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)
It is a strange experience to revisit the Grimm’s Tales as an adult. When you hear them as a child, you just go with them. That’s the story: Red Riding Hood, Snow White, many others. The stories become so familiar that you don’t pull apart the elements. This is, perhaps, just as well. These stories are treasures of our shared culture, but don’t look to them for moral guidance.
Here is what happens. A miller, hoping to win favour with the king, lies that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king is fooled, and imprisons her. He demands she produce the gold or be killed. A mysterious dwarf appears and does a deal with the young woman: he will make the gold and save her life, but only in return for the woman’s first child. The king, fooled again, decides not to kill the woman but marry her instead. The new queen has a baby, and the dwarf appears and demands payment. The queen stalls for time, eventually manages to cheat the dwarf, and saves her child.
Moral? Lie and cheat, and with amazing luck you will get away with it and become rich. The queen’s love for her baby – though she had previously sold it – is pretty much the only admirable thing in the entire story.
The Brothers Grimm collected their famous stories in the nineteenth century, but they are much, much older. The reflect the moral world of pre-Christian Europe. The Christian faith has copped a lot of criticism in recent times. Fair enough. We deserve it. But the Grimm stories, when you look more closely, show what came before: a pagan world view which is cruel, violent, and ruthless.
Great stories, mind!
Here is “Rumpelstiltskin”, as read by “Uncle Mac” (real name Derek McCulloch, a popular BBC Radio presenter). This shellac recording was obviously intended to be played as a bedtime story for children. Pleasant dreams!
Artist: Uncle Mac (Derek McCulloch)
Title: Uncle Mac’s Bedtime Story – “Rumplestiltskin”
Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
Label: His Master’s Voice
Made in: England
Catalogue: B.D. 1095
Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs
It’s is a curious thing. There is lots of lovely church music for Easter, just as there is for Christmas. But popular music? Every man and his dog has released a Christmas album – there are so many in the op-shops of Australia that they effect Earth’s gravitational pull. But there is no “Rudolph the Red Nosed Rabbit”, no “I Saw Mummy Kiss the Easter Bunny”.
If you want something rare, though, Planet Vinyl is the place to go.
In 1958, the great Sarah Vaughan teamed up with Billy Eckstine – not so well-remembered now, but a star singer and bandleader in his day – to collaborate on an album of Irving Berlin songs. One of them is “Easter Parade”, written by Berlin in 1933 and later a hit for Bing Crosby and Liberace, among others. Sage observers declare “The song is often considered to be one of the most popular Easter songs of all time”. Not sure that it has a great deal of competition, but it’s fun and happy and Sarah and Billy sing it beautifully.
Happy Easter from Planet Vinyl.
Artist: Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine
LP Title: Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine Sing The Best Of Irving Berlin
Side 2, Track 4 “Easter Parade”
Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, mono
Catalogue number: MG 20316
Manufactured in: Australia
Many of the records featured on Planet Vinyl are for sale on Discogs.
There is no more mysterious place on Planet Vinyl than the lost island of Acetate. The good people of Wikipedia explain why:
Unlike ordinary vinyl records, which are quickly formed from lumps of plastic by a mass-production molding process, a so-called acetate disc is created by using a recording lathe to cut an audio-signal-modulated groove into the surface of a special lacquer-coated blank disc, a real-time operation requiring expensive, delicate equipment and expert skill for good results. They are made for special purposes, almost never for sale to the general public.
So it is exciting when one turns up: the lacquer is a glistening black, you can see the metal underneath, both in the centre hole and in the extra holes which were used to clamp the disc to the lathe, and the label tells you little, or nothing. This record, for example. Audex Royal is not a record label, just the company which manufactured acetate discs.
One clue: a note on the battered paper sleeve instructs “use light pick-up”. This warning was only necessary when people were playing both old gramophone records and the new vinyl: the late 1950s.
Beyond that, there is just the sound. It is a recording of a church choir, singing mostly Christmas carols. It is not a big choir, and although they are quite good there is nothing of the professional about them. The accompaniment is a single piano. No organ, and the ambient sound suggests a wooden hall, rather than a stone church or a studio. The voices are Australian, but there is a hint of some Welsh in there as well. I am guessing a dissenting Protestant suburban church choir.
