Life in Community

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Life in Community

Confessions of an Amateur Pianist

April 4, 2018 by

I had an unexpected musical awakening a little over a month ago that hasn’t let go of me. First let me bore you with a little background. My mom sings and plays the piano and my dad is a music teacher so it was a no-brainer that I start studying piano in elementary school. In middle school I studied with Marlys Swinger. She introduced me to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Two-Part Inventions. I still remember the day I mastered Number One. I’d never tasted such satisfaction. I moved on to the Three-Part Inventions and by the time I discovered the Partitas and Fugues, I had a full-blown Bach addiction. In high school I submerged myself in late 19th and early 20th century composers: Chopin, Debussy, Bartok, Shostakovich, Mahler, and Stravinsky, and became a snob.

My tastes haven’t changed that much in the intervening decades, so I was surprised when our community youth group asked my husband and me to accompany a program of songs by Keith Green. Johann eagerly volunteered to play drums, no hang-ups there; but I was skeptical. Who was this guy? I asked some members of my community who had found themselves swept up in the “Jesus Movement” of the late sixties and seventies. They told me stories of dramatic coffee-house conversions. Of how countercultural hippies were transformed into countercultural Christians and dedicated their lives to service and mission. A number of them emphasized that Keith Green’s songs had propelled them toward a life of following Jesus, seeking the radical discipleship that Keith and his wife, Melody, were on fire about. Some friends even showed me slides they had taken of Barry McGuire (one-hit-wonder: “Eve of Destruction”), Keith Green, and John Michael Talbot on stage at “Jesus Northeast” in 1977. (When was the last time you squinted at a 35mm slide?)

Images of Keith Green and Bach

Nevertheless, I arrived at our first choir practice without having even glanced at the sheet music and armed with preconceptions about 1970’s Christian music. (Simple, predictable, homogeneous. I could see myself falling asleep playing three-chord progressions and steeled myself to endure saccharine, unbearably trite, or exaggeratedly pious lyrics.) Surprise number one: for me, Keith’s piano music was difficult, or at least unlike anything I’d played. The chord progressions were unpredictable, the rhythm downright whiplash-inducing. For somebody who’d never gone beyond Gershwin’s “Three Preludes,” Keith Green’s piano gospel rock is highly syncopated. The words are mostly delivered on the up-beat, so to avoid being unseated from this rhythmic roller coaster, the soloists, choir, and pianist had to learn how to bounce along ahead of the clockwork down-beat of the percussion, holding on for dear life as each bar shot past.

Even though they had learned their notes well enough, by the third or fourth practice, the choir was still singing with self-conscious restraint. But as we memorized the words, they began to take on a life of their own, perhaps because many of them paraphrase scripture. Then something clicked. We all “got it” more or less simultaneously and the songs began to sing themselves.

We all realized that these songs were really about us. Young people opened up, sharing their stories of doubt, rebellion, conversion, and the freedom of a new life following Jesus. The singing took on an enthusiasm that spilled over into all our lives. Evening rehearsals were never long enough, so they were followed spontaneously by energetic folk dancing (in the rain) or long hikes (in the snow).

The lyrics were working in me - they held up a mirror to my lukewarm Christianity and gave voice to my longings.

The lyrics were working in me. They held up a mirror to my lukewarm Christianity and gave voice to my longings: “I want to do what You want me to. No empty words, no token prayers, no compromise” (listen). Keith even wrote songs in the first-person voice of Jesus: “My word sits there upon your desk, but you love your books and magazines the best. You used to pray… but now you can’t even keep one appointment we’ve made. I gave my blood to save your life… but you prefer the light of your TV, you love the world and you’re avoiding me!” (listen). These songs unsettled me and forced me to reflect on where I might be compromising instead of living a life of radical discipleship to Jesus.

I started reading my Bible more, The New Yorker less, and praying – a lot more. I’ve stored Keith Green’s songs on the same memory stick as my collection of Bach cantatas. The files got a bit scrambled, so one minute, in Asleep in the Light, Keith is challenging me from his piano, demanding to know why I’m not caring for my neighbor: “How can you be so dead when you’ve been so well-fed?” Next, I’m almost flattened by the burst of trumpets and timpani opening Bach’s cantata No. 110: “May our mouths be full of laughter and our tongues full of praise! For the Lord has done great things for us!”

The juxtaposition is a bit of a stretch but maybe I’m getting a little more flexible. Perhaps it’s not insignificant that Keith Green and Johann Sebastian Bach died on the same date, July 28; Keith in a tragic aircraft accident at the age of twenty-eight, and Bach at sixty-five years, to be buried in an unmarked grave. But what I like to remember is that the master they both served and who inspired their music has promised to be with us until the end of the age.


About the author


Jordanna Bazeley

Jordanna Bazeley lives at Spring Valley Community with her husband, Johann, and their four children, as well as Kizzie the...

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  • " "The purpose of all music is to glorify God, and lift the soul." Johann Bach

    j Day
  • Thanks for this! This is Ross Martinie Eiler from the Bloomington IN Catholic Worker. I do love both Bach and Keith Green and enjoyed the piece.

    Ross Martinie Eiler