Ideologies of the Acoustic Guitar in Contemporary Worship Music

Last semester I taught a popular music history course. When we got to music of the early 1990s, one of my students started singing a contemporary worship song along with what we were listening to. I think my student was bang on – it isn’t much of a jump from Hootie and the Blowfish and Dave Matthews Band to contemporary church music. So why is it that musical styles from twenty years ago remain prominent in churches today? Part of it could be their ‘Goldilocks’ approach, emulating ‘contemporary adult’ radio trying to please everyone with music that is ‘not too hard, not too soft’. Another important factor, though, is the rise of the acoustic guitar as the lead instrument in church music and the ideologies that are attached to its sound. The sound of the acoustic guitar is heavy with meaning, owing to its history of being heard as a sign of ‘authentic’ expression. So just how did the acoustic guitar become the sound of ‘authentic’ expression? To excavate this reception history takes us to ideas of ‘folk’.

While the ideas of ‘folk’ and ‘folk music’ have a long and complex history, key to this discussion is rural southern black music by the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson and others from the 1920s and 1930s. Captured by mobile recording equipment in the early days of the record industry, this music became emblematic of the struggles of the working class to a later generation of urban whites. The urban folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s‚ which included Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan‚ drew upon this music to promote causes including civil rights and worker unions. Seeger’s concerts often turned into group sing-alongs that proclaimed shared values. Of course, many issues arise when urban white musicians conjure up rural black music and apply it to issues of a different time and place, but there is not space to deal with them here. Rural folk was characterized by a singer with an acoustic guitar or banjo, and this musical form was imitated in the folk revival of the 1950s. Since then, the acoustic guitar has returned to prominence several times in popular music, carrying with it the same values. Just think of the MTV Unplugged fad, where again the acoustic guitar signifies intimacy and authenticity.

The acoustic guitar, or course, is also prominent within today’s church music. What is interesting in the movement to praise choruses is how many of the values and musical forms of the 1950s folk revival are transmuted into the centre of the worship life of the Evangelical church, despite the fact that folk revival music was criticized by conservative Christians for being too socialist.

When Bob Dylan went electric at Newport in 1965, it caused controversy within the folk community. The electric guitar seemed to represent individual expression rather than group expression, performance rather than community. Paired with Dylan’s lyrics that became increasingly personal, this seemed a betrayal of the folk ethos. Dylan’s concerts‚ while powerful‚ were far from the sing-alongs of Pete Seeger. It is worthwhile to think carefully about how these ideologies of the acoustic guitar are brought into contemporary church music, and what it means when church music goes electric.

What do you think? How do you see these ideologies played out in church worship? 

Note: If you are interested in exploring this topic in more detail, keep an eye out for my article in an upcoming issue of Verge: a journal of the arts and Christian faith. And‚ shameless plug here‚ we welcome submissions for this academic journal on an ongoing basis.

Jeff R. Warren is Associate Professor of Music and Interdisciplinary Arts at Trinity Western University in British Columbia. His research areas include phenomenology, ethics, and improvisation. He is a jazz bassist and sound artist. He has a Ph.D. in music and philosophy from Royal Holloway, University of London.

2 Comments

  • Matthew Linder says:

    I never made the connection between Seeger and contemporary worship music but I can see a lot of similarities. The sing-along aspect is very interesting as the person playing acoustic guitar in worship is usually also leading the congregation in singing, which bears a striking resemblance to Seeger concerts. I also noticed within myself this past Sunday when the worship leader played electric guitar instead of acoustic that something did not feel quite right about it. After reading this article, however, I can make sense of my unease about the situation as something that was engrained into our culture as the ideology of acoustic=community and electric=individualism, which has carried over to evangelical churches. To think that we can be totally unaware of how culture has affected us and our worship is both humbling and frightening. Jeff, you gave me a lot to think about and wrestle with on my attitudes about worship through song. I will also look out for your article in the Verve journal.

    • Jeff Warren says:

      Matthew, thanks for your comment. I think you are right: there is so much to think about when considering church music, and it is frightening that factors contributing to this core Christian practice are not reflected upon more. I look forward to taking a look at your website soon.

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