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I've worked for a big multi-national, lived abroad for several years, travelled a lot, now in politics. Married once but separated; no kids. Generally utilitarian except for minority rights.


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APRIL 6, 2012 9:36AM

This Atheist’s Favorite Religious Songs

Rate: 39 Flag

          Just because I didn’t buy into the view that the mysterious origin of the universe and all existence, like our own, could be explained by positing some creative being whose own existence just had to be accepted with no questions asked, doesn’t mean that I rejected musical offerings by the theistically inspired.  Good music can come from a huge variety of sources in a huge variety of styles, religion being one.  So I reckoned that today would be a good Friday to post a few of my faves.

          First up is I Saw the Light.  It’s written by the great Hillbilly Shakespeare, Hank Williams.  I like many of his songs so what first got me was the catchy melody and soon enough the honest simplicity of the message.  I don’t feel compelled to parse every last phrase and its main theme is easily understood metaphorically.  While Hank, much like Leonard Cohen or the Beatles, typically does the definitive versions of his songs, the one below is lots of fun.  It’s faithful to the spirit of Hank’s original, it includes the Carter family and it’s a glimpse of the early days of television.  So what if the video quality is off. 




          Next we go to Ireland, a country that I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited a few times.  This is Tommy Makem singing Lord of the Dance.  The lyrics are cleverly composed and I’ve always enjoyed Makem’s voice.




          The first two had lively melodies so we’ll change the pace now.  Ever since I first heard The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken album back in the 70s, I’ve been a big fan of Doc Watson.  There’s a sweet authenticity to his voice, rather like  honey and grits, and although I prefer his bouncier songs like The Tennessee Stud, Way Downtown or Shady Grove, the following is just beautiful.




          And did someone mention Will The Circle Be Unbroken?  It wrapped up the album and will do the same for this post.  You’d have to be a pretty hard-hearted non-believer not to be moved by the fellow-feeling of this performance.




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These are such excellent choices. Any music that comes from a deep and genuine feeling, which often includes a religious feeling, is good music.
Never had heard them..So nice of you to share...Some say that even watching a tree is a ρrayer and lots of my feelings has come to out and with music.Thank you..wishes and best regards
Nice story. As always.
All great songs for Good Friday, especially, Doc Watson's "Show Me the Way" and The Dirt Band's "Unbroken Circle," two of my favorites. Thank you.
I sang O! Holy Night in Jr Hi Choir and I still love it.

Oh Happy Day, by the Staple Singers! A perfect song for Easter.
I think all authentic music is great. Music that speaks from the heart, and with the authority of history, culture and richness of a specific part of our beautiful world is always special. Nice compilation! Doc Watson: What a national treasure, huh? Such a soulful voice and beautiful old soul.
Excellent post; I would add Van Morrison's "Have I Told You Lately".
And who can forget the haunting sound of Judy Collins singing "Amazing Grace".
I Saw the Light is a great one, and one that I think will never be adopted as an anthem by sex & drugs rockers. It's message is too upfront, unlike Amazing Grace and Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

I have a very strange sounding minor key version of Will the Circle--comes out a very dark sound, not happy like most versions.

Forgot to mention, it's by the Staples Singers. Weird harmonies.
I loved this Abra. All great songs. Hank William's story is such a sad one ... I truly wish he'd seen the light we would've had him a little longer than his 29 years.

I must've been the right age when it came out because the Superstar lyrics have always stayed with me:

"Every time I look at you I don't understand
Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.
You'd have managed better if you'd had it planned.
Why'd you choose such a backward time in such a strange land?
If you'd come today you could have reached a whole nation.
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.
Don't you get me wrong.
I only want to know."
How Great Thou Art & Kristofferson's Why Me Lord have always uplifted me though neither is a part of my childhood which was way to weighted with Gregorian Chant. Everything you put up here is just beautiful.
Jeanette – That genuine feeling is an important factor alright. It’s not quite enough though. There are a couple of Doc Watson religious songs that while undoubtedly sincere, are way too abject for my tastes. Thanks for the comment.

STATHI – I’m gratified if I’ve been able to introduce you to some of these artists. The album I mentioned in the post is a good place to begin if you want to pursue it. Ditto for hank Williams Greatest Hits.

Mary – Thanks very much.

jmac – You too must have been enjoyed the NGDB’s album. It opened my eyes, or ears, to a wider range of country and bluegrass, though the 60s folk music helped grease the skids.

JW – And I’ve always loved I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In for Christmas. It would be a shame for one’s religious views to cut you off from so much worthy music.

Ardee – You may have a point but in my teens, an atheist pal of mine so trenchantly mocked O Happy Day that I haven’t been able to listen to it without prejudice. I guess enough years have passed that I should give it another go.

