Stop The Music!

sermon by Terry Macham

The book of psalms is a collection of poems written by a number of different people over a period of perhaps a thousand years.  This poetry was sung or recited often to a musical accompaniment.  We don’t really know what that music sounded like, and quite frankly we probably find it not to our liking.  But, we do know what musical instruments that were played with the psalms.  Lyres, harps and other stringed instruments are mentioned in many psalms as well as cymbals, tambours (drums),flutes and yes, even the trumpet.  Art from surrounding ancient civilizations often shows musicians playing these instruments.

For accompanying psalms, the stringed lyre seems to have been the instrument of choice.  The lyre is first mentioned in the book of Genesis where a descendant of Adam named Jubal is described as “the ancestor of all those who play the lyre.”  And we all know that as a boy, David played the lyre as he sang psalms for the melancholy King Saul.

The number of Lyre strings varied, but 3 or 4 seemed to have been popular choices.

We don’t really know how these ancient instruments were tuned either but we do know that lyres were strummed with a plectrum or pick not played with the fingers like a harp.  So it is quite likely that the Lyre musician would have produced a drone type of sound.

Musical drone instruments are found in many different world cultures.  Drones are commonly used as a backdrop for prayers or meditation.  The Australian aboriginal Digeridoo is a typical drone instrument.  East Indian and Tibetan music employ a variety of drone type instruments. Of course, the musical drone that we are most often accustomed to hearing is that produced by the Highland Bag-Pipe (not generally used for prayers).

We are shortly going to sing a song not listed in your bulletin. You will find it at Voices United 353 – Tis The Gift To Be Simple.  We don’t normally sing this old Shaker Hymn but I know the tune is very familiar to you. It is the same tune used for #352, I Danced In The Morning aka The Lord Of The Dance.

Members of the 19th century American protestant sect, commonly known as the Shakers composed this beautiful yet simple hymn tune as well as many others that have long since been forgotten by mainstream Churches. The main reason for Simple Gifts remaining so well known is largely because the American composer Aaron Copeland used it in his orchestral suite, “Appalachian Spring.”  More recently, the Irish-American dancer, Michael Flattlie used this music throughout his celtic dance production, The Lord of the Dance.

And speaking of Appalachian Spring, I will be accompanying this hymn on this rather odd looking stringed instrument called an “Appalachian Dulcimer.” It has been called other things as well but  we won’t go there.  I describe the Dulcimer as the duck-billed platypus of musical instruments.  The platypus – you know the animal said to have been designed by a committee.  Well, that same committee must have designed this.

The Appalachian dulcimer has the head stock of a violin (some dulcimer heads are like banjo head stocks).  It has a sound box somewhat like other string instruments but it is quite small and looks neither like a guitar nor violin.  This one has what is called the classic dulcimer “tear drop” shape. It has holes in the sound board to let the sound escape but they are in the shape of small hearts.  It has a fretted finger board like a guitar or mandolin but with far fewer frets and consequently can only be played in one or two key settings.  It is like a piano with only the white keys. Also the finger board is attached directly to the soundboard not extending from it like other stringed instruments.  It has only 4 strings but the top 2 are tuned to the same note

Even the name dulcimer is erroneous.  The true European dulcimer has many strings and is played by striking them with a small hammer.  The Appalachian Dulcimer is more closely related to the Zither. The dulcimer is traditionally played with a goose quill.  Well, goose quills don’t stand up very well and also are hard to come by so now most players use a plastic pick.

The traditional playing style of the dulcimer is to play the melody on the top strings while the lower 2 strings sound as a drone.  However, basic three note chords can also be played. The result is a sound that although quite simple can be strangely plaintive and somewhat haunting.

Oh, and one other thing.  The dulcimer is played on your lap.

SONG – Tis The Gift To Be Simple

When I was a boy, growing up on Vancouver Island, most Saturdays we would all pile into my father’s old Pontiac and head off to Nanaimo on the excuse that my mother had to do the weekly grocery shopping but the real reason was to visit my grandmother who lived in a large house overlooking Departure Bay.

One of the reasons, my younger brother and I loved to visit our Grandmother (other than the obvious) was the fact she owned one of those new-fangled devices – a television. We were transfixed by the thing even though at times, the snowy black and white picture was barely discernable. We would watch anything but my favourite show, was the Jimmy Durante Show starring, the homely, gravel voiced singer, piano playing Vaudeville comedian, Jimmy Durante.

Durante’s trade mark line – which he delivered on every show – was “STOP DA MUSIC!, STOP DA MUSIC” which he would shout out mid-way through a song, followed usually by “It’s a catastrophe!” which of course it wasn’t.  But he always got a laugh.

Though there was one time when in fact there was a near catastrophe.  But this time, Jimmy did not call out ‘Stop the music.’  Like most television shows of 50’s, the Jimmy Durante Show was live.  Actually live, not like the pre-taped so-called  “live” shows of today, like American Idol or Dancing With The Stars.  In that era, anything could happen, and eventually did.

