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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Guilty pleasures and influences: Up With People


This will go to prove that I’m an old folkie, and I know it. Every once in a while, I start singing, or thinking, which is just as bad, a song that I heard from "Up with People."

I was in high school from 1965-1969 in Montebello, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. This was the time of the formation and infancy of  “Up with People,” a movement which also had the moniker for a while of “Sing Out (America).” In its heyday, “Up with People” was ubiquitous, with three touring casts and appearances on many television shows, even performing at the Super Bowl halftime show for several years.

The Los Angeles cast of “Up With People” used to practice in the gym at St. Vincent’s Seminary where I went to school, and we occasionally got a glimpse of a rehearsal, drool over the mini-skirted pretty girls, and hear the songs that were capturing the imagination of the country, riding the crest of the wave between the folk sound of groups like Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio and the pop ensemble sound of the New Christy Minstrels and Swingle Singers, but with fresh songwriting more in the tradition of musical theater. If you know the sound, you know exactly what I’m talking about. In one of the most impressionable times of my musical formation, these kids who were just a little bit older than I were making music with a cast of forty or fifty and a small rock orchestra, complete with choreography and staging, right in the gym of my little seminary high school. Did I mention there were girls?

Over the years, the “Up with People” movement was somewhat coöpted by the “moral rearmament” people of the political right, and their smiling patriotism took on an unwittingly ironic Pollyanna quality in the 1970s and through the Nixon years. In its time, it provided some balance to the “drop out” movement that had equal energy (or lethargy), and, being a Gemini, both approaches had their appeal to me. Both had some great songs. To me, the energy and inner vitality of the early UWP music and the relevance and earnestness of the lyrics of those songs really spoke to my heart, and some of those songs have stuck with me to this day. Of course, so have “White Rabbit” and “Purple Haze.”

For instance:
Up With People. The signature song of the cast was a feel-good sing-along that was a friendly call to community and social consciousness:
If more people
Were for people
All people everywhere,
There’d be a lot less people to worry about,
And a lot more people to care.

(Try to overlook “less” instead of “fewer,” I hate that, too, but you don’t notice it so much if you look at the girls and keep singing.)

Ballad of Joan of Arc. This one was my favorite, and it was just an amazing moment for an idealistic Catholic adolescent coming to individuation in the middle of the 1960s. A young woman in faux mail took the stage and there were props aplenty while she sang her part of the song against a trio or quartet of male balladeers telling the story of a teenager who saved her country by courage and faith. The song ended with Joan in the middle of the leaping flames, singing her song of defiant courage, then dying to let the balladeers finish the message:

Trio: She walked alone in the fields of the summer,
Where the green leaves were whispering their song,
And the voices were calling to this simple country girl,
Making her heart grow strong.
Then out through the gateway to the wide open road,
To the high road leading afar,
Someone is walking, a young girl is walking,
A young girl is walking alone...

Joan: "Open up the door and let me inside,
I've come to see the king," (trio:) the young girl cried.
"What does a country girl want with the king?
You've never learned to read or write,
You've never owned a thing!"

Joan: "I've come to ask for horses, for a sword and for men
Who will ride with me to free this land again.
Ride with me to free this land again."
...

Trio: Joan rides the high road,
Fear is in the rain,
Voices crying, "Madness, a tomorrow of pain."
Strong men are hesitant, the king was afraid
But every heart was strengthened by the voice of the Maid.
Joan: “For I will stand alone,
Pure as the light of the morning.
For I will stand alone.”...

Trio: When you walk alone in the fields of the summer,
Where the green earth is whispering a song,
Will you ride the high road leading afar
And ride out to answer ev'ry wrong?

I can’t remember the whole thing. But it used to give me chills. I think it was the music - maybe it was the tights.

What Color Is God’s Skin? Proving that this wasn’t a completely redneck outfit, this song and others tried to get the country to see the beauty of a rainbow coalition before Jesse Jackson even thought of it. It’s probably the most covered of all the UWP songs, an infectious refrain that is completely in the style of Peter, Paul, and Mary ballads, harkening back to America’s folk music.
“Good night,” I said to my little son,
So tired out when the day is done.
Then he said to me, as I tucked him in:
“Tell me, Daddy, what color’s God’s skin?”
 
R: What color is God’s skin? What color is God’s skin?
I said, It’s black, brown, it’s yellow, it is red, it is white.
Everyone’s the same in the good Lord’s sight....
 
“Son, it’s a part of our suffering past,
But the whole human family is learning at last
That the thing we’ve missed on the road we’ve trod
Is to walk as the daughters and the sons of God.”

Another famous output of UWP was the often-quoted anthem “Freedom Isn’t Free,” sort of a Woody-Guthrie-esque power ballad with the slightly disturbing undercurrent of militarism that was probably a shot at the war protests going on over Vietnam, though, being a theologian in training, I was able to morally finesse the two concepts to my own satisfaction, a trick I’m less and less able to play on myself:
Freedom isn’t free! Freedom isn’t free!
You gotta pay the price, you gotta sacrifice
For your liberty.
Freedom is a word often heard today,
But if you wanna keep it there’s a price to pay.
Each generation’s gotta win it anew,
‘Cuz it’s not something handed down to you.

(My jaded seminary English professor, the late Fr. Bill Ready, CM, was unimpressed by the earnestness or the message of UWP, and was always going around singing something about “pay the price/shoot those lice.” We did have the love of Allan Sherman in common...)

There was a great ballad of Paul Revere, a big show-stopping number called “Show Boat” that was just a piece of feel-good Americana right out of a musical, the haunting “We Are with You, Mr. Washington,” sort of a musical pledge of allegiance to the ideals of the American past, “Which Way, America,” which often ended their shows asking and answering the question at the heart of UWP movement:
Which way, America? Which way, America?
Which way to go?
This is my country and I want to know
Which way America is going to go.
There is many a road to travel,
Many a hill to climb.
I’m gonna find the straightest road
And walk it to the end of time.

You can see how a Catholic boy born in the 50s and raised in the culture that produced “Catholic Action” and the CYO might be attracted to this kind of rhetoric. Of course, I was also attracted to the rhetoric of Frank Zappa and Country Joe and the Fish. Gemini rising, again.

Well, there you go, a walk down memory lane to a place and time that almost certainly influenced my songwriting over the years. They knew how to write a song that touched the heart, that got people singing, and that you couldn’t forget. Well, maybe you could, but I couldn’t. And I sing those songs with their “earworm” melodies on and off a couple of times a year, a testament to these fresh-faced kids and their energy and enthusiasm. When I was a music director in Phoenix, a fellow who sang with one of my choirs actually joined one of the casts and toured internationally for a while, but by then (1980s) the repertoire had changed significantly, and he and I didn’t know many of the same songs. UWP has even been parodied on “The Simpsons” as “Hooray for Everything.” To me, being parodied on “The Simpsons” is like a big “you know you’ve made it when...”
Thanks, all of you UWP kids from my youth, for the songs, the energy, the idealism, the joy. Not least of all, for bringing a real Joan of Arc (in tights) and other girls onto the otherwise drearily celibate campus of a seminary high school, wakening a kid far from home to the realization that there are a lot of things in this beautiful world worth singing about.