Technology allows us to surround ourselves with music of our choosing any time we want. The holiday season often means long drives in the car to visit relatives, and an iPod loaded with various kinds of music to fit the moods and tastes of the passengers can make the drive go quickly. This past week has given me occasion to listen to many recordings from The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and also to listen to some of those same songs by other artists. The purpose of this post is to describe the immediate, visceral reaction of the listeners to some of the MoTab songs, and also to speculate as to why this is a choir I both love and detest.When it comes to why the choir goes wrong, I think the biggest problem is that the choir tries to be all things to all people. When I was six I got a little toolbox for Christmas, and the hammer immediately became my favorite toy. There were so many things around the house which needed hammering! The walls, the dining table, the legs of the piano, my father’s desk, a sibling’s fingers — so many things looked like a nail. After an hour or so my parents couldn’t take it any longer and unjustly confiscated my hammer on some kind of trumped-up charges. If we apply this lesson to the choir, it follows that a 350 voice choir backed by an organ with more than 11,000 pipes is good for some things and not so good for other things. Like the little girl in the nursery rhyme, when the choir is good, it is very, very good, but when it is bad, it is horrid.
Much of the problem comes from bad choices of recording material. I hesitate to say it, because it might give somebody ideas, but I’m afraid that right now some suit at Deseret Book is programming macros into his Excel spreadsheet, trying to figure out if he can make $0.02 by selling a recording of the choir wasting away again in Margaritaville, complete with steel pan drums. Don’t laugh, they’ve already done worse. Some music is meant to be sung by large, musically competent groups, and other music sounds better when sung by a single voice. Why cannot the people in charge at the MoTab understand this? Many of our mission presidents have built a hedge around the law and declared a fatwa on all non-MoTab music. The result is that our missionaries now can satisfy their tastes for showtunes, country and western music, (U.S.) patriotic music and La Bamba (Yes! La Bamba!) simply by listening to the choir, and they’ll never break a single rule. FInally, the choir sometimes displays a really inexplicable cultural insensitivity, e.g. La Bamba, which grates on one’s ears and brings tears to one’s eyes, and not in a good way.
We will begin first with the Rants, then go on to the Raves.
Ave Maria, but with the words changed to something about Heavenly Father — What fresh hell is this? (Hereinafter, Wfhit?) We respect Roman Catholics enough to appropriate their music, but not enough to quit diddling with the words? People, this is a song about the worship of Mary, the Holy Mother of Christ. Leave it alone, and don’t ever do anything like this again. Ever.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow — Dude. This song is only meant to be sung by Judy Garland. And when most people think of Judy Garland and ruby slippers and rainbows, they’re not thinking about the MoTab. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Cultural sensitivity FAIL.
Oh, Danny Boy — This song is meant for a tenor voice, with very simple accompaniment. Whose idea was it to have it performed by 200 female voices with orchestral backing, and has this individual been given sufficient negative reinforcement that he never does this again? On the plus side, at least they managed to say “Ave”.
Country and western songs — Concerning the MoTab contributions to this genre, the less said, the better. It is enough to say that when I am jonesin’ for some Twang, I’ll turn to Lyle, Lefty, Merle, and Willie.
Sinnuh, Please Don’ Let Dis Harves’ Pass — Seriously? SERIOUSLY?!?!? Maybe this is some misbegotten attempt at solidarity with an oppressed people, as if our decade in Missouri and Nauvoo compares with 300 years of enforced bondage and slavery. Maybe it is a failed effort at cultural outreach. But who cares? This steaming pile of whatever is one short half-step away from a minstrel show, and we ought to be ashamed. This is awful.
Down to the River to Pray — A song that brings tears to my eyes in a good way when sung solo by Allison Krauss. A song that brings tears to my eyes in a bad way when sung by the hundreds of women of the MoTab. This melody is supposed to be simple and flowing, so why in the world would we do a complicated arrangement that is so choppy it is almost staccato? Wfhit?
The Battle of New Orleans — Where to start? There are so many things wrong with this. Consider just these two verses:
Old Hick’ry said we could take ’em by surprise
if we didn’t fire our muskets ’til we looked ’em in the eyes.
We held our fire ’til we see’d their faces well,
then we opened up our squirrel guns and really gave ’em Weeeellll, we fired our guns and the British kept a’ comin’, etc. (chorus)
We fired our cannon ’til the barrel melted down
then we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round.
We filled his head with cannonballs and powdered his behind,
and when we touched the powder off the ‘gator lost his mind. (chorus)
I mean, what can you even say in the face of this disaster? Words fail. The written word cannot convey the horribleness of the song, not to mention the horribleness of the phony British accents the male voices have affected. This song should only be sung in a roadside honky-tonk somewhere in the American south, by an unreconstructed redneck with a coonskin cap on his head and a banjo on his knee and a dip of chaw in his lip. It should only be sung by a man who is literally incapable of enunciating standard English. To all you high priests in suits and ties and all you Relief Society ladies in flowery dresses, please believe me when I tell you that you look and sound like dorks when you do stuff like this.
This Land is Your Land — This rousing, hand-clapping, toe-tapping anthem by the choir would normally pass muster, but on a day when just a half hour before I had heard a recording of the same song performed by Woody Guthrie, the man who wrote it, it needs to be singled out as inadequate. Mormons often don’t sing all the verses, and in this case, the choir decided to leave out the verses which would upset the gentry, or the practitioners of Skousenheit. Guthrie’s voice speaks to us from the depths of The Great Depression, and he is as one having a familiar spirit, which murmureth to us as a voice from the dust.
In the shadows of the steeple
by the Relief Office I saw my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wond’ring
Is this land made for you and me?
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
and on the sign it said “Private Property”,
but on the other side it didn’t say nothin’.
That side was made for you and me!
In general, I like all the songs the choir does which belong to The Restoration. Now Let Us Rejoice, Come, Come ye Saints, How Firm a Foundation and many others are like musical comfort food to me. I enjoy them every time I hear them, even after many repetitions. I don’t know how to explain why I feel better when I hear the choir sing Redeemer of Israel, Our Only delight!, but I do.
A Mighty Fortress — Wow, the voices and the organ combine in a way that makes me think of the Cardston or Mesa temples. Luther would approve.
When I Survey the Wond’rous Cross — Tears. Good ones.
The Hallelujah Chorus — Grand and majestic. I wore out this cassette tape on my mission and still can’t hear it enough.
Behold the Lilies — The last time I sung in the ward choir we had a good conductor and he taught us how to do this piece of music in a reasonably workmanlike manner. It was difficult for me, so I appreciate the way the choir performs it in a way which seems effortless.
The Heav’ns Resound — Hands down my very favorite MoTab recording. Great use of voices, and the organist gets a chance to blow some dust out of the pipes and show off. The choir was built to sing this.
The heav’ns resound
with His praises eternal,
In might and glory they combine,
To tell His Name
through earth and the oceans
That man may hear the word divine.
He holds the suns
in the blue vaulted heavens,
He plants His foot upon the world.
The myriad stars bow
in willing subjection,
The universe His hand unfurled,
The universe His hand unfurled.
Does the Mormon Tabernacle Choir do things which make you rant or rave? What are some of your favorite or not-so-favorite songs? Please let us know in the comments.