America’s Choir?

Last week, I was leafing through the Deseret Book Catalogue, sifting through a slew of products all promising to strengthen me as a Latter-Day Saint.  However, the item that did catch my attention was the newish book/CD/DVD commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of continual broadcasting for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  The book’s title:  America’s Choir:  A Commemorative Portrait of the Mormon Tabernacle ChoirAmerica’s Choir?

Because I don’t live in the United States, the only time I really ever see the choir is at General Conference when they are broadcast over the satellite into the ward meetinghouse that I attend.  Up until recently, in my mind, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was a Latter-Day Saint institution, not an American symbol.

However, further research revealed that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has performed for ten U.S. Presidents, earned numerous gold and platinum records and won a Grammy. 

From the official website of the Choir, one learns that, "Ronald Reagan dubbed the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, "America’s Choir" in 1981 when the choir sang at his inauguration.  The name has remained because "it truly embodies the purpose of the choir."

The FAQ goes on to say that the Choir began "on the American plains as the Mormon pioneers trekked across the country to reach Salt Lake City and has been part of America’s tradition ever since."

It seems to me that during the nineteenth century, Mormons were considered to be anything but part of the American tradition.  While Western migration is a dominant theme in nineteenth century American history, it seems that the nature and the impetus of the Mormon migration (mobs, extermination order, prophecy,etc.) spring from a different tradition and vision.

What I think is most interesting about the title of this book (which I have not read yet) is that the choir has assumed this designation.  Whether or not, American citizens perceive the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as their choir seems less important to me than the fact that the choir has claimed this role as its own.

Was Ronald Reagan "right on the mark when he labeled the Mormon Tabernacle Choir"?  (I have to admit that I’m not convinced he was always right on the mark — for example when he labeled ketchup as a vegetable because it was red and made from tomatoes!)

Do American Mormons see the Tabernacle Choir as their national choir?  Does the average American who is not a member of the church see it the same way?  Do these perceptions say anything about the nature of the Church or the prevailing view of it in the United States, or for that matter the world?

Comments

  1. Kris,

    No bother really. I just was illustrating the point that it really didnt bother me either way. I suppose if I didnt get myself worked up over seemingly miniscule matters at all, I never would of responded, eh? So I kinda contridicted myself there. Good thread!

  2. If you really think about it, there is a lot of marketing going on in the church. It’s all about PR. The fact that missionaries have such strick dresscodes, priesthood leaders visiting with dignitaries of other countries, etc. I happen to work with the photographers for the church, and there is a good deal of photo coverage of any events that take place invloving the church all over the world. Some of this is to keep the church members atune to what’s going on, the rest, a means to foster good relationships, missionary work and cooperation in welfare services internationally. I taught english classes on my mission, and yes, we offered the discussions and information to all of our students, but there was no requirement there. It was service…as it should be. Now, if the adoption of the dubbed “America’s Choir” is offensive to those outside the United States, or otherwise, perhaps it should be reconsidered. Still, I don’t see it as a huge problem, or marketing scheme. The choir works hard, and sings other pieces other than hymns of the church. Many patriotic pieces in fact. Has performed all over the states and the world, and is well known enough to be somewhat a representative of the country and the church in the choral sphere. I just don’t see it as being a big deal, but that’s just me. I don’t see many things as being a big deal. Life is complex enough without getting worked up over minuscule matters.

  3. Sarah — I think you should re-read my post if you thought I said it was offensive — to me it was merely surprising — I had never seen that “nickname” applied to the choir before. I think there is a big difference. Sorry to bother you with my miniscule issues.

  4. I should be getting ready to go on a school field trip and I am typing too fast — but want to acknowledge my last sentance should be “To me” not “Too me” :)

  5. This morning as I was drying the dishes and feeling irritated about being called a “touchy non-American Mormon”, I was thinking about what really bothers me about this issue. The conclusion I have come to is that it is more the idea of “marketing” the choir that doesn’t sit well with me.

