Conversatio Divina

Part 11 of 16

Workin’ For The Lord: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Kate Campbell

Emilie Griffin

Kate Campbell is a spiritual writer who draws on deep Southern roots. Born in New Orleans in the 1960s, Campbell is a songwriter whose music illustrates the power of her Baptist upbringing. Her father was a pastor, and she still loves and reflects much of the beauty of her heritage. Yet she also writes in the context of the conflict between Southern generations in a profoundly moving way. Kate Campbell is drawing on spiritual, cultural, and historical memory. She is taking a chance that memory might be the way to speak to every soul

Campbell’s debut album, Songs From the Levee, was released in 1994, and she has released more than ten albums of music that ranges from Southern folk to country to Delta blues to gospel and back again. She has collaborated with artists of deep faith, such as songwriter Pierce Pettis, whose iconic lyrics have spoken to thousands of believers for decades. Her distinctive style and willingness to approach issues of race, inequality, spirituality, and tradition blend to produce music that comes out of contemplation but leads into movement for change.

Campbell has been influenced by the South in many ways. For example, take the Southern literary tradition and Campbell’s fondness for authors such as Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. Then there’s her Southern Baptist heritage with its strong biblical formation and the importance of hymn singing. Another major factor in her music came from growing up in the midst of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Out of her Southern past, Campbell has addressed racial tensions head on throughout her recording career. “These issues with race are things I feel strongly about,” Campbell explains. “I keep writing about them as a way to reflect upon the past and to hopefully dialogue toward a better future.”

In May 2010, Conversations caught up with Kate Campbell to talk with her about her spiritual life and her creative work.

Emilie Griffin: The theme of this issue of Conversations is “Contemplation and Action.” I thought of you because I remembered your connection to the activist songwriters of the sixties, like Bob Dylan. “Music that does justice.” You were not of that era, yet you identified with it. Can you say something about that?

Kate Campbell: I was born in 1961. My father is a Baptist minister. I was born in New Orleans, but his first church was in the Mississippi Delta. That was a difficult time. When I was growing up, I hung out with a lot of the young people with their guitars, the ones that went off to Vietnam. They were playing Peter, Paul, and Mary. I took hold of all that, what was in all the guitar books. I thought everybody wrote songs and played like that. “Blowin’ in the Wind . . .” I was a child in the sixties, not a teenager. But my whole life has been influenced by that time.

EG: How do you think your experience as a Southerner has influenced you? Do you think Southerners are more conscious of, maybe embarrassed by, their racial past?

KC: I think so. Well, I listen to American music. I’ve been influenced by Nashville . . . Kentucky . . . the “Fertile Crescent” [laughs]. It’s about place. There’s a deep memory here.

EG: I’m especially moved by two songs of yours: “Delmus Jackson” and “In My Mother’s House.” When I was giving a talk at a literary conference held by Emmanuel Baptist Church [Alexandria, Louisiana], I played both those songs. And everyone understood every word.
Can you give a little of the backstory on each one of those pieces?

KC: Well, about “Delmus Jackson,” it took me thirty years to write that song. When I was little, and my father was a pastor in a Baptist church, I would have to hang out with my dad. I had the run of the church. And Mr. Jackson was the caretaker. And [this song] was [about] how he treated me. He was one of these individuals who treated me as if I was a person. He wore starched overalls and a starched white shirt . . . and his wife cooked . . . I would sit in the Sunday school room and color and write. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t notice how he lived the Christian life. It was like Timothy . . . “Well done, good and faithful servant.”(Mt. 25:21). Campbell is also thinking of 2 Timothy 4:7: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

EG: What about the Bible? How has that affected you and your music?

KC: I think the Gospel is big enough to speak for itself. You let the story tell the story.

EG: I remember hearing you perform “In My Mother’s House.” It was at a conference, and I was sitting way in the back, and I suddenly began to cry. Obviously that song touched a nerve in me . . .

KC: The women’s issue was very strong for me. Women did the work of the church. Yet that song [“In My Mother’s House”] is one of the most difficult songs I’ve ever written. But the Bible verse came to mind . . . “In my father’s house are many mansions . . . I go to prepare a place for you.”

EG: I notice that you named the CD for a Catholic retreat house in Louisiana, Rosaryville, which is near Baton Rouge. What about your own spiritual life, Kate? How would you describe it?

KC: Well, I guess it’s about the power of art. Mystery. When I was writing those songs [on the Rosaryville CD], I was very drawn to the mystery, and I began to pray the Rosary, to explore the Rosary. I felt, there’s a reason I’m on this path; the longer I’m on this path, there’s a reason, but it’s not up to me. That’s what art does. It moves me so much. I am influenced by the Benedictines, the singing of the Psalms, and Catholicism, but never losing my Baptist upbringing. The Bible. That’s the miracle of it. God is in this place, leading us on this path. And we come to our own faith, but it may look different from our parents’ faith.

EG: Do you think of your music as “serving God”?

KC: I never intended to do music as a vocation. It just happened. And it’s a struggle. Sometimes I find myself driving around from place to place (as part of being a performer) and I think of people like Thomas Merton, serving God.

