“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
Much more after the jump…