Joshua James: The Modern Musical Mystic

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A Hindu Sadhu in Varanasi 

I don’t know anything about Joshua James’s religious beliefs. Like most earthy folk rock, his songs often trade on biblical themes and allusions. The words “devil,” “Lord,” “prayer,” “God,” “death,” “soul,” “belief,” and the like are a regular part of James’s passionate refrains. And although fan favorites like “Crash this Train” grind his folksy religious grist in the mill of contemporary American politics, James uses his plain religious vernacular most frequently to engage questions of individual belief, loss, and suffering. The amount of autobiography in that engagement is, as I say, unclear to me. What interests me is not whether the struggles in James’s lyrics are confessional, but whether they might represent the work of a type we might call the modern musical mystic.

Mystics of deep, religious history were believers who passionately yearned for overwhelming experiences of unity with the cosmos and sought such experiences through contemplation, poetry, ritual, and self-effacing austerity. They are also known by their belief in cosmic truths that are beyond the human intellect to grasp. Among those most prominent to recorded history are St. Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, the poet Rumi, and Sai Baba, but history is not the mystic’s only home. Religion has certainly been transformed by and retreated from modern life in various ways, but the mystic has not been a casualty of secularization (and probably never will be).

The mystics of the modern world find their space, unsurprisingly, in parts of the world we often think of as inherently religious. The prolific scholar of Indian history and religion, William Dalrymple, paints a few wonderful portraits of such people in his book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. In one of the book’s best essays, he engages mystics who search for transcendence in the rural parts of Sindh, the southernmost province of Pakistan. Tucked up against the border of India, rural Sindh is “a place of refuge for [the] heterodox,” a place where the oft-times stark boundaries between Hindus and Muslims are blurred in the creative and rapturous rituals of Sufi and Hindu mystics alike. At the “tomb of Shah Abdul Latif,” Dalrymple recounts in his book, “loud Sufi music and love poetry was being sung in each courtyard, men were dancing with women, hashish was being smoked, huge numbers were venerating the tomb of a dead man.” The dancers are certainly not dead, but some appear to become possessed by a mysterious, chaotic force during the dhammal, a drum-and-dance reenactment of the destruction of the world by the dancing of the Hindu god of creative destruction, Lord Shiva (in the form of Nataraja—“Lord of the Dance”), and his drumming on the damaru that brings it back into existence.

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Sufi worship at Nizamuddin Dargah in New Delhi, India

The untidy, but nonetheless harmonious, combination of Hindu and Muslim spirit and ritual exists in stark contrast to the communal strife in neighboring Kashmir. This somewhat frenzied, but somehow peaceful, give-and-take between the region’s dominant religious traditions is made possible by the vibrant Sufi tradition. Its playful pluralism, which was once—prior to the British Raj—a prominent influence on the region’s culture and literature, is alive and well in Sindh, according to Dalrymple’s report, despite the strident militancy of nearby Islamist groups. A revered Sufi poem expresses the contrast well:

We Sufis have taken the flesh from the holy Quran,

While you dogs are fighting with each other.

Always tearing each other apart,

For the privilege of gnawing at the bones.

And it’s not just the meat of the Quran that feeds these Sufi mystics. The Quran’s claim that “no land had been left without prophetic guidance” leads them to the Hindu Vedas, which they believe are the “mysterious concealed scriptures mentioned in the Quran as the ultimate scriptural spring of all monotheism.”

Dalrymple’s descriptions of the religious life of Sufi mystics in Pakistan line up very much with my own experiences with them in India. I have witnessed the ecstasy of Sufi music along with a few possessed dancers at the tomb of Nizammudin in New Delhi, shouting and squirming with bloody fingernails in their skin. And I’ve seen the yearning for oneness with the divine in the prayers of travelers at the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai. Whether in my memories or in Dalrymple’s, the reward for the mystic’s search seems to be (in the words of Carl Jung’s Psychology and Religion) the “terrible ambiguity of an immediate experience.” The ritual, dance, or music is indeed visited, but by what force and for what purpose is undoubtedly unclear, and yet many worshippers celebrate this ambiguity. Their love and longing, as the Muslim scholar Reza Aslan writes, is not the agape of traditional Christian worship. Rather, it is a “passionate, all-consuming, humiliating, self-denying love.” In Aslan’s words, “The experience of love represents the most universal station on the Sufi Way, for it is love—not theology and certainly not the law—that engenders knowledge of God.” The mystic is a lover—a lover who as the Persian poet Attar described, “flares and burns” and “[w]ho has no time for doubt or certainty.”[1]

Mysticism may appear to be more at home in the East, but the United States is home to its own iterations of flaring and burning. One of these iterations is, it seems to me, the modern musical mystic, and Joshua James provides as good an example for brief examination as any.