Deborah – Completely agree. I can’t quite articulate exactly what constitutes authenticity but like they used to say about pornography, I know it when I see (or hear) it. And you’re right about Doc Watson being a national treasure.

Andy – I’ve always liked the song but evidently hadn’t paid close attention to the lyrics. I assumed it was about a woman but having just googled the lyrics, I realized my mistake. Thanks for the enlightenment.

Walter – Great choice. I saw her in concert in the 70s and she sang it then. She had a very engaging voice and stage presence.

Con – I’ll have to check out the Staple Singers version. In looking for a version I could use in this post I noticed it on the YouTube feed. Next time I’ll click on it. Thanks for the tip.
Wonderful music. I don't recall Lord of the Dance, but now I'm listening for the second time!
still feel a little funny on Good Friday, a neat followup to Scarlett's offering
I love spirituals and black (and some white) gospel music. Listen to Mahalia Jackson do Elijah Rock - cold shivers. Dad Staples. Much prefer him to Mavis. One of my current faves is Jesus Walk with Me by Holmes Bros. Much of the Bind Boys' oeuvre. OTOH, I also like Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, which is a crazy outfit from my home town...
P.S. - Pagans use "Lord of the Dance" to refer to some wholly other deity!
I listened to each video...only because it's you. I felt like running to the hardware to buy a rub board. :) Face it, I'm just a heathen.
It was great to hear Tommy Makem again. I saw Makem & Clancy a couple times. A real treat.
Scarlett – I like a lot of the music from Superstar but decided not to include anything here because of its ambiguity. Not that that in any ways detracts from its musical quality. More the opposite if anything. I’m with you on Hank as well. It always seems a bit sadder when it’s a songwriter since their life works live on for generations.

nerd – I’m not familiar with the Kristofferson number so I’ll check it out. Thanks for the suggestion and I’m glad you enjoyed these numbers.

asia – It’s a terrific song and you should also check out the version by The Dubliners. It’s a live performance on YouTube. And on relistening, I now think I like it better than the Maken version.

Damon – I can’t speak for you but when I’m feeling funny on Good Friday it’s generally because of something that went down on Good Friday Eve.

Myriad – The Blind Boys would fit in pretty well with this collection. I didn’t know about the pagan angle for Lord of the Dance. It’s reach is broad as a few years ago while in church for a funeral service, I noticed it was up for one of the hymns on the following Sunday.

Fay – Certainly no disgrace in being heathen. And these songs weren’t meant to tempt you back to the exalted side. I hope you’re still around when we’re Left Behind.
I just know you would love "Mercedes Benz," sung by Janis Joplin. It is a fervent prayer if ever there was one.
Abra, I can understand that. Way back when, I wrote a blog about why I don't like Christian rock and heavy metal, even though I quite like other sacred music, which explains a little better about where I'm coming from. (If you're interested, it can be read here.
Stim – Back in the 80s I saw Makem at his Manhattan pub. A bit of an ornery gent, at least that evening, but a marvelous performer.

nilesite – I’ve listened to that Janis song many many times. I liked the irony throughout and it really suited her voice. Or maybe it was her voice that made the song.

Jeanette, - I’m intrigued. Off to check your post now.
My favorites:

Joy to the World

For Onto Us a Child is Born

Pretty much anything by J.S. Bach

And my all-time favorite: "Mary's Boy Child"by Boney M.

Thanks for posting this.
Oh, how could I forget? "Chrstma Canon Rock" by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which is playing this very moment on my PC.
Great post, I love your choices, made a fun morning concert.
rated with love
Abrawang, thanks so much for reading and commenting. Glad you enjoyed it.
Very eclectic and a natural Open Call. I see many have added theirs in comments. Off the top of my head: "Travelin' On For Jesus" : The McGarrigle Sisters, "Jesus is Waiting" : Al Green. But I'm with Scarlett, will be playing my scratched up "JCSuperstar" this weekend :)
Amen, Sister! I love those songs. Happy Un-Easter my dear!
I agree with what Jeanette said. Songs are just poetry set to music; if they're good, they're good.

Great choices. I love anything by Hank Williams. I've always been partial to "Oh Happy Day."
Patrick – Joy to the World sure is aptly titled, being about the most joyous religious song there is. I’m not quite with you on Bach though. I think I lack some key genetic material as he’s a fave with all my smartest friends and as well as ranking as one of the all-time greats by the vast majority of serious musicologists. I’ll have to check out Christmas Canon Rock.

Romantic – Glad you enjoyed them. I had fun checking out the various versions to put it together.

dirndl – Thanks for a couple more YouTube tips. I do like the McGarrigles. And you still listen to LPs? Aside from the boffo title track, I was always fond of Everything’s Alright.

Erica – Hey, it’s an excuse to binge on chocolate without anyone thinking you self-indulgent.

