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Liturgy and the Dance Band on the Titanic

I’m in the dance band on the Titanic
Sing “Nearer, my God, to Thee”
The iceberg’s on the starboard bow
Won’t you dance with me.

                   Harry Chapin, 1977

Back in the late 1970s, when I was an impressionable young lad, I was introduced to the songwriting of the late Harry Chapin, of “Cat’s in the Cradle” fame, whose way-longer-than-top-40 original story songs left an indelible mark on my own pursuit of songwriting. It was also the same era in which I began what remains a lifelong involvement in liturgical music ministry.

Chapin’s tour-de-force double album of 1977, “Dance Band on the Titanic,” had a title song that told the story of the sinking ship from the imagined perspective of the band’s guitarist, “strumming as the ship goes down.” Before the universe went “crash!” he hears the lookout say, “There’s icebergs around, but still everything’s all right.”

Forty years later, I find this irony-filled song to be a source of reflection on—of all things—the meaning and purpose of Catholic liturgy and liturgical music as we’ve experienced it in that same time.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy!
Chapin’s ironic lyric was built upon his own premise that his 1970s-era socio-political surroundings were dooming the country, while the passengers of the sinking ship were partying and dancing the night away to the feel-good tunes of a band deflecting attention away from the death-dealing horror that awaited them.

His take on the musical distraction of the Titanic’s dance band leapt into my mind as I recently began pondering the relationship between sacred liturgical music today and the massive patrimony of sacred liturgical music the Roman Rite possesses from long centuries of celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Read more at Crisis Magazine. 

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