Dept. Of Good Things: The Silver Ages, And Religion For Atheists

The Silver Ages from Nate Johnson on Vimeo.

All around us, traditions and institutions are crumbling. And that’s okay. That’s just the way it is with The Old Stuff: Some of it needs to go, and some it doesn’t but it does anyway. Usually, these things are not up to us as individuals and communities to decide — it’s always way more complicated than that — but new traditions? Well, those are up to us. We can make them. And The Silver Ages, a group of Philly guys (most of whom play in other bands), are very quietly and humbly making their own.

Self-described as “a men’s close harmony vocal ensemble comprised of members of the Philadelphia musical community,” the group practices regularly, but plays maybe a few gigs a year. (One of which, their annual post-holiday show, is coming up on the 19th and will sell out any minute now.) Most of their material dates back to about a hundred years ago — think old Ivy League, pewter cups full of Pimm’s, and so on — but this is no hollow exercise in some retro fetish. Each time these guys perform, these old songs — many of them so neglected over time as to be completely obscure and some, like “My Wild Irish Rose,” still very much in our ether — come back to life. Turns of phrase, melodies a century old, become new again. The group’s been doing this for six years now, and to their families and friends and fans, that annual show held at the Ethical Society on Rittenhouse has become a modern ritual, a new tradition.

A great book came out here last year by Alain de Botton, called Religion For Atheists. Though at times it can be almost sweetly dippy, much of its sentiment has been hard to shake. We wrote about it at the time, but perhaps the NY Times‘ David Brooks encapsulated best what de Botton was on about. In a post-everything age, de Botton “is calling on secular institutions to adopt religion’s pedagogy, to mimic the rituals, habits and teaching techniques that churches, mosques and synagogues perfected over centuries.”

In its first pages, de Botton lets his readers know: Look, we’re not here to argue whether God is real. Too much acrimony and blood has already been spilled in an effort to establish one tribe’s idea of God over another. Rather, he asks, what can we learn? The book then breaks down exactly that: What can we learn about community? Kindness? Education? And so on. But for all of de Botton’s thorough analysis and freewheeling daydreaming, he doesn’t talk too much about music: Its redemptive powers, the fun and community of both making it and being an audience to it, the sheer wonder of it. That’s a shame, but The Silver Ages could be his missing chapter.

By stripping down to just their own voices and drawing on material that is, in the scope of popular music, already ancient, The Silver Ages have found a great back way into music even for people who didn’t need one. The sound of those voices is so basic, but it’s also so complex. What’s more, they’ve managed to build or harness a little community around themselves that doesn’t just want this; it’s not about fandom or consumption. It’s about family and friends, and other things that people just need.

And if that’s not the makings of a tradition, what is? Good on them. And more of it all, please. As one of the old songs goes, we’re brave and gallant bandoleros. We’ll conquer or die.

  • Claude M. Schrader

    I thought that book was an interesting idea, until I heard that he was a fan of the concept of original sin. That is one of the most heinous ideas in all religion