Dan Popp
Sing it now, hear it later
By Dan Popp
October 30, 2015

There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun. / It's been the ruin of many a poor boy, and God, I know I'm one. – Traditional

We used to understand that music can teach children about the harsh realities of life. When two buddies and I entered our 7th grade talent contest performing House of the Rising Sun, eyebrows went up. Were prostitution, gambling and degradation appropriate topics for pre-teen music? I guess someone decided it was OK, because we did sing that song and we didn't totally stink at it, either.

Folk music and folk tales have been scaring the crap out of little kids for hundreds of years. And that's a good thing. When I was a lad I heard The Ballad of Tom Dooley. A frequent record on my dad's stereo was The Green, Green Grass of Home. These are songs about men being executed for their crimes. You'll remember Johnny Cash's line, "I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die" from Folsum Prison Blues. These are songs for grownups, of course, but they were also for the ears of the younger generation. They warned us of dangers we were too young to see.

When you're a child, many words may not penetrate your mind, but when combined with music, you'll remember them. My siblings and I remember cigarette jingles from 50 years ago, or almost.

And the words are stuck in there, like it or not. I was eating lunch one day and suddenly realized I was mentally singing, "...snot running down his nose / greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes." This was a little distressing, not to mention unappetizing. What is this lyric? Where did it come from? Ah, the fast food place was piping a sappy, instrumental version of Aqualung over their speakers for our enjoyment. If you had asked me 2 minutes earlier whether I knew the lyrics to Aqualung by Jethro Tull, I would have honestly answered, "No, I don't. 'Hey, Aqualung, my friend, something something uneasy.' That's all I got." But as the muzak played mercilessly on, quite a few lines came back to me – uneasy and unwanted.

We used to know this principle. Charles Wesley wove complex Christian doctrines into his hymns. At Christmastime we sing, "No more let sin and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground / He comes to make His blessing flow far as the Curse is found...." These carry heady concepts of the Fall, the Curse, Original Sin and Redemption. We can sing them before we can understand them, and the music helps us remember them in the meantime.

When adults are writing the songs, we can transfer our experiences to the next generation. Rock and roll may not have been the end of the world, as our parents feared, but it was the beginning of the inmates running the asylum. Young people simply don't have many hard life-lessons to pass along on a lyric sheet.

Another story: My wife and I were enjoying some minor league baseball at a local ballpark. Between innings the family-friendly folks in the stadium played Walk This Way by Aerosmith. There was a young mother in front of us, dancing along and singing to her preschool daughter – right up until the line, "You ain't seen nothin' till you're d -" where she abruptly stopped. I didn't see whether she turned red.

Kids are listening. What they're hearing is music made by slightly older kids, or perpetual kids. Walk This Way replaces House of the Rising Sun on the charts, but the moral and intellectual value is gone. The new song celebrates sin, and the old song warned of sin's consequences.

There was a man in the music business that wanted to commit suicide. I apologize that I can't remember the details more clearly; I think I got this story from a TV documentary. He decided to drown himself, and when he was under the water the song Midnight Train to Georgia came into his mind. Now, I don't find the lyrics to that ditty particularly inspiring, but to him, for some reason, they were. He realized that he didn't have to end his life. And so he didn't. Whatever meaning this man was deriving from Gladys Knight in that desperate moment had been planted there years before. What if the song that began to play for him was one about the meaninglessness and futility of life?

The lyrics your kids are listening to today – when will they come back to their minds? How do you know? What if, in some valley of depression or frustration which all of us have, the tape in their head tells them that they're beyond hope and even beyond God's love?

What are your kids listening to? What you're listening to, duh.

"But they're too young to understand it!" – It will still be there when they do understand it. "They're singing Bible songs, too." – Oh, so you do grasp the principle? "They'll be onto something else next week." – Winston tastes good...

Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.
(Proverbs 4:23, NAS95)

© Dan Popp


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