Friday, April 17, 2015

Book Review: Wedgwood

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Wedgwood
        
Author: Marilyn Thomsen

Author's Linked In page: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/marilyn-thomsen/29/832/7bb

Subject band's recent recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtUZ2N-jGws
        
Date: 1996
        
Publisher: Pacific Press Publishing Association
        
ISBN: 0-8163-1343-1
        
Length: 176 pages including black-and-white photos
        
Quote: “The banjo has never been baptized.”
        
Wedgwood” was the name of a gospel group; this book is one long interview with the three singers who formed the core of the group. They are Seventh-Day Adventists (one of them is a minister). The surprising thing, for baby-boomers raised outside the church or for post-boomers, is that they used to be very controversial.
        
Say what? Well, as Marilyn Thomsen explains in the book, conservative Christians have been wary of the music industry. There has been some feeling that if people are singing for God’s glory more than their own, they shouldn’t try to promote their records and make their names household words. Church musicians are expected to be modest even on stage, rather like classical musicians, wear plain dark clothes, have the spotlights and microphones closer to their instruments than to their faces, and be remembered, if they travel beyond their own neighborhood church, as “that nice group of visitors from wherever-it-was.” The Wedgwood sang nice sing-along songs that were regarded almost as teaching records. Kids weren’t supposed to scream with excitement over the three regular guys who first became known as the Wedgwood Trio. They were supposed to listen to the songs—mostly the religious songs, although the group recorded some ordinary folk songs too—learn the harmonies, and be able to sing those songs around campfires, without bringing a tape player along. And so they did.
        
More recent original songs by Michael Omartian, Amy Grant, and Del Delker, who are mentioned in this book, and Andrae Crouch, who is not, also went through this folk process. I learned those songs from people with whom I sang, on stage, around campfires, or while waiting for school events to happen. It was not considered necessary to give the original composers and performers credit, even though those people were alive and recording and could have used the publicity. The little four-year college I attended for two years had an official school song. Nobody ever sang that. When my classmates met other young Adventists most of us, musicians or not, would share a few songs, and the song my classmates always taught other people to sing in our own peculiar way was our version of Andrae Crouch’s song, “The Blood.” I think I might have heard one guy mention that Andrae Crouch had written that song, once, before singing it on stage.
        
How bad is this? Should musicians be encouraged to think that they “own” songs? Can songs be “owned”? Should recording studios rake in millions from selling records by keeping some musicians from being heard and subjecting others to a level of stress and overwork that ought to have been covered somewhere in the Geneva Convention, in order to make a few people, not necessarily “the best” so much as the most willing to be tortured for the sake of music, into superstars? Is it possible that the Adventist church’s reluctance to recognize stars, whatever it cost “Wedgwood” and the recording studios, was actually the best thing for Bob, Don, Jerry, and the others who occasionally performed with “Wedgwood”?
        
Thomsen doesn’t seem to give this question much thought. Maybe you have to have been a young musician, maybe one who actually appreciated the Adventists’ tradition of giving musicians plenty of exposure without actually spotlighting any of us, to think about it. I wanted to sing, to travel, to harmonize and jam with lots of interesting people. I wanted to be recognized wherever I went, and paid whenever I was doing more, musically, than everyone else present was doing. But I wanted to have a job, a life, and eventually a family, too; much less health and sanity.
        
The question to which Thomsen and the Trio, Jerry Hoyle, Bob Summerour, and Don Vollmer, devote more attention was the 1960s question summarized by the quote above. Had folk music “been baptized”? Even allowing that spirituals and folk gospel songs might have expressed genuine Christian faith in some “low” churches, were these “hootenanny” songs serious enough to express the faith of Adventists? Maybe a very formal arrangement of a folk song, sung in the standard solemn manner and overtrained voice, occasionally, would show that the church empathized with “uninstructed musicians,” but wouldn’t any toe-tapping or rhythm-strumming be more likely to awaken animal feelings rather than inspiring reverence?
        
This question always seemed silly to me, but even in the 1980s some Adventist musicians were still agonizing over it, and in the 1960s the question of which musical influences could be tolerated in a Christian performance really burdened Bob, Don, and Jerry. Eventually their disagreements about whether electronic devices could be used onstage would fracture the Trio. On pages 92-96 Bob recounts how Don refused to sing anything with the “contemporary” sound that “sounds angry and arrogant and vain to me.”  So, after a tearful soul-searching session even “Sensitive New Age Guys” probably had to be Adventists to endure, he was replaced by Gary Evans.
        