Who knows? Still as it is Christmas let’s give them a spin. They do some standards but this track is a carol which was new to me. With no track list, it took some hunting to work out the details, but the song is “Dear nightingale, awake!”. This was an English adaptation of a traditional Austrian carol, and the sheet music for it was published in Australia in 1956. Apart from that, all we can say is that it is Christmas on the lost island of Acetate.
“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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I had vaguely heard of Albert Schweitzer, without knowing too much about him. A peace activist and humanitarian, a theologian, a man of good works. Built some sort of hospital in Africa? That, and a mental picture of a guy with a big white moustache was about it.
Not just a generous moustache
He was all of those things – and the mo was certainly impressive – but Dr Albert Schweitzer was also an important musician. He was an organist, one of great talent and also a keen thinker about music. He loved the works of J.S. Bach and he wanted to rescue his hero from the excesses of the 19th century Romantic style. Bach should be played, Schweitzer, argued, in the simpler, stripped down style of Bach’s own time. In modern terms, he wanted unplugged rather than prog-rock.
In 1934, while spending some time in England, he was recorded playing the organ at Queen’s Hall in London, and one of the pieces, “When In Deepest Need” is on this disc. This gentle, reflective piece was written by Bach literally on his death bed. It is at nearly five minutes, a rather long piece to fit onto a 12-inch shellac record, playing at 78 rpm, manufactured in 1934. His Master’s Voice managed to do this by the simple expedient of making the label for this side of the disc unusually small. The picture below shows the labels on the two sides of the disc, next to the same blue-framed sticker.
The record has been played a great many times – there is no escaping the crackle of hundreds of hollow steel styli which have scraped away at the shellac. Even so, the playing is beautiful, restrained. The organ can be a Donald Trump of an instrument – all blare and bombast – but Albert Schweitzer had a different vision, a subtle expression of a dying man’s love and faith.
Artist: Dr Albert Schweitzer
Title: J.S. Bach: When in Deepest Need / My Heart is Longing
Track: A side, “When in Deepest Need”
Format: 12” shellac disc, 78rpm
Label: His Master’s Voice C.1543
Manufactured in: Australia
Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs.
Six degrees of separation between Dr Barnardo and John Travolta.
Thomas John Barnardo was an Irish philanthropist. While training as a doctor in London in the 1860s, he became aware of the miserable plight of the many homeless children in the city’s slums. He established the first of “Dr Barnardo’s Homes” for children in that city in 1867. Providing housing and education for poor and disadvantaged children became Barnardo’s life’s work, and he gave up his original ambition to be a missionary in China.
Someone who did go to China as a missionary was Gladys Aylward, who was an Englishwoman of strong Christian faith. She was in China in the chaotic years leading up to the Second World War, where she did a lot of brave and humane things. Her experiences were the basis for a novel by Alan Burgess, called The Small Woman. In 1958, this novel was turned into a film, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman. The film, which was a huge success, ends with Aylward leading a group of dozens of Chinese children to safety, evading Japanese soldiers. While they march, the children sing “This Old Man” …
Which was a children’s counting song with a nonsense chorus, the first written version of which dates from 1870, but which is certainly much older than that. The chorus goes:
With a knick-knack paddywhack,
Give the dog a bone,
This old man came rolling home
The song is now universally known, but had been relatively obscure until used in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, the soundtrack to which was a huge hit.
Taking advantage of this popularity, Dr Barnardo’s Homes – by this time the most important charity caring for children in the United Kingdom and many other parts of the former British Empire, released a fundraising record, with some Barnardo’s children singing, and an orchestral backing provided by …
Bill Shepherd, who was a well-known British bandleader and arranger. As you will hear, he was good: he takes a playground chant and using rich instrumentation and what was, for 1958, complex mixing creates something exciting. Bill Shepherd later spent a few years living in Australia, where he became a director of Festival Records and through that company met a young band called the Bee Gees. Shepherd liked the Gibb brothers’ work, and became their orchestral arranger. Throughout the late sixties, his arrangements were an integral part in the Bee Gees becoming an international success. His association with them ended in 1972, which meant that he missed out on being involved in producing the staggeringly successful 1977 soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever …
Starring John Travolta.
Artist: Dr Barnardo’s Children and the Bill Shepherd Orchestra
Single Title: This Old Man (Nick Nack Paddy Whack) / The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness
Track: Side A “This Old Man (Nick Nack Paddy Whack)”
Format: 7”, 45 rpm
Label: Pye Nixa 7N.15180
Manufactured in: England
Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs