I’ve got a song stuck in my head. It starts playing when I get up in the morning, and it bounces around up there all day. I find myself humming it as I walk along the street or drive home. Sometimes I push it to the back with a catchy Gershwin tune, or maybe something from Lerner and Loewe, Cole Porter, the Benny Goodman band, or Neil Young, Gordon Bok, or Utah Phillips. But it politely waits for them to finish and then it clicks its little play button once again.
It’s my 11-year-old niece Alanna’s fault. Well, no, not really. Alanna was merely the trigger. The real culprit is my own 1960s television-watching childhood. Thanks to cable, Alanna has discovered the cartoon shows of my youth, and one of her favorites is “Yogi Bear.”
The moment my mom told me about Alanna and Yogi, the old reel-to-reel in my head started turning: “Yogi Bear is smarter than the average bear…” and the “Yogi Bear” theme song has been my companion ever since.
“Yogi Bear,” “The Jetsons,” “The Flintstones,” “Huckleberry Hound” — I’ll bet most folks who grew up watching them can still remember at least part of their theme songs, along with lots of commercial jingles still filed somewhere in their memories. This was the music of our childhood, sharing space with the pop music and even religious classics of the day, such as “Tantum Ergo” and “Come Holy Ghost.”
Culture changes, people move on, but no matter how silly they were, the songs of our childhood often stay with us. They connect us to family and to others who grew up hearing them. They tell us something about who we are. They remind us of good times and bad. And sometimes even the most crass commercial jingle can be infused with the sacred.
One of most holy moments of my entire childhood occurred on Christmas Eve, 1960. My mom and dad and my sister and brother and I were sitting around our Christmas tree singing Christmas carols — “Silent Night,” “Away in a Manger,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” every one we could think of. But as we sang them, my brother Mike was having trouble joining in. Understandable — I was 7, and had had that many Christmases to let the carols sink into my soul. The same for my sister, who was 9. But Mike was barely 2, not nearly enough time for “Angels We Have heard on High” to take full root. He sat cradled in my mom’s arms and listened as we moved through our entire repertoire.
As we finished, someone said, “We should sing something Mike knows!”
“He knows the Mr. Clean song,” someone else suggested. And so there, on Christmas Eve under the tree, we sang out once again. Mike giggled and clapped his hands with delight as we started singing. I remember him there, a big smile, bathed in the colored lights of the tree. His voice was weak, tentative at first, but as we sang through the jingle he gained his confidence and was fully engaged by the final lines: “Mr. Clean will clean your whole house and everything that’s in it. Mr. Clean, Mr. Clean, Mr. Clean.” We sang with gusto, and when we were done, we all joined Mike in clapping with joy.
Recently, it seems that Procter & Gamble has brought back that old jingle. Just hearing the notes of the melody takes me back to that Christmas Eve so long ago when a family gathered in the light of a tree to celebrate the birth of their Savior and wanted to make sure their youngest member could fully share in the joy. For me, we “baptized” that song that night and connected it forever to the incarnation and divine love. Even now, on Christmas Eve, you might catch me humming it.
There’s still another song I hum from time to time (when Yogi will step aside). A friend found it in an old Catholic school hymnbook from 1895. Lively words set to a catchy tune (be glad this isn’t a podcast, or I’d sing it to you). It’s called “I am a Little Catholic”:
I am a little Catholic,
and Christian is my name;
And I believe the Holy Church
In ev’ry age the same.
I love her altars where I kneel,
My Jesus to adore;
I love my Mother Mary dear
O, may I love her more.
I love the saints of olden time,
The places where they dwelt;
I love to pray where saints have prayed,
And kneel where they have knelt.
I love the priests, my pastors dear
They have left all for me;
Next to my parents here on earth,
I love them tenderly.
I love the Holy Sacraments,
They bring me near to God;
The Church points out the way to heav’n.
These help me on the road.
I am a little Catholic,
I love my Holy Faith;
I will be true to Holy Church
and steadfast until death.
[Catholic School Chimes, 1895]
Imagine row upon row of Catholic schoolchildren belting that out, maybe day after day, school year after school year. Imagine the music and words sinking into their hearts and minds. Imagine them humming it into their 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond. Think of the faith identity and faith connections it would bring back to them whenever they heard it.
The power of music: All these thoughts, from Yogi Bear, to Christmas Eve 1960, to an 1895 hymnbook are prompted by the special feature section in the June issue of Catholic Digest on Keeping Kids Catholic. We present a lot of great ideas there about passing faith on to kids, and here’s one more well worth the effort: passing on the faith through music. Want to remember something quickly and almost forever? Put it into strong words and add a great tune to it. When so many other things fade, music endures. It roots itself deeply into our souls. And as another musician I know likes to say, nobody comes out of Mass humming the homily.
There are many ways to pass on the faith through music. Sing the great lively hymns that have stood the test of time, both theologically and musically. If your kids like hip-hop, get them the music CDs of Father Stan Fortuna.
And why not tap into their creativity by helping them create their own songs? My wife, Deb, tried that recently. She teaches music one day a week at our parish’s school, and back in March she suggested each class try their hand at writing a school song. She gave each class a different hymn tune, which she played over and over on the piano, while the kids worked hard to craft words to fit them. Soon kids were jumping up suggesting lines; others would jump up to offer critique and revisions. They wrestled with word order, meter, rhyme, and theology until each grade pronounced its song finished.
For example, the second grade set their song to Beethoven’s “Hymn to Joy”:
Do you know that it’s real cool at St. Mary Star of the Sea School?
We live out God’s golden rule at St. Mary Star of the Sea School.
When we come to school each day
there’s so many things we love to learn.
God is good to all of us at St. Mary Star of the Sea School.
Now that you know the name of our school, you’ll understand why the fourth grade played with the Star of the Sea image, set to the tune “Pleading Savior” (e.g., “Sing of Mary Pure and Lowly”):
Where do we find a ship of learning?
We find it here at St. Mary School.
Jesus and Mary, they’re our models
here at St. Mary School.
What do we learn from our fine teachers?
We learn that we can all be stars
Stars here and now and in life eternal
God’s with us here at St. Mary School.
And the sixth grade continued the nautical theme with their song, set to the tune “In Babilone” (e.g., “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”):
Star of the Sea, St. Mary our Mother
Leading our school ever closer to our Lord.
More than learning, more than friendship
Living our faith is our ever-binding cord.
Mary, you are our guide and mother
Leading us like the ships at sea.
Mary, we are your loving children.
You are the key to our eternity.
The more I think of what these classes did, the more I think parents and grandparents could do the same with their kids and grandkids. Why not sing the great songs of faith with solid theology put to tunes that can stand being sung over and over without anyone getting bored with them? And why not take melodies and jingles already ingrained from our culture and set new words to them? (It won’t be the first time great religious songs were set to folk tunes and even drinking songs.) Why not build family and faith identity by putting your own words to the musical theme songs of “SpongeBob SquarePants” or “The Addams Family”? Who knows — they may still be singing it 75 years from now.
I hope you enjoy the June issue of Catholic Digest. I hope it helps you think of ways to pass on the faith to others and to remember all those who have passed the faith on to you. And let’s all remember the power of music. From Miriam’s lyrics at the Sea of Reeds to Paul’s letters to early Church communities, to the chorus of the heavenly Jerusalem in Revelation, Scripture is filled with signs of song. Song has always been a part of passing on the faith. Let’s keep singing!