Everything old is…

by vernsanders on October 16, 2009

Yesterday I had the unique pleasure (?) of playing judge and jury. Let me explain…

Two large boxes of choral music–100+ titles–were donated to the church at which I serve. So, after a couple of weeks of more and more frantic emails asking me to please clear the stuff away from in front of the church office door, I settled down to an afternoon of dirty hands, and a (somewhat) open mind.

When you look through someone else’s gift bag, there are, at least for me, several layers of transactional decision making to take into account. First of all, of course, someone else valued this stuff at a particular time, and spent good money to acquire it. Like it or not, it is an asset. On the other hand, they wouldn’t be getting rid of it if it still had value to them. So it is a devalued asset.

Then there is the implied honorific that they gave it to you (your church). That means that they made the choice, in part, because they felt that the asset would do you some good. (I am reminded of Bogie’s line…somewhat altered for the circumstances I found myself in yesterday…”…of all the churches in all the world, this stuff shows up in mine…”) At some level a gift like this is akin to getting a picture of your least favorite aunt. If see visits and that picture is not on display, she will, at the very least, be hurt… At the same time, though, our storage space is limited, and if you keep that picture of your aunt on the mantel, then something else, that you might like better, can’t go there.

But this is not the first time I’ve been honored in this manner, so I knew what I was really in for. Handling a lot of music that was, in many senses of the word, dusty.

Full disclosure. I’ve been a music publisher. I was not equally proud of everything in the catalog I owned. Not even of everything that I made the decision to print. Some music has a shelf life, and not just because it might be bad. If you make the mistake of releasing a setting of “Come to Jesus in whole notes” the very same year that every other publisher does (remember the patriotic music glut released in 1976? no of course not…few people of my age are still alive…), it can be a problem. Put another way…for every Mozart, there are a lot of Salieris, and Salieri wasn’t that bad of a composer….

So in many cases, I either know the anthem or the composer, and the music gets a pass because I am a packrat at heart, and want to err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion. In a lot of the cases, I either know the anthem or the composer, and it gets tossed for the same reason.

And then there were all those pieces that were printed on blue paper, or yellow with brown ink, in order to “foil” the copy machine toting choir directors.

But that leaves a lot of “maybes.” I had a lot of fun calling composers that I know and saying “I’m holding in my hand a copy of an anthem that I’ll bet you didn’t sell a lot of… (or even remember you wrote)…” Funny thing…I got voicemail every time…do you think they knew what I was calling about?

I didn’t look at all of every piece. Not possible. If the text and/or music didn’t grab me in about 2 pages, it was history.

Ah…but that’s where the fun is…

Like the piece I found by a famous writing team that started off with the text “In these days of napalm cremations…” Think that would be a hit with my congregation if I schedule it for next Sunday? (Don’t ask for it…it got tossed…)

How about the one that included a line something like this… “I’ve come a long way across time and space to administer healing to your sorrowful face…” Who made that editorial decision? (I am completely and totally sorry if you wrote that text…but you couldn’t have, of course, because I changed it slightly to protect myself from any lawsuit you might be thinking of…)

But it is not just the texts…There was a whole pile of “Folk Anthems” (really…the covers proclaimed it in big letters!) which amounted to bad melodies with (wait for it) rudimentary SYNCOPATION!!! which of course meant it was hip (or was the word cool in the sixties? no, that’s the fifties…no…that’s now…nevermind, you get the idea). Ugh.

In the end I saved about half of the accumulated stuff. Of what I saved, about a third is “keeper” material. The rest I plan to use as sightreading exercises for my choir…a couple of anthems a week…over the next few months. If the pieces hold up, they’ll go in the folder. If not…sayonara baby…

and that’s from the lips of a packrat…

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