How many of you out there know what this is?
This is “the cup game.” I learned it maybe 15 years ago at summer camp. Most recently, “the cup game” came back when was featured in a song sung by Anna Kendrick in the movie Pitch Perfect. It goes like this:
I’ve got my ticket for the long way ‘round
Two bottle whiskey for the way
And I sure would like some sweet company
Oh, I’m leaving tomorrow. What do you say?
When I’m gone, when I’m gone
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone
You’re gonna miss me by my walk
You’re gonna miss me by my talk
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone
As it turns out, “the cup game” isn’t the only borrowed material in the song. Before Anna Kendrick recorded it, Lulu and the Lampshades paired the song with “the cup game” for the first time in a viral YouTube video.
But way before that, back in the 1930s, a group called Mainers Mountaineers recorded a country tune called “Miss Me When I’m Gone.” And even that song was a reworking of a Carter Family tune from the 20s.
So how did we get from the Carter Family to a pop song featured in a movie about competitive college a cappella?
That evolution is the definition of a folk song. Dave Van Ronk wrote the song Mollie just sang, and his memoir tells about his time on the folk scene in Greenwich Village in the 60s. It was the inspiration for the recent Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis.
In the book, Van Ronk explains that “folk music” is not a musical style. It’s a process. Van Ronk compares this process to the telephone game, another good summer camp activity. One person whispers a word or phrase to a friend, who passes it on to another, and on and on until it comes full circle—by which point, it usually isn’t the exact word or phrase that started the game. People hear the same thing differently, they say it differently, and so it evolves. That’s what folk music is—music of and by the folk, the people.
In the movie Inside Llewyn Davis, the main character says this: “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”
It was never new—and yet it’s always new—and it never gets old, because it grows and changes. The folk song tells a story not by facsimile but by approximation. “Sunday Street” is not just Dave Van Ronk’s song—it’s Mollie’s song. It’s Mollie’s story.
Bart Ehrman is a professor at UNC Chapel Hill, and he has written several books about the Bible and its complicated history. In a 2006 interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, Ehrman describes how the Biblical authors copied and changed the text, allowing their perspective to shape it as it evolved into the form we have today.
This interview coincided with the release of his book Misquoting Jesus: Who Changed the Bible and Why. Ehrman approaches history like a conspiracy theorist unmasking a lie about the fundamental nature of the Bible and of Christianity itself. The Bible was written by humans and changed by humans, and this, he says, means that it is not of God at all.
However, I love Jon Stewart’s response. He said that knowing how human the process of writing and interpretation of Scripture has been changes it from a dead thing into a living document—and that, Stewart says, makes it “almost more Godly.”
Last week, I got to hear Nadia Bolz-Weber speak at Augsburg Lutheran Church. Nadia is a Lutheran pastor with an image that is edgy to say the least—she is covered in tattoos and does competitive weightlifting—but her theology is firmly orthodox. In her memoir, she summarizes the Lutheran understanding of Scripture: “The Bible is not God. The Bible is simply the cradle that holds Christ.”
The Bible is full of stories that were passed down orally and in writing over centuries, millennia even. It changed and grew and developed as different people heard and told and retold the story. It is a living document because it reflects the messiness of the lives of the people in it, the lives of the people who brought it together, and the lives of people today.
The written Gospels are not God. They are folk songs about Jesus. There are 4 different Gospels because the story was too wonderful to be told just one way.
Nobody says to Mollie, “You can’t play ‘Sunday Street’ unless you know exactly what Dave Van Ronk was thinking when he wrote it and play it exactly like he did.” We say—it was never new—and yet it’s always new—and it never gets old. It’s a folk song. And we are all invited to sing.
Sarah S. Howell