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Biblical Balladeers
© 1997 by Pat Hannon

The role of the "Balladeer", or strolling minstrel, in modern culture

A Warning to Musicians (Amos 6:5-7): That chant to the sound of the viol, and invent to themselves instruments of music, like David; That drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief ointments: but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph. Therefore now shall they go captive with the first that go captive, and the banquet of them that stretched themselves shall be removed.

I first read these verses many years ago with a sense of bewilderment. Was there an application to me and other musicians in our day? I have come to the conclusion there is such an application. I shall list a few assumptions I make, and then go on to examine the Scriptures. This look at the Scriptures will include an oft neglected function of music found therein. Finally, I will take a look at what this implies for me, and perhaps some of you.

Assumptions About Music and Culture

I make some simple assumptions about music and culture.

  • There is such a thing as "Biblical Culture".
  • This culture includes implications about how to live.
  • These implications are ignored at our peril.
  • That which is lacking should be restored.

There is such a thing as "Biblical Culture"

Items found in a Biblical culture include things like; avoiding idolatry, respect for human life, limits on the size of civil government, and using music for positive purposes. By contrast, there are other cultures which have had or currently have other items. Examples would be the celebration of idolatry, a love of totalitarianism, approval of child killing, music as a tool of sorcery, lust, the worship of false gods, etc. Such anti-Biblical cultures are the Canaanites of old, Communism, the Roman Empire of Paul's day, etc.

This Biblical Culture includes implications about how to live

If we look around and see our culture has not adopted Biblical patterns, or if it had been Scripturally structured but has "backslidden", then we should repent individually and societally. The book of Judges gives examples of such repentance. George Grant, in his book Third Time Around shows how this has happened several times in history since the days of the Apostolic Church. He chronicles this repentance in the area of Abortion and Infanticide.

These implications are ignored at our peril

In a Biblical Culture, people are called to praise the Lord via music. Imagine a group of Christians who ignored this calling. Would such a culture begin to suffer consequences? Yes; it happened in the early church; and the heretical Arians seized upon this dearth to use music to negatively influence the people. The fact that Praise Music was missing created a vacuum in that culture. Some people realized they could exploit this lack for their own purposes.

That which is lacking should be restored

In the above mentioned example, the leaders of the early church saw the problem. Music was an element of community life that was lacking or very weak. Consequently, the church corrected the problem by strengthening and restoring this weak or missing element, re-introducing music into church life. Similarly, after a period of time when most of Christendom has been indifferent to the value of human life in the general culture, our day is seeing a resurgence of concern; more teaching, more action.

Music and Culture Today

Having covered these assumptions, let's move on to examine music in the cultural setting of today. I think I can gain some consensus by listing the following elements of music which should be found in our culture. I think we would all agree that music should be used in worship and praise of God. I assume most Evangelical Christians would also include music for evangelistic purposes. Finally, some would add that excellent writing and performance of music is part of doing all things mightily unto the Lord; and Bach is often cited as an example of this. And many would also agree that entertainment and aesthetic enjoyment is a valid use of music.

But, is this list exhaustive? Can you pause right now, glance over the last paragraph, and say, "yes, that covers what music should be about if all Christian musicians are obedient in their calling." (Come, on, do the exercise..)

If you answered "Yes," then this article is for you. If you answered "No" then this article is either review and/or expansion for you, or you need to write an article covering other things I am not addressing.

Examining a Biblical Pattern for Music

If you open your Bible to chapter 5 of the Book of Judges, you may see a heading calling it the "Song of Deborah." Here is a brief introduction to that song. Chapter four covers various events during the time of Deborah. Chapter five is a recap and expansion on those days, in the form of a Hebrew ballad or folksong. We know it was sung because we are told this in the first verse of chapter five;

Judges 5:1. Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day, saying,

It is useful to note the Hebrew word which is here translated as "sang"; our thanks to Strong's Concordance, once again.

7891 shiyr, sheer; or (the orig. form) `shuwr (H1 Sam. 18:6), shoor; a prim. root [rather ident. with H7788 through the idea of strolling minstrelsy]; to sing

Ah, I feel we are getting somewhere now. Could it be that the traveling bard, the strolling minstrel, the musical storyteller who is a multi-faceted communicator, that this person is part of the Biblical Culture? Should at least some songs incorporate didactic content primarily aimed at educating believers? May it cover not only Theological concerns, but also biographies, current events, history, technical issues, etc.? Is it valid for the author(s) to travel from village to village to share this information? And not only to a passive audience, but to ensure accurate transmission to others after they leave? And for the singers to hope than this will have a positive effect over a period of time? As you might expect, my answers are, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

Here are a few other things I would like to point out about the Song of Deborah. Notice the perspective in Judges 5:11;

They that are delivered from the noise of archers in the places of drawing water, there shall they rehearse the righteous acts of the LORD.