The Wedgwood modernized their sound because two out of three of the Trio thought God wouldn’t mind an occasional electronic effect or even a drum. The amazing thing, to me, is that none of these three men seemed to consider that their audience liked a certain sound. Adventists spent so much energy arguing about the morality of music that they ignored the question of who was listening.
        
The difference between people who like a loud, intense sound or a soft, subtle sound, a solid bass or a soaring treble, an entire piece of all-percussion music or a pure melody without percussion, lots of harmony, no harmony, piano, guitar, trumpet, banjo, clarinet, or hammer dulcimer, all or any or none of the above, is probably hard-wired into the individual brain. I imagine that God might be glorified by a Christian rock concert with heavy drums and spontaneous solo dancing in the aisles; it’s my own personal taste for that sort of thing that is limited. I’m sure Bach intended God to be glorified by his harpsichord concertos, but I remember enjoying one, even on an old monaural record, in the office until a once well-known Christian radio personality, who was much older and more devout than I, walked in and gnashed her teeth.
        
God is not limited to one body with one set of ears. God may well, and probably does, appreciate any sounds believers make in God’s honor. But, hello? People who bought records because they loved the sound of three voices, guitar, banjo, and bass were likely to stop buying records when they didn’t know what to expect but knew it was going to include electric guitars and drums. The Wedgwood had succeeded in reaching a large audience for a folk-country type of Christian songs, and they lost that audience when they started performing more contemporary rock-type songs. Other Christian rock performers were already the favorites of that audience, which was small in the early 1970s. The Wedgwood had an audience of their own...and they lost most of it.
        
In the 1990s, Bob, Don, and Jerry made a comeback. It didn’t set the world on fire. Adventists are still Adventists. The men had kept their voices and remembered how to play the instruments that had made them semi-famous. As the cover of this book shows, their look and sound had “matured”—no  teen heart-throbs here, but in folk and country music grey hair is an asset.
        
Their choices of songs are unusual, but representative of their tradition. When the Adventist church separated from the various Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist churches to which members had previously belonged, some attempts were made to compose distinctively Adventist hymns that reflected what were then the distinctive beliefs of the church. The fate of these hymns was surprising. Perhaps separatism was not what Adventists were meant to achieve, or to want. During the 1980s I remember learning, and singing, one song about the early Adventist movement as such that seemed interesting as an historical ballad; “I Saw One Weary” fits into the history of American folksongs along with “Cross the Plains with Your Hand Cart” or “Paddy Works on the Railway.” But Adventists’ own favorites were not the distinctively Adventist songs—just as main­stream American folkniks’ real favorites were not the determinedly “American” songs of the late eighteenth century, as “Green Grow the Lilacs” and “Wondrous Love” tended to be preferred to “Hail Columbia” or “The American Vicar of Bray.” Most of the songs Adventists loved to sing are of pre-Adventist or non-Adventist origin.
        
Don Vollmer’s list of the top ten Wedgwood songs (on page 153) reflects this generalization. The popularity of “Shall We Gather at the River” is in a sense peculiarly Adventist. In many churches “Shall We Gather at the River” is a sad funeral song. For Baptists and Adventists it is a cheery song that suggests baptism first and resurrection second, and is sung in a lively, upbeat manner. Only one song on the list is an Early Adventist composition, “How Sweet Are the Tidings,” and even that one owes much of its popularity to a bubbly tune that originally celebrated “my blue-eyed Bonnie Eloise.”
        
Are these recordings worth looking for and listening to? I’d say they are. I’d say they might even be worth re-releasing. Students of world music should have the opportunity to experience the distinctive Adventist folk tradition, which is American of course, but a unique sub-genre of American.



Since 1996, the members of Wedgwood have continued performing and recording. They even have an official web site, but it's still under construction and doesn't open properly. There's also a page for them and their albums at http://rateyourmusic.com/artist/the_wedgwood_trio .

Wedgwood is, however, out of print and not available as a new book through the Adventist Book Center website, so it's eligible to be offered here as a Fair Trade Book. When you send salolianigodagewi @ yahoo.com $5 for the book + $5 for shipping, we'll send Marilyn Thomsen or a charity of her choice $1. If you buy four copies, which will fit neatly into one package, you send us $20 for the books + $5 for shipping, and we send Thomsen or her charity $4.