    Woody over at Woody’s Woundup has written a good post on the choir in response to my questions. (see Trackback) I agree with alot of his ideas. Like Woody, I feel that one of the primary purposes of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is to serve as missionaries or to act as an “envoy” for the church. But at the conclusion of his post Woody asserts, “In the end, the name “America’s Choir” is really just marketing.”

    Perhaps it is naive, but I just don’t like it. I don’t like it when I hear stories about missionaries who offer English language classes for 6 weeks and then tell people they can only continue if they take the discussions as well. It seems like a “hook” to me. Some might say the difference between missionary work and marketing is just semantics or that we have to adapt to the ways of the world. Too me, it’s not just a matter of words , and that’s why I don’t like the title of this book.

  6. It’s true that Jessop has done good stuff–their intonation is better, some chronic diction problems are much improved, etc.

    The stubborn fact remains, however, that a 300+ voice choir is never going to be able to do much serious music. They’re great at what they do–pomp and bombast–but most of the sublime world of choral music is closed to them.

  7. lord trousers says:

    Are all non-American Mormons this touchy about the United States?

    And Tom:

    “While most of the world regards the United States with suspicion at best…”

    Maybe that’s common sentiment amongst the people *you* hang out with. I have yet to see an international poll of all the people in the world about how they view the United States.

    May your echo chamber stay safely sealed.

    Sal:

    “As far as choirs go (even religious choirs), they are not that good.”

    Since Jessop took over, they’ve taken a definite turn for the better. It used to be that you couldn’t tell a minor chord from a major one. I didn’t used to like them, I do now (mostly), and my musical ears have only gotten better with age. Give it another 10 or 15, and the old cruft will retire. The current auditioning process is quite strenuous and competitive.

  8. Thanks for all of the interesting points of view. I still think while it may be a “charitable gesture” or just a pop culture label, it will still make some of us who live outside the U.S. wonder :)

    I think prefer D. Fletcher’s idea of it being a choir that belongs to the world and for what it’s worth I quite like the choir and love what they represent as they voluntarily donate their time and talents to the church.

  9. As a non-Mormon, I don’t think of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as “America’s Choir.” And as a San Franciscan, I certainly never thought of the Cowboys as “America’s Team.” Ugh!

  10. This is a little tidbit that I can reference, but not quote exactly. Bill Bryson, in his book, “Notes From a Small Country”, describes his patriotic feelings he experienced while watching a movie in England (the movie was called “This is Cinerama”, and, from his description, seems like a showcase of cinematography). The movie climaxes in an arial shot of Zion Canyon with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing “America the Beautiful”, and he recounts wanting to stand up and shout “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is MY country!”

    Anyway…Bill Bryson seems to connect the MoTab with good ol’ fashioned middle-American goodness. If what Bill Bryson thinks matters, I guess.

  11. The “America’s X” label is just pop culture shorthand. The Dallas Cowboys are “America’s Team.” Billy Graham has been America’s minister for forty years. Arnold is now America’s governor. What’s wrong with calling the Mo Tab “America’s Choir”? It came from a sitting President, not some exaggerated self-promotion gimmick. I’m hardly one to defend Mormon icons, but in this case I think they have probably earned the title.

  12. “the We’re Not Weird Wars”

    Hugh: Thank you for this. It perfectly captures a bit of the Mormon experience that I’ve never seen a good label for. Kudos!

  13. Personally, I really find no offense in the Tab being called as such or not. It is well known, appreciated by many outside of the church, and been around for quite sometime. The fact that a representative of our nation at the time decided to dubb it as “America’s Choir” is something I see as a charitable gesture. A symbol of the change that has come over in tolerance of the Saints, not to mention other beliefs over time. The fact that the pioneers were persucuted at the time of the orgin of the choir has no bearing other than perhaps some hearts have changed. It demonstrates a growing respect for the Christian ethics and efforts of the church. Of course, others might have alternative viewpoints, but I thing we all have bigger fish to fry than this.

