Guitarist and music critic Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. has been playing gospel music all his life—including time spent playing in a Jesus band in college. He has worked in churches, played spirituals in prison ministry, and taught religion and music in various colleges and workshops. He also writes about gospel, soul, and blues for No Depression: The Quarterly Journal of Roots Music and Living Blues.
Henry is the author of the new book Fifteen Spirituals that Will Change Your Life.The book, part memoir, part tour of gospel music hits and artists, and part history of forgotten parts of America, tells the stories behind some of traditional music’s favorite songs.
What started you on your writing journey?
Reading started me on my writing journey. When I was growing up, I read a lot of novels, and I read the newspaper every day. By the time I got to college, I liked writing, though I never thought back then about writing a book or even writing articles or reviews. When I started writing about music for a local newspaper in my senior year in college, I discovered that I loved being able to distill ideas in words. I continued writing through seminary and into graduate school and my years of teaching in colleges. In those years, if someone had asked me if I thought I would ever write a book, I am sure I would have told them “no.” However, when the publisher at Paraclete Press, Jon Sweeney, proposed this book to me—and had the confidence that I was the person to write it—I realized that I was ready to write a book; writing it—while it took time, of course—was a real joy.
Just as all good novels include a plot twist, the Author and Creator of our lives often writes in a twistthat ultimately blesses us more than our original plan. Have you ever experienced such a “Divine Detour”?
I know I have experienced many “Divine Detours” in my life. The most recent was a job loss. After spending ten years in one job, I was told one Friday afternoon that my position was eliminated. In the moments following the news, I was in shock, but within the hour I recognized that—in spite of the challenges this loss would bring—this was indeed a Divine Detour (though I wouldn’t have it described it that way then since I was unware of this felicitous phrase). Even though I no longer had a full-time job, I was blessed when other channels opened that would not have opened otherwise. I would not have had the opportunity to write this book, for example. While I still struggle, this Divine Detour has been a blessing.
Let’s talk about your new book, Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life (Paraclete Press, May 2019). Please tell us about it.
Music touches people’s hearts in deep and enduring ways that words often fail to do. Often people will say that the most memorable part of a church service is the music, not the sermon. In Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life, I explore fifteen gospel songs that have such enduring power. Each chapter includes a brief history of the song, it’s setting, composer and lyrics, and illustrates its themes of comfort, healing, hope, community, and love.
Part memoir, part music history, and part analysis and reflection, the book explores in-depth the enduring qualities of the following songs: “Amazing Grace,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” “How Great Thou Art,” “When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart,” “Standing on the Promises,” “If Heaven Never Was Promised to Me,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Brethren, We Have Met to Worship,” and “Steal Away to Jesus.”
Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life is a short guide to the transforming power of these fifteen different gospel songs, many of which are so familiar to many of us that we no longer hear the force of the lyrics and we longer feel moved by the power of the music. My book invites you to hear those songs again, as if for the first time, to listen carefully to both the music and the lyrics, for the rhythms and the ways that the notes of the songs weave under and around each other, giving the song its special quality. Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life listens closely to the songs and asks you to do so, too, to hear what you have never heard before in a gospel song—and offers reflections on those themes.
Music lovers, musicians, readers of Christian inspirational literature, and fans of gospel music will want to read this book.
“Music touches people’s hearts in deep and enduring ways that words often fail to do.”
How did you decide which spirituals to include?
As you know, Kathy, I could have chosen several hundred spirituals to write about in the book. I wanted to include songs with which many people would be familiar. Maybe they grew up singing some of these in church; maybe they heard one of their parents singing one of these songs every Sunday morning; maybe they have their own stories about how one, or more, of these songs changed their own lives. I also wanted to select some songs that were important to me and are part of my story. For example, “If Heaven Never Was Promised to Me,” by Andrae Crouch, which may be unfamiliar to many people, changed my relationship with God and others when I heard it. Finally, I wanted to include songs whose musical structure could move you, apart from the song’s lyrics. So, I hope readers will listen to the many different versions of each song and be moved, transformed, changed by hearing familiar songs played and reflected upon in fresh ways.
A few fun questions…
When the words aren’t flowing—or when you want to celebrate if they are—what is your favorite comfort food and why?
Just about any food from the South is my favorite comfort food. Good biscuits or cornbread with collard green potlikker is hard to beat for comfort food, but I’d also settle for a hot slice of peach pie, bubbling over with fruit wrapped in a flaky crust. Breakfast is my favorite meal, though, and if I could eat only one meal a day, it would be a plate of bacon, eggs, grits, and biscuits, with sorghum.
What Bible passage or story best describes your journey of faith?
When I was younger, I would have said that the story of the prodigal son best describes my faith journey. I did wander from home, but my parents always welcomed me home with open arms, no matter how far I had fallen. These days, I’d say the story of Job describes my faith journey. I have faced some major losses over the past three years and all looked bleak and hopeless. I haven’t had friends who’ve hounded me to give up my faith in God and God’s grace, though. (laughs)Sometimes life still looks bleak, and I admit to struggling with my faith, but every time I struggle God’s grace shines through in unexpected ways and illumines my life.
In the story that is your life, are you the tall, dark stranger; the romantic lead; the mythical warrior; the mad scientist; or the child in an adult’s body?
I am not sure I am any of the above. (laughs) I might be the hero’s sidekick, or the reticent bystander. Of the phrases from the list above, though, I’d be the tall, dark stranger.
If you were a song, what kind of song would you be?
I suppose I should say a gospel song, right? (laughs) Some days, I’d say I’m one kind of song, and on other days, I’d say I’m another kind of song. Some days, I’m a raucous, dance-across-the-floor rock song; other days I am a pensive love song with many verses.
Thank you, Henry! It’s great to have you as a guest at Divine Detour.
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