Lezlie – I hadn’t read much of Jeanette’s until recently (trouble enough keeping up with my faves, of which she is now one) but check out the post she links to in her comment. Insightful and sharply written. What you say about a song is similar to George Orwell’s WW2 lament that the Allies didn’t have a rallying tune anywhere near as good as the Nazis’ Horst Wessell song.
I could sing each one ! I love the old gospel music, the Jerry Garcia Band, not to be confused with the Grateful Dead, sang some of my favorite versions...
These songs are where I loll in comfort, the rest too often seems to have lost its mind, its point.
Its way.
Or it has been stolen in the name of Control....
Or it actually never was...

But there are so many good songs. : )
'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' is the one that keeps coming to mind that I love of the traitionals, although Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia's 'Brokedown Palace' is just the best "gospel" song ever, in my humble opinion, even if it isn't really gospel. I take it that way anyway. : )
Just saw the mangled "traditionals" as I clicked...
: )
Beautiful songs-thanks, very moving
Cranky – Welcome to the Hank Fan Club. And I really will have to give O Happy Day another listen.

Just Thinking – They’re great tunes, aren’t they. Brokedown Palace will now go onto my YouTube list. Was it Swing Low that Joan Baez sang at Woodstock?
According to Woodstock Wiki, yes.
She also sang "I Shall Be Released," another good one Jerry sang too..
can you tell I married a Deadhead/Preacher's Kid?
He got me into the Jerry Gospels : )
Thanks for sharing these, Abrawang...I love that Down in the Valley!
Georgia – Thanks for the comment. It’s always gratifying to find that one’s own musical tastes are shared.

Just Thinking – For the longest time I thought of I Shall Be Released as a religious song. But when I paid closer attention to the lyrics they read as a prisoner’s lament. Maybe there’s a religious angle that should be read in.

clay – It’s a beautiful song alright.
Ohhhhh. In.teresting. It makes sense.
I will have to listen closer as well...I thought it was.
Sure wails like one. : )
I really like the spiritual music of Allison Krauss, particularly the album from O' Brother, where art thou? I also love Lyle Lovett, and he can get his big brass band together with some soaring gospel. I am not religious, and I didn't grow up with this music either (I do miss the hymns most from protestant services and Christmas), but I still find this music uplifting and inspiring.
Oryoki - Great movie pick in O Brother Where Art Thou. I think my favorite song from it was the opening number of The Big Rock candy Mountain. I was only familiar with the cleaned-up Burl Ives version so hadn't realized its anarchistic & revolutionary aspect (where they hung the Turk, who invented work).
When singers sing from the heart it doesn't matter what they're singing about -- it's always inspirational!
Ha! Great choices and beautiful reminders. Excellent post, Abrawang. R
Bell - There's certainly something about sincerity or authenticity that makes for good music.

Thoth - Glad you enjoyed them. Thanks for stopping by.
Fine choices, Abra, and I've learned so much from your story and the comments. ( I had no idea, re: the Van Morrison song.) Tommy Makem is new to me, but the other clips are filled with performers dear to my heart.
You certain bring new meaning to this ....
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⋆───★•❥ ☼ .¸¸.•*`*•.♥ (ˆ◡ˆ) ♥⋯ ❤ ⋯ ★(ˆ◡ˆ) ♥⋯ ❤ ⋯ ★
Lucy - The Van meaning was a surprise to me too. By all means check out some of Makem's stuff on YouTube. He sang with the Clancy Brothers for several years so he'd be featured in all their early performances.

Algis - Thanks for the comment. I hope you enjoyed some of the music.
Plastic Jesus. Love that one, especially straight from the scene in Cool Hand Luke.
Great point. While I am an aetheist, that doesn't mean I can't enjoy the aesthetics of music that may in part have a spiritual base, regardless of what that spirit might be. Something either works for me or it doesn't. Would The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" fit within this context for me? It's certainly one of my favourite songs ever.
Rochelle - I'd forgotten about Plastic Jesus. Another one for my next YouTube walkabout.

Various - While God Only Knows isn't overtly religious, it's premised on there being a god so it would qualify. Great song and I once heard it was McCartney's favorite.
Great post. Like you I have a hard time buying Creationism. If there is a God, He/She is an asshole. But there are worse things for Man to do than write music on the subject. Somehow I can buy Handel's account of being visited by God when he wrote the all-time biggee "Messiah."
Music can make us feel many things, even on its own with no religious connection.
Abrawang - I love ALL of these songs. As a person who believes that the Spirit resides within, I also appreciate good music when I hear it. I love Christmas Carols, for instance, because almost everyone knows them, even if they're not Christian. So, if there's a singalong, Beatles songs and Christmas carols are your best bet in the U.S. I was in the (non-denominational) Chapel Choir at Penn State, and we sang so much beautiful music from so many traditions. I especially loved the medieval an modal (folk) songs. Thank you for posting.
I'm in the same camp with you: non-believer who likes a lot of religious music. I attend the Unitarian Church - they accept almost anyone - and occasionally sing and play there. I chose "Farther Along" after seeing Winter's Bone in which it played as the credits rolled. Not your typical Unitarian/Universalist music. U/U music, for me, is pretty but lacks the passion of Gospel music. Thanks for this. The combination of Doc Watson, Alison Krauss, and Ricky Scaggs singing a capella may be impossible to beat. R
james – inspiration can come in many guises. It’s the end product that counts and like you, I wouldn’t condemn the offspring because of doubts about the parentage.

