One of my favorite Mormon albums of the past few decades from a little-known LDS musician who lived in New York City for a while, Charlotte Smurthwaite. Her mid-90s album, “Lift me,” featured LDS hymns sung in jazz arrangements and her treatments of “Come, Come Ye Saints” and “If You Could Hie to Kolob” are fantastic and are still played regularly in our family. Since then, it seems like new arrangements of LDS hymns in different styles have become an important part of current Mormon music. I hear the Sabre Rattlers’ version of “Come, Come Ye Saints” introducing each Mormon Stories podcast. I believe I’ve even seen such versions on the latest music CDs even from Deseret Book.
I’ve been very pleased to see the rise of such music. And I hope to hear more. As I understand it, when similar versions of hymns first started appearing many Mormons objected, saying that such versions were sacrilegious. Fortunately, I think most of those objections have dissipated, or at least I’m tone deaf to them. But in thinking about these songs, a couple of questions occur to me. First, I wonder why so little of this kind of experimentation has appeared in Mormon literature. And second, I wonder what other kinds of experimentation are possible that we have simply not yet heard or read.
In the case of music, these songs bend genre—religious music turned into jazz, country and, IIRC, rock. While I think that there is a kind of genre bending that has happened in literature, but its much harder because the core plots of literary genres are often strongly connected with that genre. But there are blended genres, romances told in adventure or thrillers, romantic comedies, etc. Somehow these are so well established that they hardly seem controversial, let alone experimental. Is there more than can be done here? Seems like there should be, but I don’t know.
In music, I hope to hear more experimental use of Mormon hymns. But shouldn’t the next step be to use other source materials? What about other Mormon poetry? I know that they don’t have the resonance among Mormons that hymns do, but their ideas will often still resonate.
And in Mormon literature, aren’t there obvious areas where writers can experiment? One of the more fascinating recent works in this regard is The Fob Bible, which is basically a collection of riffs on scripture. As a result, it has the potential to get the same kind of benefit that using hymns has in music. I’ve also written in the past about literary mashups, wondering if something like that could be done in Mormon literature. And now I wonder if there aren’t other ways of experimenting that could also be successful? Perhaps literary genres and music genres aren’t comparable, and writers should instead use different literary styles to get the same effect as a different musical genre.
Mormon literature does have some of variety, but it seems like it is much less than what we see in American culture. I suppose this is, in part at least, because there just aren’t that many Mormon works being published. But, it may also be that our current literary milieu discourages experimentation in general and especially to works that, like hymns sung in other musical genres, might be seen as “inappropriate” uses of the sacred.
I hope not. I hope we will see more literary experimentation in Mormon literature. If it can be accepted in music, surely we can see it in literature also.