Up until the age of 10, my father and step-mother, had me in church three times a Sunday. We attended the Mt Evelyn Methodist Church about a mile walk from our home in the bush. At 11am we attended a church service, at 2 pm I was there for Sunday School and finally 7pm for evening service.
The earliest songs I remember are from my time at this church. Here are three I can still sing word perfect. ‘Jesus wants me for a sunbeam to shine for him each day’ - ‘Hear the pennies dropping, listen as they fall, everyone for Jesus he shall have them all’ – ‘Our Sunday School is over and we are going home, … be always kind and true’.
Attending church was also my first introduction to hi-brow music. This small church did not have a choir, but once a month we would have a soloist. This was usually a very large lady from a nearby church who had the ‘gift’ of singing. I can still remember her very loud voice.
As a small boy, what interested me most was when she sang with full volume, her whole frame shook and her chest trembled. From this I deduced that outstanding female singers must have large bosoms.
By teenage I had realised that this theory could not be right. Two of the girls in my youth group were wonderful singers. They were both very slim and neither of them ever shook nor trembled as they sang.
I spent my teenage years in the Yallourn Methodist Church. Yallourn (Victoria, Australia) a town owned by the state Electricity Commission was a model town planned by the same town planner who planned Canberra. The Methodist church was mostly full and we had a choir of about 20 singers. As was common in protestant churches of the time, the choir sat at the front by the pulpit, facing the congregation. Throughout the service, the choir pretended not to look at the congregation and the congregation pretended they were not noticing the choir.
The only music I can remember was the choir anthem ‘All in an April evening’ which the choir would sing three or four times a year. The thing I remember most clearly is the choir members’ hats. All the choir ladies wore hats and two of them wore spectacular hats. In fact, a source of anticipation before each service was, ‘What creations will appear today?’
It was in Yallourn that I made friends with another person stuck in this company town because of work. Graham an amazing organist, was the music teacher at the local High School. Both of us had time to kill on Sunday afternoons so Graham invited me to join him in the empty church where he had permission to play the electric-fan-driven reed organ. On Sunday afternoons, on this raspy instrument I listened to Bach, Handel and Beethoven. Most of it went over my head but occasionally what I heard stirred me. This was the beginning of my love of classical organ music and classical music in general.
In theological college, I became obsessed with the gospel music of the American South. Mahalia Jackson became my queen of song and I shared her music with those around me, whether they liked it or not. In the next ten years, my love of gospel music was further strengthened by a week in a ghetto church in Kansas City Missouri, Pilgrim’s Rest Baptist Church. This in turn led me to bringing together some wonderfully talented young people and forming the ‘The Proclaimers’, a choir that earned much acclaim and national recognition.
Pauline and I have a shared interest in telling Bible stories through musical shows. Producing two major Biblical musicals, ‘Nehemiah’ and ‘Abraham’ occupied our ‘spare’ time and absorbed all our money for 6 years. In these projects we were fortunate to have the help of some very talented friends, Shirley Mackenzie, Alan McCartin and Warren Barnett to name a few. Pauline always knew she could write songs and so she contributed greatly from the beginning. I saw myself as a dramatist with musical ideas. Eventually, I came to realise that some of my musical ideas were in fact, songs. My method of song writing was to sing into a tape recorder and then employ one of my musically skilled friends to write down the music. I have since realized that many musical luminaries, such as Charlie Chaplin and the Beatles used exactly this same method.
Our musicals were a great success with the audiences and the casts. But financially they failed. There is a large market for Biblical musicals in the USA. However, these musicals must be 18 minutes or less in length. Our musicals were 50+ minutes. Another problem for the American choir directors, was that our musicals were to be performed by all ages. They were trained to lead age-designated choirs. Despite considerable promotion efforts, especially by the Chicago based Lorenz Corporation, and our agent Carolyn Shadle, our musicals did not sell and were eventually withdrawn from circulation.
Once I knew I could write songs I kept on whenever I felt there was a need to do so. An inner compulsion would seize me and out would come a song. Most of my songs were for children and all ages. What is basically a protest song “Christians are all kinds of people” is now to be found in several hymn books where it sticks out like a sore toe. By this I mean there is nothing remotely like it in these volumes of sacred songs.
The songs that Pauline and I write have one thing in common. They are aimed at bringing people together – bringing all ages together. That is, they are community builders. And we never have auditions for the chorus – whoever wants to participate can do so. This sometimes means that the sound is more of a cacophony than of music.
On one occasion, I recruited an operatic baritone into a Nehemiah cast. For part of the show he was in a cast family (five people, young and old) which included an enthusiastic intellectually disabled, large, loud man. This person loved being in the show but he could only sing one note which he did at the top of his voice. My friend told me he felt he was in musical ‘hell’. However, after our performance he came to me glowing with joy. ‘That was the best musical experience of my life”, he said. “And when that handicapped man, hugged me, I lost it. Do you know what," he went on, "I have been a musical snob? Music is about more than perfect pitch. It is the language of the soul." Then he hugged me.
Here is a strange thing. I can’t spell and yet I can write. I can’t read music or play an instrument and yet I can create songs. And I am sure this is also the case for many others. I believe that when it comes to creating new things we should not confuse technical rubrics or theoretical structures with creativity. They are not the same thing.
In 1987 in Taradale, a small girl who had left my songwriting session in tears because ‘There is no song in me’, came the next morning with a look of timid hopefulness on her face. I had told her that her song might come to her as she slept. She said, “A little song came to me – well it might be a song?”. In a quiet corner, I listened to her three-line song. I will never forget it. It went, “God has given everyone a special gift, God has given everyone a special gift, God has given everyone a VERY SPECIAL gift.”
Now that’s the truth! Our friend Mary Lu Walker’s song says the same thing. “Everybody’s got a song, everybody can sing”. And I know there are plenty of songs still bubbling in me, and maybe by the grace of God one or two more might pop out.
I have been asked, why do I write these pieces. For me there is some satisfaction in pulling together some of the threads and insights of my life. For you the reader, I hope there is some interest and some amusement. And maybe there is something for you to think about?