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Madison Monday

Madison Monday: The Black Lillies and the Church of Damn Good Music

By April 8, 2013One Comment

I didn’t go to church on Easter Sunday, but I went to church on Friday night. Down at the Livery Stable, we all gathered at the Church of Damn Good Music.

God is in the vocal cords

The Black Lillies

The Black Lillies in Madison

I recently read an article in The New Yorker about a surgeon who specializes in repairing the delicate vocal chords. He saved Adele from “a benign polyp that had reduced her voice to a raspy whisper,” for which I am very thankful.

The article describes that great singing is about purity of tone, supple vocal chords and the right anatomy. But a great voice is also about the brain:

The recurrent laryngeal nerve has some of the most complex and dense wiring in the body, roughly fifty times as dense as the nerves to the hand or the tongue–the result, perhaps, of an evolutionary adaptation that turned a simple valve for preventing food from going down the airway into an instrument of speech, and song…“Nothing transmits motor function with more speed and precisin,” Zeitel said. For this reason, he theorizes, people with the greatest vocal control in early human societies became religious leaders. “It’s primal,” Zeitels said. “A complex neural motor function creating happiness, elation, sadness–whatever happens to human beings when they listen to music. It lifts them.”

Yes, exactly that. Standing in front of the stage listening to The Black Lillies on Friday night, I thought about the ways in which so many musical genres either start or pass through churches somewhere along the way. Surely this is no coincidence. Listening to someone like Trisha Gene Brady or Cruz Contreras sing, it’s easy to assume that there’s a higher power involved.

Collective effervescence

I’m a sociologist, though, so sometimes the higher power is nothing more complicated than people in a room. And sometimes people in a room is a pretty complicated thing. Emile Durkheim, one of sociology’s triumvirate of dead white guys, explained religion as nothing more than the magic that happens sometimes in a room full of people. Only he called it collective effervescence, because doesn’t that sound better?

Something happens, Durkheim argued, when people get together. Something that’s not reducible to the people as individuals and something that can’t really be recreated when it’s just one or two of you. Have you ever been to a sporting event when your team wins the big game, and you feel as if you are in love with every single person in the stadium? The guy next to you is crying and you hug people whose names you don’t even know? That is collective effervescence.

Add music

Not surprisingly, music is a particularly effective way of creating collective effervescence because, well, it’s music. It is primal. It does lift us. To stand in an empty room and sing out–a song you love so much that you feel like it has the power to echo around inside your body cavity. To sing like that feels like you’re channeling something. Demon or angel–who really cares? You are transformed and transported.

To sing like that in a room full of people? Or to listen to someone singing like that? Well, things happen. Things happen, people, in The Church of Damn Good Music. You fall a little in love with the people up there on the stage creating that magic. You fall a little in love with the feel of your own body moving to the beat. You fall a little in love with everyone in the room with you. You fall a little in love with the whole massive beast of the fucking world out there, even if they’re not lucky enough to be in the room with you.

You have arrived in The Church of Damn Good Music. We can’t live there all the time, but here’s sincerely hoping that you get a chance to visit.

And a poem…

The Fall

Music and lyrics by Cruz Contreras

I am not a rich man, I have no fortune to bear
I was born in the desert where a flower is so rare

I am not a rich girl, I have no diamond to share
I was born on the ocean, a thousand stars I wear


I am not a sailor, I am no captain at sea
I was born in the desert and a captain I’ll not be

I was born on the water, my father sailed the ocean wide
A mermaid my mother, I sail along with the tide


I am but a dreamer, I’ve seen you in between
The shadows and the sunshine falling down on me

Would you be my lover if I gave you all I had?
Flowers from the desert and gold from the ocean sand


And I’ll love you in the springtime, I’ll love you through the fall
I’ll hold your hand in the cold and rain when the first snowflakes fall

I am but a dreamer and I’ve seen you in between
The shadows and the sunshine falling down on me


You can listen to the song here.

One Comment

  • Hello,

    I would give almost anything to sing in the Church of Damn Good Music with my musical partner, Kevin Higgins. We have a duo called “Ghosts of the American Road.” I have 2 Texas Music Awards for “Female Vocalist of the Year” and Kevin has 2 for “Song of the Year.” People seem to like us everywhere we go. With over 325,000 miles on our Toy Box, we’ll be up your way in October. Can you please help me find contact info for both the Church of Damn Good Music and the Birdhouse Concert Series? Seems like you’ve been “reading my mail.” We love singing in front of folks, but we’re not prostitutes! (Yup. I read that post, too! ) Cheers from San Antonio!

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