ONE of the most enjoyable aspects of preparing a series of CDs with piano arrangements of songs from the musicals is keying in the lyrics for the 32-page booklet that comes with each disc. Never more so than for the new CD "John Larsson plays Jesus Folk and Spirit!"
John Gowans has an astonishing gift for conveying deep truths in simple words that stick in the mind. As I read and re-read the lyrics whilst recording the songs, I was yet again struck by the skill with which they were crafted and by their beauty and power. Ten of the songs from these two musicals made it into the current Song Book, and the lyrics have become part of the mental furniture of thousands of Salvationists – often without them knowing that the songs originated in one of these musicals. Probably the words most frequently sung are ‘To be like Jesus’, but not everyone knows they were first sung by Stephen in "Spirit!" ‘Burning, burning’ and ‘For the mighty moving of the Spirit’ also spring from the same source.
Majors John Larsson and John Gowans in action
When composing "Spirit!" in the 1970s the special challenge was to devise situations which called for bright songs. At that time it would have been hard to find a single cheerful song about the Holy Spirit in the Christian repertoire! With songs like ‘Ask, ask, ask and it shall be given’ (yes, that is also from "Spirit!") and ‘That’s the Spirit’ we aimed to show that the Spirit is not only holy but is also the Spirit of joy.
The beauty of the lyrics in "Jesus Folk" is that the folk who walked with Jesus speak our thoughts for us, the Jesus Folk of today. When Lazarus sings ‘Out of my darkness he called me’, and Zacchaeus plaintively wonders ‘Must I just stay the way I am?’, and a heart-broken Peter implores ‘You know I love you, use me again’ – it is our own voice we hear.
With such inspired lyrics, melodies and harmonies flowed easily from my heart and mind when together we composed the songs for these musicals.
Generals John Larsson and John Gowans in action
"Jesus Folk" and "Spirit!" are among our most influential creations in that, having no Salvation Army reference, they have crossed denominational boundaries and have been performed by many Christian groups worldwide. I remember once being startled to see a huge hoarding at Elephant and Castle in London blazoning out the words "Musical Spirit!" What a remarkable coincidence, I thought – another musical with the same title! But as I drove past I found it advertised a run of our own musical at Spurgeon’s Tabernacle.
The CD "John Larsson plays Jesus Folk and Spirit!", which features 32 songs from these works, is available from SP&S. It is Volume Two in the series of CDs with music from the musicals. The first of the series, with songs from "Take-over Bid" and "Hosea", has met with a very pleasing response worldwide and is still obtainable. The awakening of interest in the musicals has led to SP&S stocking the music and scripts of the ten musicals for sale in photocopied form. A number of productions of the musicals are currently being planned worldwide.
The phrase ‘Gowans and Larsson musicals’ has flown easily off the tongue for almost forty years, so it was welcome news that General John Larsson was to record a series of CDs containing the songs which arose from the ten musicals in which he collaborated with General John Gowans. The first of these, ‘Take-over Bid’ and ‘Hosea’, was released last year and has been one of S. P. & S. Ltd’s best selling recordings since!
The second of the series has just been released, featuring ‘Jesus Folk’ and ‘Spirit!’, and there is every reason to expect that it will exceed sales of the first. These were the two musicals which emphasised most strongly that their usage could extend far beyond the Army, and many joint church productions were the order of the day. (I clearly remember a 1982 ecumenical performance of ‘Spirit!’ in a small, isolated New Zealand town where the local bank manager, an Anglican as I recall, was an absolute ‘sound-alike’ for John Gowans!)
There is little point in listing individual song titles – if you have a favourite from these musicals, it is included! The tracks are all piano arrangements (with a few other instrumental sounds added on certain tracks). However, the arrangements are not simple! They include not only the always strong melody lines and all the familiar harmonies, but also many of the counter melodies and extra distinguishable orchestrations from the original backing band arrangements – quite a handful! They are played with all the disciplined rhythmic accuracy yet soulful sensitivity which we have come to associate with John Larsson at the piano.
There are a number of ways in which the songs will be listened to; without doubt, nostalgia will play a part for those who either remember early performances, or who participated in them; they will have a heyday! Others will hear songs which have become familiar as congregational worship songs, especially since ten of the songs featured on the current recording were included in the 1985 revision of the Salvation Army Song Book.
However, another way of embracing these songs will be to follow carefully the words, all of which are provided in a 32-page booklet. General Larsson himself records in his sleeve notes his regard for General Gowans’ ability to provide deep truths in a most accessible and comprehensible way. Without doubt this would provide a most valuable devotional exercise to anybody who carefully examines those words.
Altogether, one senses that in this series of recordings another chapter of Salvation Army history is being recorded, a chapter which has meant, and does mean, a great deal to our generation.