Johnny Cash sometimes described himself as a “C+ Christian”. Robert Hilburn, in his wonderful biography of Cash, observes:
Most thought this American icon was just being humble. To those who’d been close to him at various points, it appeared he was being a bit generous with his evaluation. But there was no question Cash believed. He wasn’t using his religion as commercial strategy.
Cash was a flawed man, and he knew it. His honesty about those flaws were part of his greatness. He made a gospel song, even one which was perhaps a bit twee, meaningful precisely because of that.
This is one of those songs. The arrangement could be better. No need for the backing vocals! Simple, spare would suit the song. But Cash’s voice carries it. It is the voice of a common sinner, the C-grade Christian, asking for forgiveness. Again.
Artist: Johnny Cash
Album: Hymns of Gold (compilation of various artists)
Muggsy Spanier. The name suggests a gangster from the Al Capone era, but Francis Joseph “Muggsy” Spanier was a musician. Given that the mob controlled all the best nightclubs in those days, and that, like Capone, Spanier was a native of Chicago, they might have crossed paths.
Muggsy played the cornet. The what? It’s a cousin of the trumpet – same basic design but a bit smaller, and the tube is differently shaped, and has a mellower sound. For many years it was the preferred instrument in jazz bands. The trumpet was all a bit bold and, well, brassy.
Spanier was just outside the absolute top flight of jazz musicians in the 1930s and 1940s. He played with the big guys: Fats Waller, Sidney Bechet, Bob Crosby, many more. Just didn’t quite crack the A-list, but surely not through lack of talent.
Trumpet playing evolved, and that instrument became king in jazz. The cornet – well, it’s still around, but a minority thing. But, man, does it sound great? Certainly in the hands of Muggsy Spanier it does. This is a 1941 recording, a shellac cutting of a sort of Dixieland-meets-swing version of a gospel tune, “Little David, Play Your Harp”. Actually, no harp is played, but there are lots of horns, played with skill and exuberance. Just listen, especially to Muggsy on the cornet.
Artist: Muggsy Spanier And His Orchestra
A side: Little David, Play Your Harp
B side: Hesitating Blues
Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
Made in: Australia
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“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.
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.
Celestial 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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“You take a stick of bamboo,” goes an old folk song, “You take a stick of bamboo and you throw it in the water.”
Alternatively, you can bury the bamboo in sand for a year or two, so that it dries and hardens, and make a pipe organ. That is what an innovative Catholic Priest in nineteenth century Philippines did. He created a unique organ for the church of Las Piñas, in metro Manila. It fell into disuse, but was restored in the early 1970s, back in the days of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.
I visited the Philippines in 1991. The Philippines was the first foreign country I had ever been to. Properly foreign, I mean – I had been to England and New Zealand, but that doesn’t count. That’s like visiting cousins.
It was only a few years after Marcos has been overthrown. Cory Aquino was in power, but tenuously: there were coups and rumours of coups, democracy was fragile, corruption was a huge problem. But, to my surprise, I loved the Philippines. I was a journalist then, and knew what journalists know of distant countries. Coups and earthquakes, basically.
Following the news gave me no sense of the vibrancy and life of the place, how friendly and likable the people are. I even loved ugly, polluted Manila. The Filipinos are ingenious and endlessly resourceful and creative, especially in graphic art, dance and music. Their pop music is exciting, borrowing from everywhere and making something new. There is a rich tradition of folk-tinged protest song, and also of church music.
The Philippines, more than most societies, wrestles with identity. What, exactly, are we? What is authentically Filipino, when the very name comes from Spanish conquerors? One attempt to reconcile the colonial past with a nationalist sentiment was the work of Lucrecia R. Kasilag, one of the founders of the Bayanihan Philippine National Folk Dance Company, and several other important cultural institutions which have survived dictatorship and democracy both.
One of her compositions is this track, from the 1975 LP The Historic Bamboo Organ of Las Piñas. The record is mostly standard organ and choral works from the Catholic tradition, but is some Philippines in there was well, including Kasilag’s “Misang Pilipino”, in which she drew on traditional folk tunes to create a Mass in the native language of (most) of her people.
At the time of writing, the people of the Philippines have elected a new President. Rodrigo Duterte is a strongman, very much in the tradition of Ferdinand Marcos, only less subtle. Duterte has, as he promised, unleashed a campaign of state-sanctioned murder against drug dealers. Anyone who thinks he will stop with drug dealers is deluded: another dictatorship is on its way. This is bad news. A lot of people will suffer. But the Filipino people will survive, and live their lives, and thrive – as will their art. They are a people who take a stick of bamboo, and make a church organ.
Artist: Wolfgang Oehms and the Las Piñas Boys Choir,
LP Title: The Historic Bamboo Organ of Las Piñas
Track: Side 2, Track 2 “Misang Pilipino”
Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
Label: Bamboo Organ Foundation, BOR 4001
Manufactured in: Philippines
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Probably the fastest way to disperse a crowd of Australians, short of turning a fire hose on them, is to invite them to church.
There is no oppression, just compartmentalisation. You are allowed to sing “Amazing Grace” on Sundays and at funerals, but gospel struggles to reach a wider audience. There is a lot of fine Australian contemporary Christian music – Hillsong in its many manifestations, Newsboys, Sons of Korah, heaps of others – but not too many of these acts are able to cross over. Real passion and fine musicianship, but sectional still.
Consequently, when Christian musicians try to sneak a bit of spirituality into a popular song, they tend to do it by the side door. It’s the U2 approach: exploit the ambiguity in words such as “love”, “spirit”, “sacred”, “eternal”. It can work well – “I did what I did before Love came to town” – though it is sometimes hard to work out if the singer is devoted to the guy upstairs or the girl next door.
One of the pioneers groups of this style in Australia was Family. Not a great choice of name for a band: there have been at least 25 other groups with the same or very similar names. Apart from anything else, it makes them hard to research: most search engines lead you to the Family which hung out with Charles Manson. If you don’t know who they were, let’s just say gospel was not their go.
This particular Family, though, were a much nicer bunch. Two of them were genuinely family, the brothers Ian and Phil Truscott. They were Queenslanders, and came together in 1972. They enjoyed modest mainstream success, and a stronger following in charismatic Christian circles. Several of their LPs were released in the US. They were, as you will hear, genuinely talented: lovely tight-harmony singing in a country pop style.
This track is from a single released in 1973. The lyrics are a bit lightweight, but as an early example of the U2 approach to Christian music, I think it stands up well. The B-side is out-there, no apologies gospel, and beautifully sung, but we will go with the A-side. Don’t want the firehose effect.
Single Title: Just Another Song About Love / They’ll Know We Are Christians (One In The Spirit)
Track: Side B “Just Another Song About Love”
Format: 7”, 45 rpm
Label: M7 MS-032
Manufactured in: Australia
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