Patty Griffin and Downtown Presbyterian: A Match Made in Heaven

I’m glad I was standing in my local Barnes & Nobel a few years ago when Patty Griffin’s 1000 Kisses came on over the store’s speakers.  Mesmerized by the voice, I wandered through the music section until I had listened to a majority of the album.  Needless to say, I took it home and have been a fan ever since.

Griffin has a new album out entitled Downtown Church, and it is a winner in so many ways.  Beginning with the wonderful old tune House of Gold all the way through to the beautiful hymn All Creatures of Our God and King, there isn’t a false note here.  Wade in the Water with Regina McCrary – the daughter of the founder of the Fairfield Four and “gospel royalty” to quote Griffin – really rocks.  Never Grow Old with Buddy Miller is beautiful, simple and meditative.  Griffin sang both songs and more on a terrific live stream tonight on her Facebook home page and you can catch the latter in a video below.  Every song on the album rings true and it is worth the price of purchase (or download).

The other winning part of this album is where it was recorded:  Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee.  Designed by the famous nineteenth-century architect William Strickland (also the architect of the Tennessee State Capitol and the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia) this is a masterpiece of the Egyptian Revival style.

I was honored to speak at Downtown Presbyterian in 2001 on the 150th anniversary of this wonderful place.  I spoke again from the pulpit a few years later at a national heritage areas conference.  And just this past October, I joined about 1,500 colleagues at the National Preservation Conference in that magnificent space and listened to Congressman John Lewis give a riveting speech about the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, ending with a call for a new Civil Rights Heritage Trail to help us remember those special places from our past.  Downtown Presbyterian is the kind of space that brings out the best in all of us.

This place has a personal connection as well and I told the story when I spoke on the 150th anniversary.  Here’s how it goes:

I’m delighted to be here today because one of your founders – the Rev. Gideon Blackburn – is a relative of mine.  My great-grandfather seven times back was a man by the name of Benjamin Blackburn.  Benjamin and Mary Blackburn had six sons and six daughters.  One of those sons was John Blackburn, my great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather.  Another son was Robert Blackburn – Gideon Blackburn’s father.  I think that makes him something of a great uncle six or seven times back – but I’ll claim him in any event.

Gideon Blackburn is listed on the tablets on the front of Downtown Presbyterian as being among the founders of the church in 1814.  He was a native of Virginia (in fact, I use to live in the county seat of Augusta County, where he was born).  Gideon Blackburn founded many churches from Alabama to Illinois, he served for a time as the president of Centre College, and in 1837 he deeded 16,000 acres of land in Carlinville, Illinois to the Trustees of what would become Blackburn College, which still exists today.

The Blackburn family history calls him one of the most eloquent orators of his generation.  An old newspaper clipping in our family’s possession notes that “it was under the preaching of Gideon Blackburn that Andrew Jackson’s beloved Rachel was brought into the Presbyterian fold, a circumstance for which the pious mistress of the Hermitage never thereafter ceased to ‘bless the Lord.’”  I have a lot to live up to here today!  And finally, we’ve found a quote that indicated that Gideon Blackburn generally preached for two hours or more.  As one author put it, “He was wont to preach at great length.”  I’ll try to refrain from following in those family footsteps today.

You’ll be happy to know that I got through my speech in less than two hours.

Downtown Church comes highly recommended.  When you hear Patty Griffin sing We Shall All Be Reunited, think about how special places such as Downtown Presbyterian bring us together.  This truly is a match made in heaven.

More to come…

DJB

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