EG: Maybe it’s not as easy to see yourself “serving God” as to see Thomas Merton “serving God”?

KC: [laughs] At first, I didn’t think about music as a calling, a vocation. But now, I’m hoping that it is. When I’m traveling, I reflect and I pray. Sometimes I set time aside for reflection and prayer. Is that “serving God”? I hope so.

01.  Audio Divina: A Song, A Prayer

How does a song become a prayer? perhaps not every song can lead us into prayer or deep reflection, but some do. one way this may happen is if we practice a kind of lectio divina when we listen.

Lectio divina—it’s a Latin expression—means holy or sacred reading. It describes an ancient discipline in the prayer life, especially practiced by Benedictine contemplatives. usually the text chosen for prayer is not a hymn or song, but Scripture, often the Psalms. Of course the Psalms themselves are actually songs, originally meant to be chanted or sung.

When I interviewed the singer-songwriter Kate Campbell, I began to muse on how her song “In My Mother’s House” had affected me. Was this profound experience of memory and reflection somehow a clue to a deeper experience of God?

One passage about the fleetingness of time had especially touched me:

the chimes in the hall
sound every hour
the sun and moon go round
time flies by
fades like a flower
and I can’t slow it down.

I realized that the song was not only about the distance between mothers and daughters, but also about inadequacy, loss of control. time flies by. We are not in charge. Here we must surrender to God’s ways, not our own.

In their book on spiritual direction, the Jesuit spiritual teachers, William Barry and William Connolly, mention ways we may be led into contemplative experience. One of these is by putting ourselves in beautiful environments; another is by listening to music. Their book, The Practice of Spiritual Direction (HarperOne, 2009), suggests that part of the idea of the contemplative is self-forgetfulness, paying attention to God more than ourselves. Those who are learning to pray “might benefit more from spending time in some activity they enjoy that has a contemplative aspect to it.” Listening to Bach is one activity they mention.

For some of us, Kate Campbell’s music touches the heart. And that is a call to prayer. To approach the music and text using lectio divina, one might listen to her song “In My Mother’s House” all the way through, prayerfully. Then, reviewing the text, find a short phrase that opens a gate or leads you into personal prayer. One such phrase might be “I am a prodigal daughter,” or possibly, “There’ll always be a place for me,” or even more likely, “in my mother’s house.”
Praying a short phrase—simply, repetitively—is a door into prayer. Allow yourself to remain for a time in the Lord’s presence. Rest in God. Enjoy the peace and serenity you may find. soak up the experience. conclude with a short prayer of thanks.
Closely allied to the text of Kate Campbell’s song is the scriptural text found in John 14:1–3:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (NRSV).Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This, too, is a fine text for prayer in the lectio divina style. the technique is simple. Read the text prayerfully, and then enter into the presence of the lord through a short, simple phrase: “where I am, there you may be also.” or you might rephrase the text to make it your own, saying, “there, Lord, I may be also.”

The experience of lectio divina is refreshing and strengthening. and though structured, it may also have a spontaneous style, one that responds to such joyful experiences as the beauty of music.

That’s one way a song becomes a prayer.

02.  “Delmus Jackson”

Delmus Jackson was a black man
Delmus Jackson was a custodian
he cleaned the church house five days a week
Delmus Jackson talked to me

He’d say I’m working for the lord
Gonna see his face for my reward
And on that day he will say
Well done, Delmus Jackson

Delmus Jackson had nine children
Delmus Jackson had great wisdom
Do unto others as if they was you
Delmus Jackson spoke the truth

He’d say Jesus loves all his children
and he will welcome every one
and on that day he will say
Well done, Delmus Jackson

Delmus Jackson bought me cokes
Delmus Jackson told me jokes
he drank his coffee from a thermos
Delmus Jackson made no fuss

He’d say my bags are packed and I’m ready to go
To meet the lord on the streets of gold
and on that day he will say
Well done, Delmus Jackson

©Kate Campbell, from her CD, Moon Pie Dreams.

03.  "In My Mother’s House”

Photographs and old forty-fives
Stowed beneath a homecoming gown pictures
of me at sweet sixteen
but everything’s not as it seems
in my mother’s house

when I go home for holidays
there’s so much to talk about
and sometimes we disagree
on politics and theology
in my mother’s house

the chimes in the hall
sound every hour
the sun and moon go round
time flies by fades like a flower
and I can’t slow it down

I spend my days with music
and words playing these songs from town to town
and everyone sees what they want to see
but I’m just the girl who used to sing
in my mother’s house

I am a prodigal daughter but in my wandering
I have found there is a wideness in mercy
and there’ll always be a place for me
in my mother’s house

©Kate Campbell, from her CD, Rosaryville.

04.  About the Artist

Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, Kate Campbell is an American singer/songwriter. You can find more about her and her music at


Emilie Griffin is a speaker and author of a number of books on the spiritual life. among these are Clinging: The Experience of Prayer, Wilderness Time: A Guide to Spiritual Retreat, and Small Surrenders: A Lenten Journey. She is active with the Renovaré board of advisors and speaking team, and a founding member of the society, a group for writers of Christian faith. she also serves on the editorial team of Conversations.