James’s style of performance—his lowered shoulder and random, yet rhythmic, swaying center-stage—invites his audiences to turn inward and experience the “terrible ambiguity of an immediate experience.”[2] His tightly shut eyes suggest that he has made such a turn himself, evoking as they do a puzzling mixture of pain and bliss. But, of course, it is not just his stage presentation that marks him as one of our modern musical mystics. His folk rock is varied and intricate, but highly accessible, and the way his lyrics paint personal struggles in biblical colors fosters a mood of religious yearning that even the non-believers in his audiences absorb.

James’s performance of the most popular of the songs from his new EP is representative. The song, titled “Beware,” captures (perhaps better than any of his other songs) this mystical mood. James aligns himself with the Sufis of Sindh in his frustrated condemnation of sectarian strife:

And if it is comfort or peace in religion you seek,

and it makes you feel whole,

then it worked, don’t you think?

We could argue and scream,

paint each other obscene,

but I have recently known that it don’t matter.

What matters instead is the immediate, transcendent experience, its terrible ambiguity notwithstanding. “Please beware,” he sings, “in a mysterious way, God is here.” These are a father’s words to his son. “He’s your pity, your pain; he’s your fear,” the son and the audience are told. Here, James is at one with his eastern counterparts: God is in one’s emotions, the core of one’s experience, the deep atoms of one’s biology. The song is haunting, hymn-like, and hesitantly hopeful. “Please remember, my son,” James ends the verse, “what I’ve taught you ain’t much; it is God who will take you from here.”

As a series of sonorous “sha la las,” the chorus, like the rituals done at the tombs of Sufi saints, is thin on content, and it is introduced by the equally repetitive and mystical refrain: “I don’t believe in much.” Like the instructing father, James and his audience become (if they are not already) “believers without belief” rather than the “Lovers without Love” of another popular James tune. Indeed, they are, like their cousins of the East, primarily lovers. They have “no time for doubt or certainty” as they flare and burn after their love, namely, the direct, enrapturing experience of collective, musical transcendence.

Making this comparison, I can’t help but wonder whether our modern American mystics are indeed secular as well as musical. The music of James’s comrades (Timothy Showalter, Conor Oberst, and David Bazan are the ones that come to mind at the moment, but I know there are others) is not always steeped in biblical language, but there is an undeniable religious quality to the yearning of their music and performance. Perhaps those that do make use of explicitly religious lyrics, like many ironic atheists, cling to the body of the God in whom they disbelieve. Or maybe, as the Indian novelist Salman Rushdie has observed, religious language cannot be escaped when particular subjects are at hand.[3]

Whatever the reason for the musical mystic’s religious yearning, I find it immensely fascinating that it shares so much, despite the many differences, with the yearning of the thoroughly religious mysticism of the East. The “terrible ambiguity of an immediate experience” wields its curious influence over the souls in small American clubs as well as those in crowded Islamic tombs. Having witnessed the ecstatic closing-of-eyes that seems to paradoxically provide a new vision to the mystics of both settings, I wonder if Melville’s Ahab was right when he speculated that “no man can ever feel his own identity aright except his eyes be closed; as if darkness were indeed the proper element of our essences.” Close your eyes, take in the rhythms and sounds, and begin to grasp that truth about yourself that is beyond intellectual expression—this is the tempting invitation. I  sense the appeal of this invitation to worship  an intense, immediate, and ambiguous experience. But I am also wary of it. Ahab comes to mind once again: “It is the easiest thing in the world,” he tells his readers, “for a man to look as if he had a great secret in him.”


[1] This flaring and burning has various formulations in India, some more combined with the trappings of modern technology and business than others. Dalrymple writes, for instance, about how India revealed to him a world “where a committed, naked naga sadhu could also be an MBA.”

[2] I am, I admit, painting in broad strokes here. The aim is not always (or perhaps never) “pure” experience. There is something renewing, even healing, about our musical mysticism. The rituals of rural Sindh (or other mystical communities) are not pure in their aim either. Sometimes the practical effects of ritual matter a great deal. Dalrymple explains, “Sufism here was not just something mystical and ethereal, but a force that demonstrably acted as a balm on South Asia’s festering religious wounds.” Nonetheless, the emphasis of both kinds of mystics, by my lights, is experience rather than consequence—a fact evidenced by the material sacrifices each make to “flare and burn.”

[3] Taking the example of the word “soul,” Rushdie explains, “I don’t believe in an afterlife or heaven or hell, yet there isn’t a secular word for that feeling that we are not only flesh and blood. Whether you’re religious or not you may find yourself obliged to use language shaped by religion.”