By Hal Poe, Charles Colson University Professor of Faith & Culture
One might say of my musical tastes that I have trod the path less chosen. By the age of two, my taste in church music was well established, for I had come to the conviction that Sunday School was no place for “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” and “Here We Go Loopty Loo.” I did not know why we all had to go anywhere, but these songs also made me wary of music at church that lacked sound theology while only appealing to the baser instincts of the primordial passions.
Though my taste in church music rests upon such a solid convictional foundation, nevertheless, it has developed over the years. I grew up in a church that sang the Doxology and the Gloria Patri each Sunday, with a heavy stress on the first hundred songs in the Baptist Hymnal; such as “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” In high school, however, my friends on the staff of the Greenville High News introduced me to the fun songs at the back of the Baptist Hymnal, like “When We All Get to Heaven” and “When They Call the Roll Up Yonder.”
My secular tastes in music had other influences. Before I started school, the radio, rather than the television, still served as the primary vehicle of mass entertainment, and the music of the early 1950s continued to be dominated by the legends of the 1930s and 1940s: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, the Andrews Sisters and Kate Smith (who made “God Bless America” a popular hit). Thus, the most important aspect of my early musical education was an insistence upon songs that had a tune, some stab at an orderly rhythm and lyrics that made sense. I realize now that I had set the bar pretty high for the direction culture was going. Until the early 1970s, singers in the Big Band tradition continued to have a strong presence in the Top 40 countdown every week. Frank Sinatra was joined by people like Barbara Streisand.
About the time I started school, I also discovered my great-grandfather’s cabinet crank Victrola (circa 1910) in the basement with a huge stock of 78rpm records. He loved music, and he had everything from Caruso singing the “Celeste Aida” to Alma Gluck singing “Carry Me Back to Old Virginy.” My favorites, though, were all the songs about the greatest hero of the age—Charles A. Lindbergh. Of these, “Charlie Boy” and “Lucky Lindy” were the best.
Once television grew more common in the mid-1950s, the local stations had a habit of broadcasting old movies to fill up the time before the stations signed off for the day around 11 p.m. or midnight. The MGM musicals were always popular, and they introduced me to what has come to be called “the great American songbook” or the great show tunes of composers like George Gershwin (“Summertime”) and Cole Porter (“Night and Day”), my two favorites.
The years before I went away to college were also the golden age of the Broadway musical with dominance by Rogers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Lowe. This was the time of The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady, of Camelot and The Man of La Mancha. An era came crashing to an end with the production of Hair, O Calcutta, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ, Superstar. Julie Andrew’s singing of the title song “The Sound of Music” and the haunting idealism of “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” were enormously popular just before the cataclysm of the Counter Culture in the late 1960s.
Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones never made the cut with me. Instead, I liked the sound of Motown and groups like The Drifters who sang about special places “Under the Boardwalk” and “Up on the Roof.” This was the music of summer nights in the South that we called “beach music” because this was the music to which teenagers danced the shag, that slow version of swing dancing, at the summer pavilions in Myrtle Beach, Pawley’s Island and Folly Beach. The summer of 1968, I went on a high school bus tour of the west with Tommy Coker, and our group heard The Supremes live at a dinner theater in Las Vegas. They sang about romance with hits like “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again.”
I spent the summer of 1970 in Washington, D.C. as an intern in the office of Congressman Hastings Keith of the Cape Cod district of Massachusetts. I took courses in comparative political and economic systems in the mornings at Georgetown University, worked on the Hill in the afternoons and played in the evenings. I played the fiddle. Until then, it had been the violin, but that summer, it became a fiddle for the first time. A girl in my program from New Mexico had her guitar, and she taught me how to play the songs of Peter, Paul and Mary. We majored on songs like “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” While I never cared for rock and hard rock, some of the music of the hippies was quite good. I did not care for Janis Joplin’s recording of “Bobbie McGee,” but Patty Duke sang it quietly a cappella in a minor TV drama, and I have loved it ever since.
