Attending a local high school choral concert recently, I arrived late. That’s fairly common since the bus from New York is often quite tardy—arriving forty minutes after the scheduled time is pretty standard. In any case, I joined the concert already in progress. One of the first pieces I heard was “Operator,” a number based on an old Manhattan Transfer song. Since my wife grew up liking the group, I recognized the song and yet it felt strange to have Jesus mentioned repeatedly in a public school setting. Music, by its very nature, however, often contains religious sentiments. The Doobie Brothers had, in the early 1970s—the height of a hedonistic age—done very well with a cover of “Jesus is Just Alright.” Jesus, after all, had been declared a superstar a couple of years before. I used to tell my students that the musical impulse is linked with the appearance of religion in very early human culture. Still, disestablishment reigns.
I know that a large Jewish population makes up a significant demographic at the school, and I often think about how the cultural supersessionism of Christianity must feel. Much of what became Christianity has deep roots in Judaism, and even Jesus was Jewish. Can a song be just a song? After a while Randall Thompson’s “The Last Words of David” was performed. No offense there, since the Hebrew Bible is recognized by both Jews and Christians. But what of those of other faiths? Don’t get me wrong—our high school has an excellent music program. I was just wondering how the music might be perceived in a multicultural world. We have Muslim and Hindu students, as well as secular. Is this just counted as mythology to them? The selection of music teachers would be far more restricted if all music associated with religious words or themes were jettisoned.
These were the kinds of thoughts milling about my head when the last song from a religious tradition came up: “Wangol.” This is a Vodou song. I was pleased and amazed that the “last word” went to an underrepresented religious group. True enough, Vodou grew out of Christianity’s interaction with traditional African religions, but it demonstrates just how eclectic both American religious culture and high school music concerts can be. Choosing the music for a secular choral concert in a multicultural setting must be a trying experience every single time. When we lived in Wisconsin, most concerts were unabashedly Christian in orientation. This is hardly surprising, I suppose, since choral music itself is often composed to express religious sentiments. New Jersey is a different world. I left the auditorium musing that Vodou is just alright with me, and just as plausible as calling Jesus on the telephone.