The Bluegrass Mass
by David C. Drebes
Called by some the “jazz of country music,” bluegrass holds a special place in the Appalachian region of the United States. Popularized in the rural American South following World War II, the initial working-class audience grew over subsequent decades to include fans from across social and economic categories. Radio audiences first encountered Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys in the 1940s, playing country classics with a quick tempo and a high lonesome sound. By the 1950s this was identified as a unique form of music all its own.
More recently, the high-selling soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) introduced a new generation to the bluegrass sound—especially in the form of the movie’s hit single, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” as performed by Dan Tyminski of Alison Krauss’s UnionStation. Bluegrass purists will point out that, though the soundtrack was often marketed as bluegrass and Tyminski’s rendition of “Man ofConstant Sorrow” is definitely bluegrass, many of the other tracks on the album don’t qualify as true bluegrass but belong in the broader categories of folk or country music.
“True bluegrass” is fairly specific. In his popular Bluegrass: A History, folklore scholar Neil V. Rosenberg defines the form’s unique traits as: “music in which singers accompany themselves with acoustic rather than electric instruments, using the fiddle, mandolin, guitar, five-string banjo, Dobro, and bass.” Performers use “virtuoso instrumental techniques” that are “often executed at rapid tempos.”
In the ELCA’s Virginia Synod in the early 2000s, three pastors heard those bluegrass sounds as fertile ground for a traditional worship service set to indigenous music. Jim Baseler, Terry Edwards, and Jeff Marble formed a bluegrass gospel band known as The Kingdom Stompers, playing music throughout Virginia from 1999 to 2008. In an introduction to an early version of their Bluegrass Mass worship booklet, the trio writes of their motivation in setting the liturgy to bluegrass: “What we have attempted to achieve in this liturgy is nothing less than what Martin Luther presented with his Deutsche Messe—matching the liturgy with popular tunes.” Four familiar bluegrass tunes—“In the Pines,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Wayfaring Stranger”—became the structure for their new take on an ancient liturgy. The project was complete by 2004.
The reference to Luther’s Deutsche Messe (German mass) invokes the reformer’s efforts to return worship to the people. Luther was especially concerned about two medieval developments in worship. First, the official liturgy of the mass came to be prayed only by the priest. Second, the remaining sung parts grew so complex that average congregants could no longer take part. Luther returned to the pattern of much older liturgies, making special note of one in use during the fourth century under Basil the Great, in which congregational singing of the Kyrie was assumed. Luther judged that, no longer being a collective act of worship, “the mass became a sacrifice.”
Luther loved music, writing in 1530 to composer Ludwig Senfl that “except for theology there is no art that could be put on the same level with music, since except for theology [music] alone produces what otherwise only theology can do, namely a calm and joyful disposition.” That musical effect could only be improved by expanding the participation of all people in worship. For Luther, that meant finding familiar sounds and language to draw in the people.
Initially he lamented the lack of available music. “I also wish that we had as many songs as possible in the vernacular which the people could sing during mass, immediately after the gradual and also after the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. For who doubts that originally all the people sang these which now only the choir sings or responds to while the bishop is consecrating?” Significant in Luther’s desire for reform is how he views this change as, in fact, a return to the earlier church practice of common singing in worship.
Neither change for the sake of change nor experimentation for the sake of experimentation drove Luther’s reform of worship. Helmar Junghans defines a Lutheran ethos of worship as “this never-ending task: to use the liturgical traditions so that in the worship service God himself can act upon and serve current congregations in an easily accessible, enlivening way.” If this is the task of worship, then no single form can be expected to achieve this work in every culture and time. Therefore, green books, cranberry books, blue books, and bluegrass books can each serve the function of adapting the liturgy into an accessible form so that the work of God may be received by congregations of any time and place. For Luther, there is no single “correct” form of worship.
There is, however, a correct form of bluegrass music. For their part, the Kingdom Stompers offer these tips in their written introduction to the Bluegrass Mass:
There should be a strong, steady pulse and the offbeat and weaker beats need to be emphasized. Be careful not to drag. The vocals are typically pitched high and the vocal style is “light.” Parts are defined by their relationship to the melody, and move parallel to the melody. If only one harmony part is added it should be the tenor. The tenor is the first harmonizing note above the melody. The baritone is the first harmonizing part below the melody. The bass normally sings the root of the chord with occasional passing notes. The baritone can be sung an octave higher, though it is less common. Rarely is the melody the highest note sounded.
For some, the bluegrass sound of this mass will be an accessible, familiar way to recite again the promises of God through Christ. But the Bluegrass Mass isn’t just for residents of Appalachia. Much as the compositions of Bach have moved beyond Germany, bluegrass is now found beyond the rural American South. Like jazz and blues, Rosenberg points out, bluegrass is a true “American cultural export” as it has spread across the globe to Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.
Perhaps just as bluegrass has become an “American cultural export,” the Bluegrass Mass will also become an “American Lutheran cultural export” for use wherever love of bluegrass meets love of the gospel.
The Kingdom Stompers:
Jim Baseler is a retired pastor living in Toms Brook, Virginia. In the band he played mandolin, mandola, and guitar and sang lead, bass, baritone, and some tenor. He has sung in choirs all his life and as a teenager led a folk group in San Francisco. He served all his ministry in Virginia and enjoys all kinds of music from classical to the Grateful Dead.
Terry Edwards serves as pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Mount Vernon, Illinois. He grew up in a bluegrass family—his father played bluegrass, and his father before him. He was the instrumental soloist of the Kingdom Stompers, playing guitar, banjo, bass, dobro, and mandolin, and sang tenor and some lead. He enjoys playing gospel music along with breakdowns, hoedowns, boogies, rags, reels, and all manner of songs.
Jeff Marble serves as pastor of Morning Star Lutheran Church in Luray, Virginia. He grew up on folk music and remembers his dad playing “Puff the Magic Dragon.” He sang lead, baritone, and some bass and is the lyricist of many Kingdom Stompers songs. He enjoys the “swing” songs the best of all.
David C. Drebes is Pastor of Prince of Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Basye/Orkney Springs, Virginia. He produced and edited the new, more accessible format for the Bluegrass Mass.
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1. Neil V. Rosenberg, Bluegrass: A History, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 3.
2. Ibid., ix.
3. Ibid., 3.
5. Helmar Junghans, “Luther on Worship,” in Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 220.
6. Martin Luther, “An Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg,” in Luther’s Works, American Edition, 55 vols., eds. J. Pelikan and H. Lehmann (St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia and Fortress, 1955 .) [hereafter cited as LW], 53:21.
7. LW 49:427–8, cited by Robin A. Leaver, “Luther on Music,” in The Pastoral Luther, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 271.
8. LW 53:36.
9. Junghans, 225.
10. Rosenberg, 3.