A Preacher befriends an Long Haired Hippie Artist Freak: Watch the sparks fly

I had a rather longish conversation the other day with a new artist friend who is not much of a churchgoer.   And though this is the second or third of these wide ranging and quite stimulating conversations I have had at this friend’s request, it seems fairly clear to both of us that this is not likely a prelude to a ‘church’ conversion. I do not feel I am being ‘interviewed’ by a potential congregation member and I hope and trust that he does not feel I am trying to soften him up only to pull out my crook and wrastle a ‘wayward sheep’ into the fold.

Like the singer in the classic Kris Kristofferson ballad, Sunday Morning Coming Down, my friend has his own way to the divine and the ringing of church bells and the sound of bibles thumping tend to make him feel more at sea with the heebie jeebies than anything else. Church “makes the body feel alone,” as the singer puts it, and so he ambles on his Sunday morning way, more like Thoreau along the Merrimack River  than a sinner heading to the anxious bench.

Perhaps my friend was a bit surprised that I,  his companion with the dog collar,  was not troubled by this reality. One suspects, given his deep spiritual inclinations, that this was not the first such conversation he had had with a professional religious. One also suspects that in many cases, hopefully not all, he had felt the pressure mount as the clergy tried one end of the stick and then another to convince him that church was not lonesome at all. How could it be,  if it had faces as  friendly and sympathetic  as the winsome priest’s, which was smiling invitingly across the table?! Evangelism can be a sly little devil as sweet as honey and soft as butter even when it has swords up its sleeves ready to be drawn.

What he, the artist friend, didn’t know, was that one of this priest’s favorite songs is Preacher by Ray Wylie Hubbard. One listen to it and you’ll know why the priest was not at all perturbed about the state of the soul of his new friend.

Ray Wylie Hubbard

The Cosmic Cowboy long haired Texas Hippie looking righteous and cool in purple. Now that really preaches!

Preacher by Ray Wylie Hubbard

Preacher come by today
Preacher come by today
He talked a whole lot but didn’t have much to say

Told me of a place where the streets is gold
Told me of a place where the streets is gold
He went on to say that God and the devil
Both want my soul

Said my life was empty something was missing
Said my life was empty something was missing
Carried on and on about how the Savior
Lived in a world above this one

My woman she was hanging clothes on the line
My woman she was hanging clothes on the line
I said look out yonder preacher
Now tell me have you ever seen anything as fine

See how she moves slow
See how she moves slow
You can see I ain’t missing nothing
When she stoop down low

Preacher closed his Bible
And he put his hat on his head
He closed his Bible and he put his hat on his head
He took off down the road,
Must have been something I said.

 

The first time I heard this song on Ray’s incomparable album named, not inappropriately, Growl, I howled with delight.  What strikes me again and again in listening to Ray’s music is the sheer earthiness and depth of the singer’s spirituality. “See how she moves slow,” he tells the preacher, who is clearly in all-too-fired-up of a hurry to rush past this life, the only one any of us actually have experienced, and into the “world above this one.”

And it is the mundaneness too that the reluctant artist ‘evangelee’ highlights. Its not bright lights, big city, or flashy cars and loose women that the singer is ‘tempted’ by. No, its his beloved ‘hanging clothes on the line,”  that floats his boat, and in just a single line Ray has taken us to the depths of his own recovery spirituality, where “keeping our gratitude higher than our expectations” leads to really good days. Ray is dedicated to this woman who has given him as much of the divine as his heart can handle and given it in the flesh.

And it is crucial that unlike the preacher’s reach upward for the slightly unreal vapors too many addicts are prone to being seduced by, his sensuous mystifying angel “stoops down low,” keeping it both real and real humble. The contrast is sharply drawn between the preacher’s arrogant assumption that he and he alone has the truth and the singer’s simple gesture of pointing to something else. Its not that he denies the truths of the preacher.  Its simply that he wants the preacher to see that God’s beauty can be found everywhere, even in something as simple as “drudgery divine,” as the great Anglican priest and poet George Herbert puts it.

george-herbert-robt-white

A different kind of preacher: the long haired English hippie freak and priest George Herbert!

At this point in the song,  the preacher heads off. Here the ambiguity is both tantalizing and full of potential mischief. Has the singer’s sensual spiritual ‘preaching’ of his own bested the full-of-himself bible-thumping evangelist? Perhaps. Is the preacher “shaking the dust off of his feet,” as he goes, scornfully lamenting that ‘here goes another one off to the depths of H.E. double hockey sticks?’ Maybe.

But here I confess that I’ve always been drawn to a third option, one that the song seems to allow though certainly not insist upon. Perhaps the singer is a better evangelist than he knows, or maybe its his woman who’s really got the preacher’s gifts in spades and black ink, and it is they who have converted the preacher! I like to imagine that the preacher too has a woman back home, one who has sadly been neglected for countless days and nights as her righteously cold hubby  has been singularly obsessed with his heaven, others’ hell,  and his own work, to the exclusion of his household chores and his woman’s many blessings. “He took off down the road,” Ray sings, indicating that he was in something of a hurry. Maybe, just maybe, his heart was strangely warmed by his ‘conversation with the devil‘s’ minion, and he suddenly awoke from his dogmatic slumbers and into a life of newfound beauty, love and holy desire.

Perhaps what I mean to say is this: even preachers have beauty and beauteous creatures in their lives. Sometimes it takes a “band of heathens” or two as friends to make that beauty come to life for them. That is why the preacher needs art and artists as friends. To make the body sing electric, righteous, and holy.

What a gift for a preacher to learn how to sing the blues!

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