Picture the villages in the time after this victory; down at the watering hole, they "rehearse" these deeds. How do you rehearse a song? We rehearse songs by singing them. Based on this verse and a few other things we can gather through study, we can conclude;

  • They sang it a long time, in the villages.
  • This song is included in the Book of Judges, which was written hundreds of years later.
  • Quality of this poetry is excellent.
  • The language is different than the language of the rest of the book of Judges (like Shakespeare, KJV English is noticeably different than ours).

We can picture folks down to the time of the writer of the Book of Judges singing this song. The would be celebrating the protection of the Lord in good times; in bad times, they would be laying the groundwork for the next cycle of repentance.

What we should learn from this

I think we can summarize a few of the lessons we can learn from the "Song of Deborah" as follows;

  • Our stories and songs are important.
  • We should learn the stories.
  • We should tell them and sing them to ourselves and others.
  • It should change the way we live.

Implications for me and perhaps some of you

I believe in diversity in the body of Christ. I don't believe every musician should have to be a composer, singer, technical virtuoso, player of Bach and ballads, conductor, choir director, concert performer, campfire leader, etc. I do believe, however, that at least some folks should be doing everything that is part of Biblical culture today; and if there is a lack of some activity, or if it is very weak, then we should bring it up for discussion and see if it brings a "yes, that's me!" out of a person who has such a calling, but has never been encouraged in that direction.

I think this "Song of Deborah" pattern gives us insight into the validity of the traveling ministry. It points to people going from place to place. On the other hand, this was a "village" event; small groups, not the urban amphitheater. And of course, after the "strolling minstrels" moved on, there were the local musicians who carried on the "rehearsing."

We have summarized this cultural element in a song about the "Song of Deborah." (Does that make it a meta-song?)

Deborah was a mother in Israel
Deborah had a wondrous story to tell
Of theology; recent history;
showing how Israel fell
Then repentance; victory;
so in peace they now could dwell
Of the tough as nails heroine named Jael
Geography - meteorology - witty words as well
Yes, Deborah was a mother in Israel

The small towns lost their people;
they fled and feared their fate
Idolatry, that was the cause of terror at their gate
Canaanite law for spear and shield control
must have been in place as well
'Til Deborah arose, a mother in Israel

While she was judge, men then arose
who followed God, then led
the people back to all God's ways
to follow what He said
She criticized the faithless tribes,
and praised the ones who did well
Yes, Deborah was a mother in Israel

Reuben was a tribe that did a lot of talking
When it was time to march to war
they didn't start a-walking
And so for years they sang of their fears
whenever they went to the well
Because Deborah was a mother in Israel

There was a key to victory;
the ones who volunteered
They faced the horse and chariot
that their forefathers feared
The chariots were swept away,
when the river it did swell
While Deborah was a Mother in Israel

And, hoping to be "doers of the Word" also, my family and I prepared and embarked upon a "village to village" tour to share educational information on Biblical culture throughout a number of states during the fall of 1997. Stops have included Christian schools, homes, and a retirement village; and groups varying in size from 5 - 10 up to over 100. We sing ballads we have written, accompanying ourselves on guitars, autoharp, harmonica, ukulele; and we have a computerized slide show with scripture verses, quotes from other researchers, pictures from archeological digs and historic sites, and other outlines and diagrams.

Finally, getting back to the warning to musicians at the beginning of this article, I noticed that the ruin of "Joseph", though it certainly had a clear exegetical reference in Amos, also brings to mind the definition of the Hebrew term;

Yowceph, yo-safe'; fut. of H3254; let him add (or perhaps simply act. part. adding); Joseph, the name of seven Isr. (Joseph; "he shall add," Gen. 30:24)

Thinking about the Canaanite culture and its child killing (which is one of the reasons the Canaanite culture was condemned by God, see Leviticus 18), I was reminded that our culture has the same problem, and the same need for repentance which Basil encountered in the fourth century. Thus, we include a Ballad about Basil and the Babies;

BASIL AND THE BABIES (c) 1997 Hannon

Basil was a man of God,
Basil was a voice for life
Through the darkness of his day
his message cut like a knife

In the Cappadocian region Basil saw what they could not hide
Murder of those who were defenseless;
abortion and infanticide
Pagan tradition still was standing;
babies had no legal rights
On this issue with light from Scripture
Basil set his sights

The value that God placed on human life
Basil taught now in word and deed
Christian charity from he and his followers
flowed to those in need
And the high places where infants were exposed
outside of the town
Were themselves opposed, exposed and finally torn down

The Emperor Valentinian said "We'll tolerate no more
Of pagan parent practices" in the year Three Seven Four.
The crusade of Basil had succeeded
and reached the Emperor's ears
In Christendom babies could be protected
for over 15 hundred years

In conclusion; perhaps the Biblical Balladeers need to arise and do their duty in educating believers, and in transforming the culture. Like the many other missing components, we need to add our unique bricks and mortar to the edifice that God is building in our day, that the "whole earth may be filled with the glory of the LORD."

Last updated: 12 April 2006
Updated by: Matt Bynum