Thursday, October 07, 2010

Hallelujah and Sympathy for Garrison Keillor

Well, I didn't anticipate saying this.

I have sympathy for Garrison Keillor.

I was sitting in my Spirituality class and right now, we're all doing creative presentations. One student made a slide show of photos that are important to her, and in the background she played, "Hallelujah."

No, not Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. An anemic mutant version, an unholy alliance. As the student said, "You may have heard this song before, because it's 'the song from Shrek.' But this is a version where a Christian singer rewrote it to make it more godly."

Tepid, bland, nothing substantive added, but much taken away.
My hands were clenched in fists of rage.
No angel born in hell
Could break that satan’s spell.
As the slideshow played pictures of beaches and mountains the student had visited, I sat there in the dark, seething, malevolent.  "Blasphemy!" I cried internally.   I railed inside, explaining why, and on how many levels this was so wrong, wrong, wrong.  "Spiritual piracy and cultural elitism!" I ranted.


So, given the sudden inconsistency in my beliefs about changing song lyrics, I grumpily cogitated.

I acknowledged that yes, we do take ownership of songs that are not ours.

And, we can feel murderous rage when someone alters "our" song.

And our changes can reduce a song rich in meaning to a puddle of corn mush.

And just who is the other person to think they can make the song "better" anyway?

You can split hairs -- not exactly the same thing, Silent Night had already been changed, it was old, it was public domain, yada yada.

For me, I had to decide -- if the new person has the legal right (and apparently the Christian singer did receive permission from Cohen) to change the song, is it morally/ethically/philosophically/artistically wrong to do so?

Too many questions.  In any case, I decided that I had to  come down on the side of the song being a living object, allowed to mutate.  Sometimes, the mutation will be good.  Lobster enchiladas.  Sometimes it will be bad.  The Grapple

It is my choice to never ever ever buy or willingly listen to a chicken mcnugget version of Hallelujah.  It is not my choice to say it shouldn't be made.

Sorry, Mr. Keillor.  Hey, I have sympathy.  I just went past my initial fury and sentimentality and, you know, thought about it.  Examined my beliefs.

Because I'm a Unitarian Universalist.  And that's what we do.

* However, if the songwriter does not give permission, that's a whole 'nuther ball of wax.  Those of you still singing Go Now In Peace with "love" subbed in for "god" ... you don't have permission.


DairyStateDad said...

As someone who yammered way too much about the G. Keillor/Silent Night episode... I just gotta say...

Well said. Very well said.

Robin Edgar said...

Amen to DSD's parting words.

hysteric cleric said...

First, a technical note: the link to the "Christian" lyrics is broken. That said:

1) I was able to get to the lyrics after tweaking the URL. Yuck. They did as bad a job with re-writing this, as our hymnal did re-writing "What Wondrous Love."

2) I am not categorically opposed to re-writes, esp. when the original author approves. (No surprise, given Cohen's self-effacing nature, that he would say "yes.") I do think we UUs overuse that practice. But when you try to change the works of the masters, you are setting yourself up for mediocrity, and that's exactly what happened here with trying to change a Leonard Cohen song - you cannot hope to improve on such greatness.

3) Since they got Cohen's permission, perhaps they weren't being anti-Semitic. ("A Christian singer re-wrote it to be more Godly [than that heathen Jew Cohen could ever have done.]") Maybe that wasn't the attitude. Maybe.

4) Keillor is a punk-ass chump. No sympathy.

Lizard Eater said...

@HC: Thanks, link fixed.

And I think the "OMG, this song is talking about sex!" issue is bigger than anti-semitism.

Can't argue with #4. Of course, I would have said he's a meanie-pants, but I like your wording better.

goodwolve said...

Just as an aside - I always thought the Go Now in Peace song sounded like: OK, kids, get the hell out of the sanctuary so we can have "real church". (It was used in SF as the sending off song to Sunday School.)

Chalicechick said...

As far as Keillor is concerned, I'm with Hysteric Cleric on the "punkass chump" bit. I have sympathy for your more nuanced examination of the issue and your own reaction, though. Your not reporting your reaction as the obvious right answer, but examining the motivation and reasoning behind it and thinking the issue through in a more substantive manner is what separates the good writers from the punkass chumps.


Steve Caldwell said...

Lizard Eater wrote:
"However, if the songwriter does not give permission, that's a whole 'nuther ball of wax. Those of you still singing Go Now In Peace with 'love' subbed in for 'god' ... you don't have permission.

The topic of unauthorized modifications of hymn lyrics came up on the UU-Leaders email list several months ago.

If people in the worship service sing an altered variation of the hymn (e.g. sing "spirit of love" instead of "love of God" in "Go Now in Peace) and the altered variation isn't printed in the order of service or other printed materials, that is legal under copyright law and can be done without the permission of the composer.

Apparently, a "spontaneous" modification in a worship service is legit even if Natalie Sleeth doesn't authorize the lyrics change.

However, once you've printed the unauthorized variation in your order of service, you've created an unauthorized derivative work.

In our congregation for many years, the order of service contained the modified lyrics. Once I found out about the illegality of this and passed it along to the church leadership, they changed it to composer's original words.

But most of the folks in worship sing the modified words -- and that's probably very puzzling to visitors.

fausto said...

Also good writers don't try to sing all the time on nationally syndicated radio variety shows if their own voices sound like geese farts and many of their guests are real live professional singers.

fausto said...

But I will give Keillor this much: it's bad enough to have a voice that sounds like geese farts without making it even worse by singing bowdlerized lyrics. Which is clearly something the redactors of the grey hymnal didn't spend nearly enough time pondering before releasing it for use in congregational worship.

Chalicechick said...

Also, getting UUs to host a book signing where he could sell his books and then using our hospitality as a forum to take notes so he could make fun of us later was just bad form.

Punkass chump.

whose thing against GK is quite longstanding