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Thursday, December 01, 2011

How The Salvation Army created modern music

So it's December 1st and I'm finally allowing myself to enjoy the music of the holiday season! Not that I'm a grinch or anything. It's just... I've never liked how the Christmas stuff now seems to start coming out the day after Halloween (and lately even before then). It only "feels" like Seasons Greetings when it's after Thanksgiving, and maybe several days after that just for good measure. I mean, doesn't the year go by fast enough without it needing any "help"?

Well anyhoo, it being the time properly leading up to Christmas at last, I'll kick things off with a post I've been considering for some time now. It's a neat lil' bit of historical lore that I've always enjoyed and I like to think that others will appreciate it as well.

So here we go with the strange but true tale of how The Salvation Army from its very beginning was the catalyst for the style, the substance, and the soul of just about everything there is about modern contemporary Christian music... and much of other modern music too.

The Salvation Army is well renowned for a lot of things regarding its charity work and emergency aid in times of need. Right now as always this time of year, you can find good folks ringing the bell at those cute lil' Salvation Army red kettles all over the place (I'm gonna ask all of The Knight Shift's faithful readers to please consider chucking some coin in this season whenever you encounter one... and the people working the bells are always fun to talk to as well!).

But along with Christmas bells, thrift stores and charitable efforts throughout the community, The Salvation Army is also world-renowned for its brass bands. Once upon a time it seemed that every small town in America had a Salvation Army band playing around Christmas. These days you're more likely to find them in the United Kingdom, but a few places on this side of the pond still have a brass band affiliated with the organization. Even so, most Americans of the current era will probably only know a Salvation Army band from one's fleeting appearance in the 1983 film A Christmas Story (which was set in 1940).

But it turns out that The Salvation Army brass bands have some very neat history behind them. Indeed, it could be said that through its musical ministry, The Salvation Army has wound up pioneering a lot of modern melody!

It all began in 1878. The Salvation Army had been founded more than ten years earlier by Methodist minister William Booth as an effort to reach out in Christian service to the worst slums of Victorian-era London. And by the late 1870s the labors of Booth and his wife Catherine were beginning to bear great fruit: hundreds of English people - many of them alcoholics, drug abusers, prostitutes and countless others who had been deemed "undesirable" by the upper crust of English society - had been won over to Christ through the message of "soup, soap and salvation".

But eventually there was a problem. Namely, the owners of the saloons, pubs and beer halls around London who gradually came to lose a lot of money because formerly regular patrons began flocking to The Salvation Army instead. The new converts gave up liquor as they turned over a new leaf... and that didn't play too hot among the procurers of alcoholic beverage in the East End (where Jack the Ripper would run amok a decade later). That many zealous Salvation Army "soldiers" were returning to their previous haunts to preach against booze - and being fairly successful at that - didn't make Booth's cause too popular in many quarters, either.

Well, before long William Booth and his followers began getting heckled, jeered and cajoled by various drunks and louts. Sometimes it came to worse: Army members being assaulted and attacked and barraged with rocks and bottles. And it fast became apparent that William Booth and his Salvation Army... well, needed protection from the hostilities.

Enter into our tale one Charles William Fry, a builder from Salisbury. He and his family had joined The Salvation Army. And as concern grew over Booth's safety, Fry and his three teenaged sons offered themselves to be bodyguards.

It also just so happened that Fry and his three sons all played brass instruments.

Charles William Fry, his wife and their three sons

Now it was supposed to be that when Fry and his boys went out to keep Booth and other Salvation Army workers from harm, they would be providing musical accompaniment for the singing. But it didn't quite work out that way. Pretty soon other Salvation Army members were bringing their own musical instruments along. And they were using them... whether they had a lick o' music talent or not! Bells, banjos, drums, whatever could be found or crudely made, the Army wound up employing. "It sounds as if a brass band's gone out of its mind," said one observer.

But something else soon began happening, as well. You see, these poor and down-trodden who had thrown in with Booth's Salvation Army, well... "nice", "clean" Christian hymnals weren't something that they were accustomed to. Okay, they didn't know about them at all. These were people far more used to songs that you could drink some hooch to, then sing some more after getting all gassed.

And that's when it started. The Salvation Army members began taking popular songs about partying and getting drunk... and inventing their own lyrics for the same music!

(I guess it could also be said that The Salvation Army was already doing song parody about a hundred years before "Weird Al" Yankovic hit the scene, but anyhoo...)

Hit tunes like "Here's to Good Old Whiskey" became "Storm the Forts of Darkness". "Way Down Upon the Swanee River" inspired "Joy, Freedom, Peace and Ceaseless Blessing". Many other "secular" songs came to be adopted as Christian hymnals with unorthodox melody. And this went on for a few years. William Booth himself didn't know what to make of it. In fact, he came to harbor severe doubts about the music that his own group's members were coming up with.

Then came a night in January of 1882 when Booth was visiting Worcester. The Commanding Officer of the town's Army contingent, George Fielder, came to the stage and began singing "Bless His Name, He Set Me Free". It was something that Booth had never heard before, and he thought it sounded beautiful. Soon afterward he asked Fielder what tune it had been set to.

"General, that's a dreadful tune. Don't you know what it is? That's 'Champagne Charlie Is My Name'."

It was all that Booth needed to be convinced that whatever it was that The Salvation Army was doing musically, there was nothing wrong with it. "That's settled it," William Booth declared. "Why should the devil have all the best tunes?"

Over the next decade The Salvation Army published numerous official adaptations for the bands that were soon being organized throughout Britain, as well as several original compositions: most in the rousing style that the Army's band had discovered such enthusiasm for. The volumes of Salvation Army music proved to be wildly popular among Christian performers and secular artists alike. Some of the songs are still used by Army bands today. And it is a trend that The Salvation Army has continued on into the new millennium: adapting the message of Christ to current tempo even as modern music has followed the example of Charles William Fry and that first Salvation Army brass band.

The Salvation Army had demonstrated that music could be as malleable and adaptable as it needed to be in order to grasp the attention of an audience. It was a pragmatic approach that had not really been done before, and in retrospect has helped to shape and form not only modern Christian music, but music as a whole.

So this holiday season, the next time you crank up your iPod and listen to Lady Gaga or They Might Be Giants or whatever and you happen to see a red Salvation Army kettle, be of good cheer and think about dropping some change in. You're not just giving to a good cause, you're honoring your musical roots!


SamB said...

Fascinating. There used to be a Salvation Army band in my home town, Turners Falls MA but that was at least 30 years ago. I wonder how many there are in America now. Love your blog! I think I saw your school board commercial on TV once. You seem to be an interesting chap so I'll come again soon.