Richard Hines and I spent three weeks in London after Christmas of 1971. We stayed with someone who had no central heating and only one space heater with a single strand of wire that glowed red so as to give the illusion of heat. The only place to get warm was the British Museum. At night, however, I had my first taste of opera when I saw the Saddlers Wells Opera production of the romantic comic opera “Die Fledermaus” [The Bat] by Johann Straus. The signature piece which stands alone as a great waltz is “A Waltz, Let’s Have a Waltz.” I still think that “Die Fledermaus” is the best introduction to opera because we can see how this tradition evolved into the Broadway musical of the twentieth century. Thus, it is not as big a stretch as starting with Wagner’s Ring.
After I finished college, I worked as finance director of the South Carolina Republican Party in 1974 during the gubernatorial campaign, in which we elected the first Republican governor in 100 years. I lived in the village of Wateree on the last sand hill before the Great Santee Swamp twenty miles south of Columbia. It was a summer filled with music as the little colony of refugees from city life in Wateree regularly played music together as we wandered all over the musical landscape. On a Saturday, we often gathered in the small shack of my next door neighbor, Tom Koob, who had a magnificent record collection. From lunch time to midnight we would listen to Jimmy Rogers, Chopin, Billy Holiday, Edith Piaf, Wagner, Neil Diamond, Hank Williams, the Carter Family and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. When Tom was ready for everyone to leave, he put on a Frank Zappa record. Within ten minutes, everyone left.
In spring of 1975, I joined the Fairview Foothills Revival band to earn my keep after resigning my political job until I started seminary in June. We played all over Columbia for $100 a night, split four ways. We were lucky to play twice a week. Steve Lynn, the band leader, now serves as Dean of the Honors College at the University of South Carolina, but in those days, he introduced me to the music of Merle Hagard. I particularly loved “Mama Tried” and “The Fugitive.”
During my 15 years in Louisville as student, prison chaplain, pastor, denominational executive and seminary professor, I belonged to The Crabgrass Rejection, a professional bluegrass band—which is to say, everyone in it was a professional: two doctors, two engineers and me. While I had played around at fiddling for a few years, it was in Louisville that Bud Puckett finally taught me how actually to fiddle. He played the guitar, but he told me to play doodley-doodley-doodley-do. So I did. Bud also taught me to sing tenor and bass in the Ridgewood Baptist Church choir. We played some old traditional tunes, like “Soldier’s Joy” and “St. Anne’s Reel.” We also played some progressive bluegrass which I barely tolerated, but I loved some of the old Hank Williams songs, like “I Can’t Help It if I’m Still in Love with You.”
In 1979, I spent the fall at Oxford as part of my doctoral program. John O’Connell, a wild Irishman full of blarney, kept insisting that I join the Pembroke Orchestra until I finally agreed to go along to a rehearsal. I always hid at the back of the second violin section of the Southern Seminary orchestra, and I was only willing to go along that night because John assured me I could do the same thing. As we walked in late, however, John announced, “This is the marvelous American I’ve told you all about!” Whereupon the conductor set me down in the second chair of the first violin section—completely exposed. I had no choice but rise to the occasion. My favorite pieces from our Christmas concert were Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” and Beethoven’s “Coriolan Overture.” Fortunately, we held our concert in the chapel of Keble College which is a great Victorian pile of masonry with such bad acoustics it was like playing in an echo chamber, and no one could tell if we were good or bad—but we were sufficiently loud.
By the end of the 1970s, my musical tastes (plural) were settled. I correctly despised the disco craze of the 1970s. I correctly appreciated the more mature work of Andrew Lloyd Webber. I correctly rejected the trend of country music toward the monotone and the lure of Hollywood in the 1980s. And I still sing and play from my Baptist Hymnal. The music that we no longer sing, whistle, hum and play five, ten or fifty years later probably was not very good to begin with. Good music transcends fashion.