“Picture the Shaggs and Danielson presiding over an elementary school assembly for shy kids, and you begin to understand how sweet, sincere, and slightly unsettling these recordings are.”
I was browsing in a record store last week when they played the CD of The Langley Schools Music Project: Innocence & Despair. If that doesn’t jar your memory it’s an album compiled from two records that were the documentation of an after hours choir project led by a 24-year-old hippie music teacher named Hans Fenger in a rural school district southeast of Vancouver, British Columbia. Originally recorded in the mid-1970s, these songs were released in two self-pressed editions of just 300 for the participants themselves to have a keepsake of the project. The records featured a group of around 60 school children singing and playing songs they had learned in Fenger’s music classes taped (with just two mics) in an echoey school gymnasium. But not “Frere Jacques,” songs from Free to Be You and Me or even “Corner of the Sky,” as might have been the case in most schools of the time, these songs were the AM radio hits of the day like David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Band on the Run” and a lot of Beach Boys songs because, well duh. The untrained voices in their wobbly harmony sounded like a Phil Spector-produced Gregorian chant performed by a very large prepubescent garage band. The sparse musical backing comes from a (perfectly) out-of-tune school piano, an acoustic guitar, xylophone, bells, an electric bass with one string and an overeager (perfectly) plodding percussion section of tambourine, woodblock, and a stripped down drum kit. The “lift off” in “Space Oddity” was achieved with a Coke bottle scraped across a steel guitar. It’s absolutely magical. A perfect example of lightning being caught in a bottle.
The Langley Schools Music Project recordings were rediscovered by a record collector named Brian Linds who found the first album in a thrift store in 2000. He sent it on CD-r to Irwin Chusid who immediately realized how special it was. Irwin tracked down Hans Fenger who told him that there was also a second album. So championed by the inspired “outsider music” promoter, author and archivist the albums were released by Bar/None Records in 2001 as Innocence & Despair, a single-CD compilation culled from the two LPs. With people looking for feelgood stories after 9-11, the extraordinary bittersweet chorus of innocent young voices along with the unlikely saga of the rediscovery of the Langley Schools Music Project, saw the CD go on to worldwide acclaim. It was a story especially tailored to an outlet like NPR, and there was even a VH1 documentary made about Fenger and his students.
“I knew virtually nothing about conventional music education, and didn’t know how to teach singing. Above all, I knew nothing of what children’s music was supposed to be. But the kids had a grasp of what they liked: emotion, drama, and making music as a group. Whether the results were good, bad, in tune or out was no big deal—they had elàn. This was not the way music was traditionally taught. But then I never liked conventional ‘children’s music,’ which is condescending and ignores the reality of children’s lives, which can be dark and scary. These children hated ‘cute.’ They cherished songs that evoked loneliness and sadness.”
—Hans Fenger, Langley music supervisor/arranger
A solo version of the Eagles’ “Desperado”
But back to the record store: After the touching Langley Schools version of the Eagles’ “Desperado” sung solo by then 9-year-old Sheila Behman [Posted above. PLAY IT. PLAY IT NOW], the guy behind the counter, who’d put it on, remarked aloud how it was “such a pure display of honest, raw emotion” and everyone in the store—aging from 18 to over 70—nodded, agreed, said “This is amazing,” “So great,” “Wow” and other variations on this theme. We were all smiling and feeling groovy as we listened to the kids sing Brian Wilson’s “In My Room” and “Wildfire,” Michael Murphy’s ode to a horse lost in a snowstorm.
And then he said something, without meaning to, which made the bottom drop out of the smiley-smile mood in the room:
“THIS—MUSIC—is what they need to be teaching in schools, not running drills on how to avoid being shot by psychos wielding military-grade weapons.”
In the same way we’d all been agreeing about how great the Langley kids’ music was, toe-tapping along to their exuberant cover of the Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night,” the room made a collective exhale at the dark profundity of his thought, backed with this exquisite soundtrack of well, innocence and despair. He didn’t intend to be a Debbie Downer, but to be fair, he was right!
If you think I’ve got anything else after that, you would be wrong. But I will say this: We’re obviously living in a cursed timeline, but what happened over the weekend was one of the greatest things that has ever happened in the history of the United States of America. It IS the worst of times, you’ll get no argument from me there, but it is the best of times, too and I think it’s going to get a whole lot better…
And now, please enjoy the beautiful music of Hans Fenger and the Langley Schools Music Project, won’t you? The two original albums have been lovingly repressed as replicas of the original release and put out on vinyl by Bar/None.
Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Venus & Mars/Rock Show”
The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”
David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”
The Beatles’ “The Long And Winding Road”
Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night”
The VH1 doc on the Langley Schools Music Project.