Why not a godless angel band?

It’s not too often that I play a song on infinite repeat, but yesterday I left Angel Band, the last song on the O Brother, Where Art Thou sound track, going for more than an hour. It’s based on an American hymn written and set to music in 1860 by Jefferson Hascall and William Bradbury, (who also wrote Jesus Loves Me).

My latest sun is sinking fast,
My race is nearly run,
My strongest trials now are past,
My triumph has begun.

O, come, angel band,
Come and around me stand,
O bear me away on your snow white wings,
To my immortal home.
O bear me away on your snow white wings
To my immortal home.

O bear my longing heart to him
Who bled and died for me
Whose blood now cleanses from all sin
And gives me victory

O, come angel band
Come and around me stand
O bear me away on your snow white wings,
To my immortal home.
O bear me away on your snow white wings,
To my immortal home.

The Stanley Brothers performed the version in O Brother, Where Art Thou. It’s almost a capella, with four part harmony, and some guitar and mandolin in the background. It’s a simple song. A comforting deathbed song. I disagree entirely with every sentiment expressed in it, but it’s still moving, almost to the point of tears.

How can that be? And how can it be that I don’t know any naturalistic hymns that are similarly moving? Do they exist, but not get played? Is it a failure of community? Or do they not even exist? Have we not yet had enough time to phrase our understanding of the natural world in emotionally captivating ways? Does it take a thousand years to do that? Or do they not exist because we don’t have naturalistic communities? Or because those naturalistic communities that do exist don’t actually value the fact that they are a community – because they’re not willing or able to do the work required to cultivate and maintain themselves as a community?

I wish there were a similarly moving song about exponential population growth, and the subsequent collapse. Something that might come to mind when someone came across a growth rate stated as a percentage. They’d say “Oh, I know how this story ends – all exponential growth is unsustainable.” We need a kind of pre-emptive post-apocalyptic lament. Stories in verse, set to music, about the ways in which we will have failed. They’d hardly be any more distant from our everyday experience than songs about Passover. Or a set of garden hymns… songs in praise of the organisms that make the nutrients in our composted waste available, the sunshine that distills seawater into rain, the hungry ladybugs, the earthworms aerating our soil, chlorophyll, and the plants that have cooperated in their own domestication. The last song could be like Angel Band, but with our bodies being returned to the garden that nourished us, to nourish our remaining family.

By Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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