Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Still choking on the (Cannabis?) smoke

In "The Fire is Out" (New Liturgical Movement, September 20, 2009), Jeffery Tucker offers an insightful review of Ken Canedo's illuminating book, Keep the Fire Burning: The Folk Mass Revolution (Oregon: Pastoral Press, 2009). He writes:
For years I've search for the missing link to explain what became of Catholic liturgy by the time I came to know it. One finds old Missals in bookstores or attends the Extraordinary Form or looks back at old instructional books in music or catechesis and it is overwhelming to consider the lost knowledge, the immense chasm that separates what was from what is today.

I've gathered that we've been through the worst of it and Pope Benedict is taking many steps to heal the great pre- and postconciliar divide. But the mystery remains, at least in my mind, as to what happened and why. The answer is not found in the documents of Vatican II where we find ringing endorsements of Gregorian chant and stern warnings not to change the liturgy in unnecessary ways. I've long examined the world of the 1970s and found interesting clues about what drove that lost generation.
Canedo's book, says Tucker, provides the missing link: it's the only book he's found that looks in depth at the Catholic music of the 1960s to provide an empirical account of the rise of the folk music movement in the Church (circa 1963-1960) -- a movement that was about much more, in fact, than music. Canedo's book provides "... a fascinating if deeply harrowing look at the dismantling of Catholic liturgy that occurred not so much at the hands of the hierarchy but rather at the instigation of a handful of activists and publishers that shoved contemporary styles down everyone's throat in the name of keeping up with the times, as a cowed and fearful clerical class did its best to imagine that they were onto something."

In one intriguing passage, Tucker observes:
One reason that this period has long been shrouded in mystery is that most all of the folk music of the period is long gone. None of it remains in the Missalettes. Nearly all—in fact, all but one—of the guitar strummers of the period who were the darlings of the new ethos left the Church in a huff and never returned. The strong fashion for folk music (phony folk music, to be sure) was a flash in the pan (1963-1969). What they left was a wasteland of confusion and disorientation just as the Novus Ordo Missa was promulgated. The damage had been done and how.
It should be noted that Canedo does not intend his book as an indictment, but to argue that the Folk music revolution in the Church made substantial contributions to Catholic life, such as making Mass livelier and getting people in the pews to sing. Yet, while he ultimately fails to make this case, Tucker says that Canedo has done some incredible research in this book, shedding invaluable light on the origins of the Folk Mass Revolution: "Despite his spin, he provides enough information for most any reader to be shocked and astounded at the sheer arrogance and ignorance of a generation that believed they could reinvent Catholicism with guitars, bongos, and extremely bad music."

Tucker is overly modest about his own limitations as a reviewer when he writes:
Now, I'm probably not the best reader of this book, since I've never really understand what this phony folk music thing was all about anyway. It seemed to begin in 1963 and end a year or so after the Beatles came to the U.S., a shorter period of time than even Disco lasted a decade later.

I've heard some of the music, and it strikes me as strangely naïve and simple, with childlike lyrics that somehow secretly mask a kind of revolutionary proletarian movement of some sort, like workers and peasants struggling for something or other....

In any case, it was gravely unfortunate that permission for vernacular in the liturgy came about just as this music was temporarily popular, just after the Council closed. As the author points out, the composers and performers of this material didn't care a flying fig about the actual documents of the Council and what they intended. All they knew was that these were new times; old forms had to be thrown out and new forms come into being. So we went through some five years of experimental liturgies around the country that the "youth" were just crazy for, though the "youth" are often nuts for all sorts of things and civilization is usually wiser than to pay any attention. This time, however, it stuck.
In a more recent follow-up to this article, Tucker addresses the demographics of the period in "Vatican II and the Baby Boom" (New Liturgical Movement, October 1, 2009), where he writes:
Now you only need to ask yourself: how old were these people when the Vatican Council closed? Those born in 1948 were 17 in 1965. You can do the rest of the math. What it means is that pastors looked out at their congregations and, completely unlike today, they saw a sea of teenagers, late teens in particular. They might have been a majority....

It was essentially a demographic illusion that one generation believed itself to have unprecedented cultural power. In other words, this might have happened anytime in history but it so happened that it happened just at the this time, coinciding perfectly with the end of a Council that was widely believed to have changed everything.
Tucker concludes his review of Canedo's book with these telling observations:
"Interestingly," the author writes, "most, if not all, of the original class of ordained or professed Folk Mass composers eventually left the religious life." The non-religious left the Catholic Church altogether. Relaying this fact isn't about a personal attack; I have no doubt of the sincerity of their music efforts or the sincerity about the decision to leave Catholicism. It does become relevant as to the success of this genre in terms of securing people's attachments to the actual Catholic faith. The critics said that the folk music movement was deeply dangerous to Catholicism; it was apparently exactly that to the very people who composed, sang, and pushed this music. The rest of us are left to pick up the pieces.

I really can't recommend this book highly enough. It is the essential tableau for understanding where we've been and where we are going. I put the book down so deeply thankful that I wasn't around in those days to see the wreckage taking place. Even reading about it I found to be a great challenge but absolutely necessary. Regardless of Canedo's own attempted positive spin, he has written a very important documentary history of 1960s Catholicism that I'm quite certain will earn a place in the history of our times. The book is titled Keep the Fire Burning but the reality is that his narrative is the movement's tombstone.
The fire may indeed have gone out, and Canedo's book may indeed be the movement's tombstone; but many of us surely still find ourselves choking on the (Cannabis?) smoke.

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