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Songs of Life

[World, September, 14] 

There are many ways to act out pro-life convictions, and a surprising number of people do so by singing. A recent survey of the field yielded over 40 titles of pro-life songs, and the list is certainly incomplete.

There are two album-length collections of pro-life music, plus many singles and amateur songs. The first album, "Sing Out for Life," is the fruit of an ambitious 1985 cassette-and-concert project organized by Bill Woodley for Right to Life of Colorado (available from Citizens for Responsible Government, Arvada, CO).

The songs run a musical gamut, one which stops short, of course, eight years ago. Here one can hear that standard of the pro-life movement, Pat Boone’s "Let Me Live." This song features extended spoken portions, as Boone narrates a dream-sequence with unborn children describing their development and their wish to be born. (A too-rare element here is the use of real children’s voices, not women singing childishly.) Many love this song deeply, but to others it is the musical equivalent of a painting of a forlorn kitten with big eyes in an alley. In my opinion, the era of songs with long spoken portions is (blessedly) long past, the word "primal" doesn’t belong in a song in any case, and if I never hear it again I will be content.

Number two on the pro-life hit parade also appears on this album: Phil Keaggy’s "Little Ones," featuring Keaggy’s quietly expressive voice and trademark elegant guitarwork. Michael Kelly Blanchard’s hit "Danny’s Downs" also appears. This aggressively sentimental song approaches the listener with the subtlety of a puppy trying to lick your ears off; nevertheless, it excels many lesser songs with its brisk, vivid depiction of a complex tale. Disappointed parents lean against life-saving surgery for their Down Syndrome newborn, until an "ol’ Jamaican woman" sweeping hospital floors reminds them that "There ain’t no love the Lord can’t grow." The closing snapshot, eight years later, is of a happy schoolboy with two younger siblings, while the "ol’ Jamaican black" lives in the guest room. A serviceable song concept has here been burdened with saccharine, the "ol’ Jamaican black" a particularly gratuitous over-reach.

"Danny’s Downs" brings to mind the saying that "Sentimentality makes you cry; tragedy does not." We may shed easy tears at a touching TV commercial, but find that the Waco massacre leaves us stunned and incomprehending. Songwriters, then, may try to make the tragedy real by breaking it down into smaller stories of human urgency; sentimentality is the humble, clumsy courier pressed into service to carry a weight beyond human strength, the weight of 30 million children.

Sometimes, as above, the effort is successful; other times the sentiment is too forced, and the hearer feels manipulated. Sometimes the concept is simply too smarmy, as when a convention performer sings an unborn-baby-talk version of "I Want to Be Where the People Are" (from Disney’s "The Little Mermaid").

However, even the best of these songs may not be ultimately the most effective. There is a curious pleasure in the tears they prompt, as they replace the ragged and incomprehensible truth with the familiar outlines of melodrama. The most beautiful songs are the sad songs—but they don’t necessarily rouse to action.

Many of the songs on "Sing Out for Life" do issue bald calls to action, some by non-professional singers making their debut. Unfortunately great, aching sincerety does not guarantee great music. "Right to Life" cloaks its pro-life sentiments in an improbable cha-cha beat; "Live and Let Live" proceeds so slowly that the version overheard in speed-copying was much more appealing (though the resulting vocals conjure an image of Alvin and the Chipmunks crooning in "Choose Life" t-shirts).

One of the best amateur songs is Carolee Shearer’s "We Shall Remain." When people assert that "the pro-life movement needs a song," they don’t mean the performance songs considered so far, but a simple, motivating chorus in the style of "We Shall Overcome." A movement song is one that can be sung by ordinary people, without elaborate (or even any) accompaniment; it chooses a simple, walking rhythm, few and memorable words, and a melody that bears easy harmonizing or spontaneous new verses. Poignant minor-key touches make it less boring to sing repeatedly, and lend dignity even when sung by just a few voices.

Interestingly, movement songs are not usually about the cause itself, but about the singers—what we’re saying and doing, and our persistence. Movement songs are about endurance. While they encourage the singers, they also present to the public an image of noble self-sacrifice. These songs create sympathy for the movement’s message by creating sympathy for its representatives. Shearer’s song is the best of this genre I’ve yet heard, although the lyrics are weak. We’ll have to go on waiting for our movement’s "We Shall Overcome."

The other pro-life song anthology is Operation Rescue’s 1989 "Crying for You, Baby." Most striking here are Rick Crawford’s bitterly ironic "Freedom and Justice" (brutal murderers "get life," unborn babies "get death") and Steve and Annie Chapman’s "Bring That Child to Me" ("I am a barren woman" pleads Annie, in decidedly non-PC terms). Single recordings of note include Wendy Swanson’s strong vocals, backed by a shimmering, pinpoint arrangement, in "All They Need is a Chance," and DC Talk’s honeyed voices in the R & B/rap "Children Can Live Without It."

Finally, April Lynn’s "Save Me" points out a lack in the field generally. Lynn describes a pregnant woman who, in despair, has an abortion—then offers her forgiveness and healing if she will only cry to the Lord, "Save me." Lynn’s song is one of the few that looks at the plight of the pregnant woman. The pro-life movement has emphasized what we’re against, but done a less-complete job of explaining what we’re for. As the abortion rate has remained at 1.6 million per year for a decade, we’re learning that we cannot seize unborn children away from their mothers, nor badger and insult women into giving birth. The movement as a whole is discovering what the pregnancy care providers have always known: that we can best end abortion by finding ways to love both mother and child. Our songwriting has not yet caught up with this new understanding; we eagerly await the results when it does.

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