Sunday, April 15, 2018

Hillbilly Thomism

My brother Sean sent me this, for which I thank him.

No Question, These Dogs Can Bark
Washington Free Beacon / Micah Meadowcroft

Question. Whether Dominican Friars Can Play Bluegrass

Objection 1. It seems that a handful of Dominican friars (two handfuls on the album<>) should not be a bestselling bluegrass band. Bluegrass is Protestant stuff, soulful songs for whitewashed independent Baptist churches and big homey kitchens and not Latin nerds in white habits in Northeast D.C.

Objection 2. Further, bluegrass is as Americana as anything, and until John F. Kennedy bedded the White House and Bill Buckley built the conservative coalition, Catholics were not exactly accepted or accepting of the American thing. Americanism is a heresy after all.

Objection 3. Further, as Fr. Thomas Joseph White admitted in opening their concert near the White House this past week, bluegrass is as often about murder and unrequited love as it is about God. That a bunch of religious should sell thousands of copies of such music may strike as odd, considering their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

On the contrary, inspiring these good Catholic boys, Flannery O'Connor said of herself, "Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas . . . I'm a hillbilly Thomist," and band-member Br. Justin Bolger said in his original song "I'm a Dog"—after the traditional domini canis "hound of the Lord" pun on Dominican—"I’m a dog with a torch in my mouth for my Lord / Making noise while I got time."

I answer that, in an eponymous album and great live show under the watching eyes of the Catholic Information Center's wall-covering icons, "The Hillbilly Thomists" have marked their territory in the bluegrass world. To combine jargon hip both with the kids these days and with Dominicans—this music is fire.

Reply to Objection 1. They came to bluegrass and Thomism the usual ways, which is to say, through their culture—Catholics south of Dixie who love and play music. Fr. White learned mandolin in Kentucky while living in Cincinnati 16 years ago before moving to D.C., and with time, enough like-minded and like-voiced friars congregated here to make Hillbilly Thomists a going concern.

Reply to Objection 2. While bluegrass became what it is, adopting and combining English ballads and hymns and gospel and blues, Catholic sacred music was set in a traditional Latin liturgical context with Gregorian chant and all the other related resplendent smells and bells. But that hardly means when they take up the banjo that Thomas Aquinas's spiritual brothers are engaged in the—post-Vatican II—fairly common appropriation seen in singing a Luther hymn at Mass. For another influence on Americana is distinctly Catholic: Irish folk music.

Reply to Objection 3. The fathers and brothers of the Dominican House of Studies take a break from their scholarship to record an album of sacred music every year, to be sold to support the house's work and facilities, and the funds raised by this kitchen-table casual departure from convention will go to, apropos, a new kitchen. But homey as the music is, it is sacred nonetheless. Here's to hoping for more from the Hillbilly Thomists.

The post No Question, These Dogs Can Bark appeared first on Washington Free Beacon.


  1. Mr. Flynn, I have a question. What exactly happened to Galaxy Magazine? From what I read, it was up there with Analog and F&SF as one of the top-tier sci-fi magazines. So what happened to it?

  2. There's a chunk of rural Kentucky with a large Catholic population and several monasteries and convents. It's sometimes called the "Kentucky Holy Land" or the "American Holy Land", and was settled by Marylanders whose one-time land of religious toleration had fallen into the hands of the Puritans. The Dominicans first came to Cincinnati to minister to the descendants of these people. They're as Appalachian as anyone and have been for a long time, and it's largely owing to them that you'll find the odd mention of Rosary beads and whatnot in old bluegrass songs.

    Jim Comstock (a Richwood newspaperman and one of West Virginia's most prominent men of letters) put the following question in the mouth of one of his characters: why wouldn't we vote for Kennedy, his daddy made his money running moonshine and had nine kids, he'd fit right in with us!

    As a side note, I've been living on the East Coast for a while now but my family roots are in the Appalachians and my upbringing in the Midwest. One thing that really takes a lot of getting used to is that people out East seem to see ethnic Balkanization and social divisions between Catholics and Protestants as the norm. I suppose it's that way in Chicago, but not in most of the Midwest, and I can't speak for Flannery O'Connor's native Georgia, but things in the Appalachians have been much more relaxed for quite a while. People in West Virginia may be more uninhibited than Midwesterners or New England Yankees when it comes to publicly speculating about the fate of someone else's eternal soul, but that doesn't generally translate into social exclusion or suspicion that someone isn't a good American.

    1. I have joked that if Serbo-Croatian wants a word for ethnic factionalism, since they understandably don't like "balkanization", it would be "чикагоизација"/"čikagoizacija" ("Chicagoization"—yes they pronounce "Chicago" with a "tsch" sound).

  3. Another element or at least cousin of bluegrass is Cajun music.

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  5. "For another influence on Americana is distinctly Catholic: Irish folk music."

    Is it still Catholic after the referendum? The one 85 years after Germans voted Nazi, you know ...

  6. The Hillbilly Thomists are amazing! Each song is done well. I hope they come out with a second album. This has quickly become a favorite.



 Recently, TOF happened upon the following list of words to avoid in one's scrivening and thought to share it with his Faithful Reader. ...