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'60s Catholic Folk Mass

by Chuck Eddy

'60s Catholic Folk Mass

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To Catholics and lapsed Catholics of a certain age, it might seem like a dream: For a few years starting in the mid-'60s, maybe while a formal high mass was being celebrated upstairs, church basements that were filled with fabric fish cutouts and folding chairs provided a habitat for clean-cut college beatniks -- and even young nuns wearing casual clothes! -- to strum songs like The Youngbloods' "Get Together" on acoustic guitars, perhaps with bongo accompaniment. Overnight, a solemn medieval ritual, unchanged for centuries, made way for a hootenanny.

Liturgical composer Ken Canedo, in his slim 2009 history Keep the Fire Burning, analyzes the "folk mass" as the upshot of a few concurrent events: Pope Paul VI's late 1963 Second Vatican Council encouragement of vernacular non-Latin liturgical language; young Catholics' growing focus on social justice in the wake of JFK's assassination; those same young people's growing Kingston Trio and Joan Baez collections; and the predicament that, when English-language Catholic hymns were suddenly allowed, not many existed. Which led to the use of certain secular pop hits (as well as old spirituals like "Kumbaya" and "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" that had been resurrected during the '50s folk revival), but more importantly led to a cottage industry of original songs -- an industry directly anticipating the largely Protestant genre of Contemporary Christian Music.

In fact, Ray Repp -- whose 1966 Mass For Young Americans, generally considered the first folk mass recording, predated the '70s Jesus Movement by half a decade -- is proclaimed "the earliest of all (CCM) pioneers" in Mark Allan Powell's encyclopedia of the genre (which Canedo quotes). So Repp gets the most songs in this mix, followed by other prolific folk-mass composers (Paul Quinlan, The Dameans, Joe Wise, John Fischer) and then a few more familiar songs that snuck into church through the early '70s, when bishops reined the rebels in.

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