— By Margie Goldsmith
The words, sung in a rich, haunting voice, reverberate around the room:
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross…
Till my trophies at last I lay down.
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.
I am in Branson, Missouri, the “Live Music Show Capital of the World,” listening to country-music star Clay Cooper in a theater bearing his name. I love live music and my goal is to fit in as many shows as I can over a three-day weekend.
One hundred shows are offered daily, and so far in two days I’ve seen five. Near the end of every show, the performers sing a few hymns or gospel songs. That’s the kind of music I like best, but I’m feeling a little guilty about it because I’m Jewish.
As Cooper sings, “I will cling to the old rugged cross…and exchange it some day for a crown,” I mouth the words because I know them by heart. I have many gospel CDs at home, and sing along with them at the top of my lungs.
My friend, Ellen, who teaches Bible class, doesn’t understand how a Jew can love Christian music. I tell her to look up Job 38:7 which says God “gave humans the ability to sing and to make music with musical instruments to complement the voice.”
I also remind her that back in the days of the Levitical tribes, music was crucial to the worship service and that temple musicians and singers sang their praises to God. When Ellen gives me one of her quizzical looks, I say that David not only wrote more songs in Psalms than anyone (some say nearly half), but also played the harp to soothe Saul’s worries.
That’s what hymns and gospel do for me – they calm me when I’m squirrelly and brighten my foulest moods.
Still, I’m feeling a little uneasy here in Branson where there are more than 100 Christian churches and only one synagogue.
In every show I’ve seen, there have been references to God and Jesus. After one show, all five Hughes Brothers, their wives, and their many children came to the edge of the stage to meet the audience and autograph CDs. I asked one of the brothers how it was possible for them to perform together without fighting. He answered, “Family love, and the love of Jesus keep us together.”
In Branson, God and Country are intertwined, and all shows include patriotic songs, gospel, and hymns. As they are played, images of the American flag, the Statue of Liberty, U.S. soldiers, and the cross flash on giant video screens.
In some of the lobbies, Biblical books are displayed for sale right alongside T-shirts, mugs, and other standard concert fare. I understand the patriotism, but the religious element in theater is new to me, especially as a New Yorker who sees a great deal of it.
I asked a theater manager why there was gospel music in every show in Branson and he told me gospel and country have always gone hand in hand in the Ozarks. “You never have one without the other,” he said. “They’re so closely woven that you won’t find anyone who likes country and doesn’t like gospel. It’s part of the experience and the commonality of the music.”
During one show the lead performer sang “Turn Your Radio On,” one of my favorite songs.
Come and listen to the radio station where the mighty hosts of heaven sing
Turn your radio on, turn your radio on
And if you want to hear the songs of Zion coming from the land of endless spring
Get in touch with God, turn your radio on.
I couldn’t help myself — I began to clap my hands and tap my feet. Then the person next to me started clapping, and the person next to him followed. Pretty soon the entire audience was clapping and tapping and bobbing back and forth. And I finally understood that it didn’t matter if they were Christian and I was Jewish — I could have been Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Taoist. The important thing was that we had found common ground.
And as we clapped and tapped and swayed and hummed, it felt as though the mighty hosts of heaven were singing along with us.