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How Sweet the Sound

How Sweet the Sound

Music in the Spiritual Lives of Americans

David W. Stowe

ISBN 9780674012905

Publication date: 04/30/2004

Musical expression is at the heart of the American spiritual experience. And nowhere can you gauge the depth of spiritual belief and practice more than through the music that fills America's houses of worship. Most amazing is how sacred music has been shaped by the exchanges of diverse peoples over time. How Sweet the Sound traces the evolution of sacred music from colonial times to the present, from the Puritans to Sun Ra, and shows how these cultural encounters have produced a rich harvest of song and faith.

Pursuing the intimate relationship between music and spirituality in America, Stowe focuses on the central creative moments in the unfolding life of sacred song. He fills his pages with the religious music of Indians, Shakers, Mormons, Moravians, African-Americans, Jews, Buddhists, and others. Juxtaposing music cultures across region, ethnicity, and time, he suggests the range and cross-fertilization of religious beliefs and musical practices that have formed the spiritual customs of the United States, producing a multireligious, multicultural brew.

Stowe traces the evolution of sacred music from hymns to hip-hop, finding Christian psalms deeply accented by the traditions of Judaism, and Native American and Buddhist customs influenced by Protestant Christianity. He shows how the creativity and malleability of sacred music can explain the proliferation of various forms of faith and the high rates of participation they've sustained. Its evolution truly parallels the evolution of American pluralism.


  • How Sweet the Sound limns the harmonies of religion, hymns, and American culture through an amazing musical and historical panorama. Stowe's stunning exploration of European, Indian, African, and Asian interchanges underscores music's centrality to American spiritual expression and might well inspire readers to break into song themselves.

    —Jon Butler, author of Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776


  • David W. Stowe is Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures and director of American Studies at Michigan State University.

Book Details

  • 352 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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