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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Old Folkies, and a Mighty Wind

        Gary Daigle was just in New Orleans at the Johannes Hofinger Conference, a regional religious education conference. Part of the festivities there was a reunion concert by the Dameans. Four of them had met at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, and I'm guessing that this concert would have been a concert commemorating their 40th anniversary, maybe even longer than that. Gary joined them, at then-Fr. Mike Balhoff's invitation, in the early 1980s when Gary was a high-school student in Gonzales, LA. Gary's keyboard skills added a new dimension to their music, and when Remember Your Love came out in 1978, their sound was changed for good. Having had the opportunity to play with these guys over the years, and also having been able to be a part of a couple of the St. Louis Jesuit reunion concerts, made me think back over the origins of my own musical development in the church.

The Folksmen, in "A Mighty Wind"
You've probably seen the Christopher Guest movie A Mighty Wind. Every time I've watched it, and it's been a number of times, I'm a little embarrassed by how close it hits to home with the earnestness and self-absorbed naïveté of the principals, all of whom I recognize as characters in my own life, in all of whom I see a little bit of myself. I laugh a little bit, wince a little bit, and am grateful for the creative outpouring of the last forty years and the opportunities I've had to make music with some great friends and to have had some small part in the renewal of music for worship. Or maybe it would be better to say, to have had a small part in people's lives as they came to worship God in a new era of Catholicism.

St. Vincent's Seminary choir, c. 1966. Yours truly is the
fuzzy-haired guy, center left. Photo courtesy of Ed Noriega
When I arrived at Montebello, CA, at St. Vincent's Seminary in 1965, the liturgical music culture was as familiar to me as it could be to a 13-year-old. As a choirboy at St. Vincent's in Phoenix, I knew many of the Gregorian masses, chants like the Victimae Paschali Laudes, Ubi Caritas, and Veni Creator Spiritus I knew by heart, and others I would come to know under the tutelage of David Windsor. A fine organist, David was a seasoned boys' choir director, and though he knew the voices of younger boys better, he was able to bring out the best in the changing voices of high school singers, and we were able to perform TTBB choral works by Bach, Handel, and many more contemporary popular and sacred music composers and arrangers. John Lee, the well-known organist and a prolific church composer of the time, was the organist at St. Vibiana's, the old cathedral in Los Angeles, and we were taught a number of his masses as well.

The Kingston Trio
Though in the first year or two of the seminary we weren't allowed to listen to the radio or watch television (except for the news), the influence of the outside world crept in through summer and holiday contact. The influence of the folk revival was still very much alive, and a new interest in rock music was wakening. I can recall listening to groups of upperclassmen singing songs like the Zombies' "Gloria" and the Rolling Stones "Get Off of My Cloud", and others singing songs like "Lemon Tree" and "Scotch and Soda," hits of the Kingston Trio, along with songs by Peter, Paul, and Mary. As my class got to know each other, we also began to form small singing groups, and songs by the Kingston Trio were gradually replaced songs by Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles. I can remember playing songs like "Back on the Street Again" and "Distant Drum", too, learning a few keyboard licks, though I was mostly a (bad) guitar player.

As you can imagine, as the face of the liturgy began to change through those years, these influences began to seep into our liturgical music. The Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles at the time, Cardinal McIntyre, was not entirely friendly either to English in the liturgy nor to musical innovations. These came in a bit later, when Timothy Manning became the archbishop in 1968 or 69. But little by little, the influence of popular music made its way into the seminary music of the high school, and I certainly recall singing versions of "As Tears Go By" and the Beatles' "And I Love Her," with rewritten lyrics, at mass.

The Dameans, L-R, Darryl Ducote, Mike Balhoff,
Buddy Caesar, and Gary Ault
By the time we got to Santa Barbara and the novitiate in 1969-70, we were beginning to get more liturgical music from FEL and World Library in a newer style, and the music of Ray Repp ("Wake Up, My People"), Sebastian Temple ("Sing, People of God, Sing" and "The Mass Is Ended") and Clarence Rivers found more and more of a home alongside hymnody in our seminary liturgies. We sang "They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love" using bass lines and rhythms of Carlos Santana, and sang the heck also out of Peter Scholtes' "Missa Bossa Nova", with its Latin flavor, as well. In this all-male environment, the influence of the sound of men's voices on the radio, of the Kingston Trio, the Lettermen, Simon and Garfunkel, and, let's face it, the Beatles, was a sound to which we could all relate. Traveling groups of seminarians with names like "The Roamin' Collars" were common. The Dameans emerged from this matrix, and later, the St. Louis Jesuits.

The church music sphere was not only influenced by the sound of these groups, but by the singer-songwriter ethos as well. I don't have any first-hand evidence, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out a similar line of influence between Joan Baez, Mimi Fariña, Mary Travers, and Judy Collins going through such women composers as Miriam Therese Winter and the Medical Mission Sisters and others among the less numerous women composers of the era. Of course, this is just one piece of the wide history of the development of liturgical music at the beginning of the post-conciliar era.

Later influences would move the sound of popular liturgical music away from the male-dominated guitar scene toward the mixed ensemble sound. One of the big reasons for this, I think, would be the popularity of the Broadway quasi-religious musicals like "Godspell," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," and "Jesus Christ Superstar," which featured women and men singing together and orchestral rock scores.

        It is a great privilege to have been allowed to lead people in prayer through song. In the movie, the "mighty wind" was a sympathetic if vulgar metaphor for the earnest but occasionally vacuous music and performers of the folk era. Looking back over forty years of church music, I've seen (and made) a lot of wind, yes. I believe, however, that it has been in the service of a mightier Wind, a Spiritus, one that is eroding the structures of human greed and violence in order to renew the face of the earth. I hope we're on the right track. A lot of us have staked our lives on it.