On one infamous Jimmy Durante Show, the latin-american entertainer Carmen Miranda complete with banana laden headgear suffered a mild heart attack while performing a strenuous comedic song and dance number with Durante, himself then in his 60’s.  He catches her as she falls to her knees.  She then gasps to him “Oh, I’m out of breath.”  To which Jimmy quickly responds, “That’s OK, I’ll deliver your lines.”  The studio audience laughs and the band starts up again, switching to a different song which Miranda joins in as they finish the show.  It is an incredible performance to watch.  The studio audience had no idea that anything was wrong.  A classic example of how ‘the show must go on.’ Carmen Miranda died of a fatal heart attack at home later that evening.

As well as ‘Stop The Music’, Jimmy Durante also came up with many other infamous lines many of which have since become comedy clichés such as:

  • Everybody wants ta get inta da act!
  • What a revoltin’ duh-velopmin dis is!
  • (after struggling to sing a high note) Dat note was given to me by Bing Crosby, an’ boy, was he glad ta get rid of it!
  • I gotta million of ’em, a million of ’em!
  • I hate music, especially when it’s played
  • AND this one which is more astute than funny
  • Be nice to people on your way up, because you’re going to meet them all on your way down.

I can still visualize the diminutive Jimmy Durante ending his show with his signature song “Good Night” and after one verse stopping to say “And good night to you Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are” before strolling off through 4 spot lights illuminating a darkened stage as the credits rolled and the orchestra continued to play. Durante stopped at every spot, turned to the audience and tipped his hat then wandered off into the darkness.  Mrs. Calabash was in fact Durante’s term of endearment for his first wife, Jeanne who had passed away after a lengthy illness years earlier in 1943.

Jimmy Durante continued entertaining audiences with his self deprecating humour on stage, television and motion pictures until suffering a debilitating stroke in 1973.  He passed away in 1980 at the age of 87.

He may have shouted “Stop The Music” but never really meant it. Jimmy Durante’s music goes on even yet for those who wish to hear it.  Jimmy Durante, a small man with a large heart who showed the world that you can make a success of your life even though you may not be the best singer or the most handsome fellow on the block.

The apostle Paul, like Jimmy Durante was a small man, had a bald head, bushy eyebrows and a large nose.  And like Durante, did not let this get in his way.

The epistle reading today tells the story of Paul and Silas, two men of faith who weren’t afraid to rock the boat. They frequently spoke out and did things that upset many people. In this story there are three incidents where they stand up for what they believe. But in the process they are beaten and thrown in jail, imprisoned for trying to right a wrong.

First, they silenced a slave girl who was telling fortunes. Her owners were profiting from the girl and exploiting her talents. Those who were making money at the expense of the girl accused Paul and Silas of breaking local traditions and had them arrested and thrown in jail. No one cared about the girl, except for Paul and Silas, but their courage to stand up for her made them condemned men.

Secondly, while they were in prison they sang and prayed. They didn’t complain. Paul and Silas used their confinement as an opportunity to worship. As it turns out at least one of their guards was listening.

Shortly after Paul and Silas were imprisoned, there was a large earthquake. It shook the walls enough to destroy the prison. Paul and Silas could have walked out, totally free. Because of this, the prison guard became very anxious and wanted to take his own life. If they escaped he would be blamed and severely punished. Paul and Silas said to him, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” So a third time they stood up for their faith by having compassion on a man who would have been unjustly punished.  They did not think of themselves but only of others.

The faith of Paul and Silas was one of courage, love and compassion. They challenged the status quo and were often imprisoned. They were faithful. They stood up for what they believed in. They had compassion for others and God was with them in the midst of their imprisonment.

I find it interesting though, that this lectionary reading ends at verse 16.  If you read a few more verses in this chapter, you discover an interesting fact about the apostle Paul – the fact that he is a Roman citizen.

Acts 16:35-40   35 When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.”  36 And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.”  37 But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.”  38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens;  39 so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city.  40 After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.

Paul, being a Jew, a Pharasee in fact, not a Roman, probably meant that he had a form of citizenship called ‘ius latinum’ or ‘latin right.’  ‘Latin right’ gave to non-Romans all the powers of Roman citizenship except for the right to vote.  It is not clear how Paul came to obtain this right but he may have inherited it from his father.  Nevertheless it clearly gave him considerable political clout in this case embarrassing the local authorities to the point of extracting an apology from them.

And this is not the only time that Paul’s Roman Citizenship bailed Paul out of a heap of trouble.  Later on in Acts 21, when he is about to be flogged, Paul reveals to the Roman Centurion in charge that he is in fact a Roman citizen.  The Centurion immediately cancels the punishment. There is little doubt that Roman citizenship gave Paul enormous political power and credibility, not to mention preventing a lot of pain.  This combined with the fact that he was also an educated Pharisee made Paul a constant thorn in the side of both Jewish and Roman authorities.

Paul, by many accounts was considered a dry, humourless individual and quite certainly would never have yelled “Stop The Music!” to get a laugh.  But, like Jimmy Durante, he did not allow his plain features and small stature diminish his courage and his faith in God for it was largely by his efforts that the early Church grew from a few followers to the Christian Church we know today.  Both men, in their own way shared their “Simple Gifts” with the world, making it a better place for us all.

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