  14. Hugh Stocks says:

    In deference to D.Fletcher, all I can say is “chacun a son gout.” I find the current choir substantially less musical and less technically expert than the Jerrold Ottley version. And the Wilberg/Jessop combination thrives on bombast, noise and cheap emotional manipulation, especially since they now have an orchestra (America’s Orchestra?) to play with.

    Nonetheless, it seems that they were almost the first thing to appear on national radio and TV, when such things became available, and they’ve served well as a weapon in the We’re Not Weird wars since 1929. And the logo “America’s Choir” furthers that element of the current mainstreamization of the church just fine.

  15. D. Fletcher says:

    The MoTab is definitely America’s choir, even the World’s choir. It is BY FAR the most well-known body of singers in the world, not by virtue of its excellence, but because of its enduring legacy of Sunday-morning broadcasts. And the choir is excellent — they have never sounded better than they do right now. They have an in-house composer/arranger, Mack Wilberg, who is the single most published (and purchased) choral composer in the world (he’s published by Oxford, and they should know).

    Although the slogan “America’s Choir” sounds oddly patriotic, I think it sticks.

  16. Bob Caswell says:

    Kris, great post! I think the MoTab can’t have it both ways (at least with the same amount of credibility). Either they’re America’s choir and not really Mormon (as Mormonism is not Americanism) or they’re the Church’s choir and not really American (again, for the same reasoning in the first parenthetical). But as they try to be both, the less I think of them as either, really. But that’s just me.

  17. Kris, nice idea. I have no idea whether they represent America in any respect other than doing bombastic versions of pop classics. If there were a choir version of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” they’d do it.

    Canadian equivalent? The Canadian Brass? Does the Air Farce have a choir?

  18. I think they have done “God Bless the USA” on a patriotic CD. You should find it and put in on the radioblog….cuz it sounds kinda funny.

  19. The choir seems to be getting involved in all sorts of crazy projects:

    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/01/25/tech/gamecore/main669368.shtml

  20. Tom Manney says:

    I don’t think most Americans give the Mormon Tabernacle Choir a second thought. If pressed, they might pick one of the military honor choirs or perhaps the Harlem Boys Choir. No, I think the “America’s Choir” claim is just a silly exaggeration. That being said, the choir does sing an awful lot of patriotic songs and often sings at presidential inagurals. I think they even put out a double album of U.S. Civil War songs.

    I realize that this often comes as a disappointing shock to international members, but most American Mormons see the church and their country as being fundamentally compatible. They feel no compunction to express national pride in church settings. The Church’s antagonism with the United States in the 19th Century is a distant memory, and that antagonism never led to a dislike of American traditions — most of the persecuted members were Americans themselves. While most of the world regards the United States with suspicion at best, many Americans (and most American members of the Church) view it as an undiluted force for good in the world. I think that’s true of the Church’s American leaders, too. Consider Pres. Hinckley’s general conference remarks on the war in Iraq. For many American Mormons, the restoration was a logical extension of the American revolution. Most LDS Americans probably wouldn’t find the “America’s choir” claim to be shocking, just as they think it’s perfectly natural to fly U.S. flags outside chapels and temples in the United States, a practice which I understand to be quite surprising to European members.

    Most Americans, including members, don’t even know what nationalism is, let alone that they should be wary of their enthusiastic flirtation with it.

  21. The fact that the M.T.C. has been dubbed “America’s Choir” should tell us more about the state of culture in the US than anything else. As far as choirs go (even religious choirs), they are not that good. If they sang a song you were not familiar with, could you even understand the words?

Trackbacks

  1. #150 – America’s Choir? Sure, But…

    Kris Wright over at By Common Consent wonders about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and its somewhat recent cognomen of “America’s Choir.”

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