Let us bow our heads in poetry
Amonth into his new job as music director of All Saints Dallas, an Anglican church in Oak Lawn, Ryan Flanigan received an email from a parishioner with the subject “Request.” At first, he did not want to open it. “If you’ve ever been in church leadership, you don’t like getting emails that say, ‘request,’ ” jokes Flanigan.
But the email did not contain any demands. Instead, it contained a poem written by a retired Anglican priest named Nelson Koscheski. Flanigan dutifully read it. “It was gorgeous,” he says.
He picked up his guitar, set the poem to a short folk tune, and sent the song to an astonished Koscheski. “I was tickled pink,” says Koscheski. “This guy can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear!”
So began Liturgical Folk, a music project that centers around Koscheski’s religious poems set to Flanigan’s folk tunes. Since writing that first hymn in early 2015, Liturgical Folk has gained the support of producer Isaac Wardell, who has worked with many spiritually minded songwriters, including Sufjan Stevens, Sandra McCracken and Josh Garrels. Wardell produced Liturgical Folk’s first two albums, which debut Feb. 1.
The hymns range from mournful lamenta-
tions to spirited carols. Many include language influenced by Koscheski’s childhood spent on Texas ranches. Most wrestle with substantial themes such as sorrow and hope. The collaboration of Flanigan, 37, and Koscheski, 75, is also a unique crossgenerational pairing of two men united by a belief that when music is honest and refined it can be a credible, positive witness for the church.
Not only has Liturgical Folk caught the eye of influential people in the music industry such as Wardell, but the project also gained the support of the Anglican Mission in the Americas, a missionary organization based in Dallas that plants churches across North America and is partly financing the otherwise self-financed project. While Flanigan started by playing Liturgical Folk songs in small house concerts across Dallas, in December he and several other local musicians performed the hymns, and Koscheski read more of his poems at Canterbury House at Southern Methodist University.
Neither Flanigan nor Koscheski thought the creative work would evolve into a project larger than their original collaborations by email.
“I have written poetry all my life,” says Koscheski, “but I was loath, embarrassed, to share it.”
Koscheski, the son of an Air Force officer, grew up traveling between his father’s posts abroad and his family’s home in the Texas Panhandle. As a boy, he loved poetry, but his father encouraged him to participate in manlier activities, like fighting in the Golden Gloves, he says. When Koscheski received a National Merit Scholarship, he told his father he wanted to study poetry. In response, his father called him a fool. Koscheski studied engineering at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy instead.
Still, Koscheski continued to write poetry while serving as an engineer in the Coast Guard and a priest at several institutions, including the U.S. Military Academy and Church of the Incarnation in Dallas before he retired recently.
“My heart is not in good shape,” he says. “So I draw, I paint icons and I write poetry.”
Koscheski says many of his poems originate in prayer. When he sits in silence, questions emerge, like: “There’s a billion people in China and they’ve never asked my opinion once. … If half the world’s population gets by without consulting you, who are you?”
Poetry is a way to address questions about meaning, which science and reason cannot always answer adequately, says Koscheski. As an example, he points to a poem he wrote for his grandson, who asked him how a good God could allow evil.
“Of course, there’s no rational answer,” says Koscheski. “There’s a cute little way of saying, ‘Well, God knows. It will all come out in the end.’ And that’s true. But it’s not very meaningful.” In “How Long, O Lord?” Koscheski reiterates his grandson’s question in a lyrical lament:
“‘How long, O Lord?’ your Martyrs ask / Beneath your altar stone. / While victory is clear in heav’n, / Here evil claims the throne.”
Koscheski is quick to attribute the formation of Liturgical Folk to Flanigan. “This is Ryan’s creation,” he says.
Flanigan began writing music in middle school while growing up in Illinois. He first wrote instrumental piano music, then moved on to writing Christian worship songs in high school. After graduation, he worked as a music director for two churches in the Midwest, all while hoping to write a hit worship song.
When Flanigan began attending seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, however, he took a class from the theologian Robert Webber, who exposed Flanigan to historical folk music and African-American spiritual songs. These struck him as more honest about the joys and sorrows of the human condition than anything he’d heard before, says Flanigan, and he began writing melodic hymns instead.
In 2015, Flanigan moved to Dallas with his wife, Melissa, and their three young children. Around that time, he also began attending songwriting camps in Nashville, where he eventually met Malcolm du Plessis, a music consultant from South Africa.
When du Plessis heard Flanigan’s music, he was captivated.
“Ryan’s an elegant artist,” says du Plessis in a call from Nashville. “He’s thoughtful. He’s musical.” There aren’t many great songwriters in the world, he says, but Flanigan is one of them.
Du Plessis introduced Flanigan to Wardell because he thought the two shared aesthetic tastes. After hearing a sample of Flanigan and Koscheski’s hymns, Wardell immediately asked when they were available to record.
Wardell was drawn to the language, sound and intergenerational element of Liturgical Folk, he says.
“One of the things we’ve lost in the last 30 or 40 years of art is multigenerational collaboration,” says Wardell in a call from Charlottesville, Va.
This has impoverished both the younger and older generations, who no longer offer each other wisdom and energy, he says.
In October, Koscheski, Flanigan and Melissa, who often sings with her husband, met Wardell at a studio in Charlottesville to record Volumes One and Two of Liturgical Folk. The first volume is a series of historic prayers set to folk tunes; the second, Koscheski and Flanigan’s hymns. If the albums are well-received, they plan to record more.
Flanigan and Koscheski have a razor-sharp vision for their hymns.
“Liturgical Folk exists to make believable and beautiful sacred folk music for the sake of the world,” says Flanigan.
Indeed, Flanigan sees Liturgical Folk as a communal project.
It was one of his parishioners who originally suggested that he and Koscheski create an album. Musicians of all ages, including the Flanigans’ own children, recorded the hymns. He and Melissa raised money and awareness for the project by performing small concerts in living rooms and a chapel in Dallas. The melodic choices are influenced by African-American spiritual songs, an element that Flanigan hopes will set Liturgical Folk on a trajectory toward racial reconciliation.
When Flanigan sings Koscheski’s poems, he notices that men and women of all generations sit up straighter, smile and nod along.
“People are drawn to Liturgical Folk because it’s a new sound for people who are tired of the same old thing,” he says. “Liturgical Folk is the music in the bones.”
Elizabeth Hamilton is a freelance writer in Dallas. She blogs at elizabethanne hamilton.com. Follow her on Twitter @hamiltoneliz and Instagram @elizabethamilton.
Justin Brooks, Tiffany Taylor Brooks and Flanigan performed at Southern Methodist University’s Canterbury House in early December.
Liturgical Folk, with Ryan Flanigan (left) and Nelson Koscheski, began when Koscheski asked Flanigan to set a poem to music.
Justin Brooks (from left), Tiffany Taylor Brooks, Melissa Flanigan and Ryan Flanigan performed at Southern Methodist University last month. Liturgical Folk has caught the eye of influential people in the music industry.
“Liturgical Folk exists to make believable and beautiful sacred folk music,” Flanigan says.
A woman in the audience reads a poem by Nelson Koscheski. “I have written poetry all my life,” he says, “but I was loath, embarrassed, to share it.”