guitars entered the Lutheran Church as well). Pity.

    1. For the USA, any foundation built by the Church of England was doomed by the reality of a Catholic church dominated overwhelmingly by Irish-Americans who, when approached by “the English have so much to teach you/us”, gave that a gimlet eye. Irish Catholic prelates also tended to bristle at the chafing of German Catholics beneath them, hence the German churches’ (including Catholic) vigorous traditions of vernacular singing were not embraced with reciprocal vigor other than more locally.

      One thing, however, for folks who’ve assumed that the English choral tradition was by default an unquestioned benchmark in sacred music: for some Catholic musicians, the Continent’s choral traditions were more influential.

      1. A similar attitude prevailed in England. In about 1954 our family got written permission to observe a cousin being baptised in the Anglican church on condition that we simply stood and watched and uttered no words of participation even in the Lord’s Prayer.

  4. Good, bad, or indifferent, Repp’s music filled a need for me back in high school and college as I claimed my parent’s faith for myself. We sang his Mass for my high school chaplain five days a week. I was also taught to not speak ill of the dead. May he rest in peace.

  5. Good, bad, or indifferent, Repp’s music filled a need for me back in high school and college as I claimed my parent’s faith for myself. We sang his Mass for my high school chaplain five days a week. I was also taught to not speak ill of the dead. May he rest in peace.

  6. Thanks for this post! I am grateful for this historical note on an important figure in our very diverse world of Catholic Church Music.

  7. Among the Ray Repp songs we sang when I was a Catholic school student in the Lansing, MI diocese in the late 1960s and early 1970s:

    * Hear, O Lord
    * I Am the Resurrection
    * Allelu
    * To Be Alive
    * Shout from the Highest Mountain
    * I read that Repp also recorded “Sons of God”, which apparently was composed by James Thiem

    The students in my elementary school sang these, along with songs by Joe Wise, pretty enthusiastically. And some of the middle school kids who were taking guitar lessons became church musicians so they could accompany these songs.

    It occurs to me that this “style” of music became popular because the religious sisters who were teaching in schools like mine accepted it and allowed it to flourish among their students. If these songs, which surely must have influenced the St. Louis Jesuits and all who have come after them, have made a contribution to our spiritual life, then I think we owe those sisters a debt of gratitude.

  8. Some of Ray Repp’s output may have been pretty bubblegummy (as was some of the Beatles’—Repp was writing in 1965, after all), but I think he also did much good work. I still remember, happily, my parish school choir singing “Hear, O Lord, the Sound of My Call” at my dad’s funeral in 1970.
    Earlier this Easter season, I was looking for an English version of “Alithos anesti” that would sound like something the excited disciples of Luke 24:34 might actually have said (as opposed to “The Lord has truly been raised”). I thought of “The Lord is risen! It is true!” Then I realized that most of us of a certain age know what comes next: “Everybody sing allelu!”
    Live in him need all we do, indeed, Ray Repp. May you rest in peace.

  9. Just learning this now. I am so sorry to hear. What a legacy he has given to our church. My ministry in church music began in the mid 70’s, playing guitar, actually learning to play guitar, at what were our ‘folk masses’. So many decades later, still playing guitar at Mass, grateful for the gift this has been to me and as service to God’s people. Thank you Ray. …. “Well done good and faithful servant”.

  10. Since I wrote the NCR article Anthony Hawkins kindly mentioned on May 2, I should probably note that it reflected the very modest young fellow I had breakfast with at the Liturgical Week (f happy memory) in 1967. The priest of 39 years I quoted was a pastor from Minnesota, and that’s what he said.
    I forgot, until I reread the story, how controversial the first guitars in church were. Vivaldi wrote for mandolins, for heaven’s sake, but guitars got a lot of lace tied up in knots. The guitar made music possible in a lot of churches where the organ or the organist are worn out and too expensive to replace after all these years.
    I still sing “Hear, O Lord” from Repp’s first Mass, and it still knocks me out.

    1. Guitars are also portable. Being so, they are capable of bringing accompanied song into homes, meeting rooms, college dorms, and other places where pianos cannot fit, let alone organs. It’s a good thought for a time of pandemic when we seem to struggle with worship issues in the domestic setting. I’ll also point out that Ray Repp’s might have been the last generation in which people in large numbers actually bothered to commit to music lessons. If we were staying at home a century ago, people would gather around the family piano and sing hymns and songs. A musician would be commonplace, even in middle class homes. Not a curiosity.

      As for the history of plucked string instruments in liturgy, those with knotted lacy garments have forgotten the traditions of sacred music prior to Trent, or even a bit after it. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vespro_della_Beata_Vergine)

  11. The article from NCR said he knew how to make people sing. While shoes are being thrown at his death for his music and chords and what it brought, I am filled with gratitude. I remember my mother in the choir saying to typically reluctant children “at least you boys will like the music.” I did.

    Thank you Ray Repp for the gifts of the music in the Church which you had the courage to introduce despite adversarial comments when you started and, sadly still follow you as you approach heaven hearing 6 and 12 string lyres. …like the Bible talked about.

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