In my Mennonite high school, the extra-curricular activities fell into two camps: sports and music. And if my co-ordination was problematic, my tone and pitch were (for the most part) good. Throw in a voice that dropped into the bass register when I was a sprat of 12, and I was the perfect candidate for a Barbershop Quartet. Or so the school's music director thought.
He tapped me and three other guys on the shoulder, gave us some music to consider, then opened the music room for us. We looked at some of the standards -- K-K-K-Katy and I'd Like A Girl (Just Like The Girl That Married Dear Old Dad) -- and quickly decided we didn't have the chops to be a proper Barbershop Quartet. Barbershop music is typically sung a capella, a feat we could pull off with precious few songs. We enjoyed our quartet efforts, though, so we decided to take a step down in the ladder of skillsets and become A Gospel Quartet.
Our first performance was at a seasonal school function. The gym was filled with parents and school supporters, and we were slated for mid-program. We dressed in white shirts, armbands and styrofoam cheesecutter hats. I'm not sure who came up with the idea, but at the last minute we decided to make a brilliant entry: our pianist would play the opening four bars of our song (a jaunty little ditty) and the four of us would sprint from the back of the gym to the foot of the stage, taking the mic and impressing one and all with our spirited sense of play.
The pianist began with the bap-ba bap-ba bap-baaa, bap-ba bap-ba bap-baaa, and we hoofed it to the stage. The stage lights, the audience, the glory of youth! Unfortunately, as we took our mics, it dawned on us that we'd gone and winded ourselves, making our first few bars a wheezy and memorable affair indeed.
Ah, it was all in fun -- including, I thought at the time, our choice of songs: corn-fed gospel faves, many of them penned for and sung by The Imperials. In hindsight, there's very little to recommend these tunes, nevermind the tract-like ethos behind them. "Gospel" = "good news", and if you come from my small town this requires you to acknowledge the billboard at the outskirts reading, "HELL IS REAL!" (in our cynical years, we silently completed the sentiment with, "Keep to the speed limit and you should arrive there in about 10 minutes"). So, yes: you've got Hell, you've got Heaven. Throw in a no-brainer choice, and Untold Glory is all yours. If that doesn't give you something to sing about, what will?
The first verse to one such song went as follows:
Well old Buddha was a man
And I'm sure that he meant well
But I pray for his disciples
Lest they wind up in Hell.
And I'm sure that old Mohammed
Thought he knew the way
But it won't be Hare Krishna
We stand before on that judgement day
The shortest route to feeling good about your religious beliefs, it seems, is denigrating the religious beliefs of others. At the time I simply didn't have the eyes to see the offense, nevermind the absurdity of this approach. We were merely glorying in our certitude -- something I considered a birthright.
I'm happy to report that a great many people have been merciful to me since then. So it is with profound gratitude to them all that I present Song #4 in my Hall of Shame: Oh Buddha by The Imperials.
No it won't be old Buddha
That's sitting on the throne
And it won't be old Mohammed
That's calling us home.
And it won't be Hare Krishna
That plays that trumpet tune
And we're going to see the Son
Not Reverend Moon.
Candidate #3 for my Musical Hall of Shame; Hall of Shame Song #5.
Tags: The Imperials Old Buddha