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Dolly Parton’s “There Was Jesus” rebukes Iris Dement’s “How Long.” These peak country/folk/pop artists are not in competition, yet their latest recordings offer contrasting responses to America’s current spiritual turmoil. Dolly keeps the faith while Iris follows the mob. If the truth lies somewhere in between, note that “There Was Jesus” just became Parton’s first song to enter Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs and Christian Airplay charts, while Dement’s release went nowhere — except the uncharted territory of progressive ingrates.
Parton clings to the rock of gospel tradition while Dement seems unsure, grasping a weaker tradition that currently dominates the culture.
“There Was Jesus” is Parton’s collaboration with the song’s composer Zach Williams, the Christian-rock artist from Arkansas writing about his religious conversion, realizing God’s presence in all stages of his life. Her stirring back-up vocals raise the song’s testimony from an individual statement to wider affirmation. Parton’s irresistibly sweet, soaring notes connect to cultural memory, making this a pop record — no longer the subgenre of a minority group that, ironically, has been marginalized by the mainstream media.
Dement has always performed on the margins, despite a brief major-label stint in the Nineties, but her new release is what insiders call “a pop move.” She joins the moment of political piety in which the radical Communist origins of Black Lives Matter are confused with sentimentality about racial prejudice. Dement’s lonesome voice on “How Long” echoes an old folk-music trap; her political conversion, unlike Williams’s gruff realism, is rapt with self-righteousness. This serious error demands clarification.
Dement co-opts gospel in her opening verse:
Someone asked the question once of Martin Luther King
How long do you stay the course and dream the dream?
But it seems evil’s won and greed is on the throne
And you feel like the silent voice in a wilderness all its own
How long? How long?
She purloins the speech that Martin Luther King Jr. gave after the Selma to Montgomery March on June 25, 1965. In what is known as the “How Long, Not Long” speech. King quoted the Book of Amos (5:24). But Dement adds the excessive cynicism that defines the George Floyd riots, and she thereby loses the sanctity of King’s sermon. By repeating “How long? Not long,” King asked and answered an existential quandary according to his faith. Faith is missing in Dement’s song; she replaces it with political pity and the secular longing to join a mass movement of virtue-signaling — without thinking through its origin or its mission. (Her refrain “Till justice rolls down like water / And righteousness flows like a mighty stream” manipulates scripture for a worldly purpose, an offense similar to martyrizing miscreant George Floyd like MLK.)
The impact of Dement’s strongest performances (the album Sing the Delta is her masterpiece) always comes from the purity that her vibrato conveys about plain, honest experience. (She matches Parton’s unerring popular affect.) If not a believer herself, she respects the belief of decent people, and this carries over even into songs such as “Let the Mystery Be,” where she confronts the unknown and the ineffable.
But “How Long” is too effable. Dement shifts into an anecdote about “a little boy about ten years old watching his TV” that recalls a tactic of Obama’s speeches; its pandering is unworthy of the country honesty Dement shares with Parton and Williams. Dement would do well to cover Williams’s “No Longer Slaves,” another strong evangelical song that overturns the Left’s victimhood narrative. (An extraordinary music video shows Williams performing it live before black and white prisoners at Nashville’s Harding prison.)
By contrast, “There Was Jesus” relays the personal experience and sacrifice that also endowed Black civil-rights protesters with grace. They were being devout (practicing their faith) while improving their conditions. As long as the world respected this, society seemed to improve. But now that Black Lives/Antifa marches when churchgoers are not allowed to worship, the non-sanctity of the new movement is revealed. It doesn’t even follow the hippie peace-and-love movements but merely reacts to frustration, not hope. Hope is missing from Dement’s plea, as it was when she solicited liberal approval in her misconceived 1996 anti–Desert Storm song “Wasteland of the Free.”
Parton, however, goes back to the Old Landmark, surpassing political solutions and reminding us of what once was valiant in civil-rights protests — that those marchers were not sanctified because they were right but because they exhibited belief in a higher power and humbly and steadfastly pled for common empathy. And it worked. Parton and Williams recall those sociological events as miracles: “There was Jesus.”
Throughout their careers, these women have created great emotional, universal art, showing how roots music maintains the essence of American spirituality. Their best songs, Parton’s “Daddy Come and Get,” Dement’s “He Reached Down,” override fickle political fashion with essential human truths and devotion. (I could have chosen either one of them as well as Motown as my contribution to the defense of America, in the most recent print edition of National Review.)
Now Parton chooses faith, Dement chooses politics. “There Was Jesus” rejoices, but “How Long” worries. Belief verses skepticism. You decide which provides sustenance.