Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?

“Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?” asked Charles Wesley, the great religious reformer and hymn writer. Like anything to do with religion, arguments about what music, if any, should be played church can be furious. There have probably been wars fought over it. Which is why this record is symbolic of a revolution. I know, I know. It is pink, has a picture of a harp, and is called Celestial Strings, performed by something called the Christian Faith Orchestra, directed by one Ralph Carmichael. Radical? Controversial? Well, so was Charles Wesley in his day.

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Ralph Carmichael was born in 1927, the son of an Illinois Pentecostal Minister. Musically gifted, he listened to the radio, and was struck by the beauty and excitement he heard there, but which he did not hear in church. “I was captivated by the chordal explosions I heard on the radio,” he later told an interviewer:

I felt a sadness that we didn’t have that in our church. Our church orchestra sounded weak and terrible by comparison. It was embarrassing. Why? Why did we have to settle? Why couldn’t we use those gorgeous rhythms, sweeping strings, the brass, the stirring chords? That started to control everything I did.

Carmichael became a musician, and tried to fuse his Christian faith with classical and jazz music techniques. Later he did the same with blues and rock music. Reaction was, to put it gently, mixed. He was denounced as a heretic (yes, really) for using guitars in worship. Some conservative pastors stopped the band mid-performance. Appearances on television drew the sort of hate mail my church gets for supporting gay marriage. But others loved it, and it caught on, and Carmichael is now regarded as the father of contemporary Christian music. He also made it in the mainstream: his skills as an arranger saw him work with the cream of American singers through the 1950s and 1960s, including Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Jack Jones, Sue Raney and especially Nat King Cole.

1063Celestial Strings is different again. It is a set of orchestral interpretations of old hymns. The music is restrained and evocative, woven around the harp playing of Kathryn Thompson. If it sounds cinematic, that is no coincidence: Carmichael had great success writing and arranging film scores. This track is an arrangement of a nineteenth century hymn, “My Redeemer” (the tune is very similar to “This Land is Your Land”). You can imagine it playing during a film scene: a soldier of the Civil War returns to his family farm, maybe.

  • Artist: Christian Faith Orchestra. Ralph Carmichael, Director. Kathryn Thompson, Harpist
  • LP Title: Celestial Strings
  • Side 2, Track 1: “My Redeemer”
  • Format: 10” LP 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Chapel Records LP 1524
  • Manufactured in: USA
  • Year: no date (late 1950s?)

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