Sheila – It has wondrous properties all right. I’ve heard it can even stave off the effects of Alzheimers, at least for a while.

Wren – Glad to see another fan. And the Beatles are still my favorite band.

escrito – I’ll have to refresh my memory on Farther Along. Winter’s Bone was my favorite movie for 2010 but I’m drawing a blank on the song. And I’m with you in thinking Doc Watson is a marvel.
I think I have heard and seen the light here and right now thanks to you.
Hillbilly Shakespeare, Hank Williams -- hadn't heard that before -- perfect. If you aren't familiar, you might also check out Hank's Somethin' Got a Hold of Me, a pretty good response to atheism.

Leaving religion aside, Hank also deserves to share with Merle Haggard the title Poet of the Common Man. I don't always share Merle's politics, but no song could be more politically apropos than his Are the Good Times Really Over For Good. And that's even more the case now than when he recorded it.
Oh, and you should also add David Lynn Jones' "One Song" to your list and Harvey Reid's version of "How Can I Keep From Singing" and Red Foley's version of "Steal Away" or any version of that old negro spiritual (as they used to be called) and I could go on and on and on ... and I usually do ....
Algis - didn't notice your comment till now. Hope you enhjoyed teh tunes.

Tom - Thanks for the suggestions. I'll load some of them up next time I do a YouTube walkabout. Re haggard, I thought his politics had veered around over the years but I haven't followed him closely. have you ever heard Jerry Jeff Walker's Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mothers? It's party a response to Okie from Muskogee.

I'm curious about Something's Got a Hold of me, a song with which I am not familiar. I've no doubt religion does some good for some people in motivating them to act morally or more simply as a comfort from the stresses of the world. And if that's all it amounted to it would fit in well with my live and let live view.
Hank's song is not to be confused with other songs with a similar name. I learned this one at my Momma and Daddy's knee -- literally. Here 'tis:

Somethin' Got A-Hold of Me

When first I heard of some people who claimed
That old-time religion was real
I said, "I'll go down there and look at the crowd
For just that weak-minded I feel"

I walked up the steps, and I peeked in the door
The Devil said, "Don't you go in!"
I said, "It won't hurt me, I'll just step inside
And sit as far back as I can"

But somethin' got a-hold of me
Yes, somethin' got a-hold of me
I went there to fight, but I tell you that night
The Lord got a-hold of me

They sang like they meant it, they all clapped their hands
I said, "Its commotion, that's all
When they get down to pray, I'll just get up and leave
For I don't wanna be seen here at all"

The preacher got up, and he got started to preach
And he looked straight down at me
He told everybody just how mean I was
I don't think he thought much of me

I sat in my seat just thinkin' it o'er
And then they all started to pray
Fire fell from Heaven, I knelt to the floor
I prayed there, and God had His way

Yes, somethin' got a-hold of me
Somethin' got a-hold of me
I went there to fight, but I tell you that night
The Lord got a-hold of me

Now I know longer am livin' in doubt
Since I had that experience that night
I'll never forget it as long as I live
I found that salvation was right

Yes, somethin' got a-hold of me
Somethin' got a-hold of me
I went there to fight, but I tell you that night
The Lord got a-hold of me
I get what you mean about enjoying religious songs. I love Don Edward's song "The Master's Call". As long as there is depth and emotion to a song, I like it.
I saw the light will always be a favorite esp this one here.
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............... *•.¸.•* ♥⋆★•❥ Thanx & Smiles (ツ) & ♥ L☼√Ξ ☼ ♥
⋆───★•❥ ☼ .¸¸.•*`*•.♥ (ˆ◡ˆ) ♥⋯ ❤ ⋯ ★(ˆ◡ˆ) ♥⋯ ❤ ⋯ ★
Just reviewing some of the back catalog as as usual, YT took down a few. So Tommy Makem's version is replaced by the very good Dubliner's version and I had to get a pretty good Doc Watson version of Down in the Valley. For a while Will the Circle wasn't showing up but it seems to have been resuscitated. And for the comments I missed:

Rachel - Thanks for the suggestion. I'll look it up on my next YT walkabout.

Algis - Agree completely re I Saw the Light. Pity he was deluded.