25 March 2019

Old Rugged Nostlagia

By a pleasing quirk of time zone differential, I wake up on Monday mornings to the inimitable Barry Humphries recalling his youth through a selection of “Forgotten Musical Masterpieces” on BBC Radio 2.  Of course, they are all Forgotten because they are very much not Musical Masterpieces and they evoke a bygone age in which society and values were very different.  But there’s no harm in the occasional wallow in nostalgia, and Humphries’ lovely delivery makes this an ideal way to break into the new week before I switch to hear the week’s parliamentary digest on BBC Radio 4 (a must-hear as Brexit adds a wonderful dimension of unreality to our lives) and then wander off to work.  Ah! The expat joys of BBC Sounds!

I was particularly taken this morning by one of Humphries’ reflections after playing us the long-forgotten musical non-masterpiece recorded in 1937, “I Wanna be in Winchell’s Column” sung by Eddie Stone with Isham Jones and his orchestra.  This foot-tapping but wholly unmemorable number prompted Humphries to bemoan the current trend for the promotion of nonentities; “Column inches used to be the main measure of fame, but now it’s Twitter, Instagram, You Tube-followers and hash tags.  It’s never been easier for talentless wanabees to broadcast their thoughts and inflict them on the masses”.

As one of those “talentless wanabees” (although quite what I wanabee, I myself don’t really know) I do occasionally broadcast my thoughts on social media, but I have never felt they have been inflicted on the masses – inflicted on a Baker’s Dozen is about the best I have ever achieved.  That all changed overnight when, in a moment of extreme boredom, I posted my thoughts about a certain hymn on one of those pointless Facebook Groups to which we belong merely to share our prejudices with like-minded bigots. This is what I posted to a group claiming to be fed up with bad church music (but no evidence has ever supported this; most posts celebrate the awfulness of modern church music); “Am I the only person in this world that loathes The Old Rugged Cross?  Musically turgid, theologically mawkish.  Why is it so popular?”

My post was merely an expression of frustration at having had to endure this grisly garbage in church for the zillionth time and having been surrounded by those for whom Palestrina and Parry had sparked not an iota of interest, but who took up this grotesque testament to self-indulgent sentimentality with obvious unbounded enthusiasm.  Not for the first time in my life, I felt completely alien to the world I was inhabiting.  By posting my thoughts, I merely wanted reassurance that I was not alien, or confirmation that I was. 

Since this is a musical blog, my Baker’s Dozen of readership will probably have no idea what The Old Rugged Cross is.  And until I was well into my 30s, neither did I. 

It is an old American Methodist missionary hymn which puts a sentimental gloss on the cross and is indelibly associated with a tune composed in 1912 by George Bennard.  The tune inhabits a remarkably low and grumbling tessitura until (as if fuelled by the kind of beverage to which all Methodists were once so strongly opposed) it heaves itself up to a top note or two a minor 9th above where it all started.  Brought up as a high Anglo-Catholic, such stuff never crossed my church-going existence, and I only knew it when the once-popular BBC Sunday obligatory religious hour of television started to play “Everybody’s Favourite Hymns”.  Up popped this awful thing with appalling regularity.  Now I find when I attend Catholic Mass in Singapore, it’s almost a mainstay, thrown in, I suspect, to satisfy the masses at mass ignorant of its powerful non-conformist associations.

So, for me, my opinion of The Old Rugged Cross is a personal taste thing, and as such of no conceivable interest to anyone else.  But as a “talentless wanabee” I wanted to broadcast my thoughts; I never dreamt it would be to such masses. As things stand at the moment, responses to my post are in the hundreds and growing by the second.  For what it’s worth, there is a clear 50/50 split between the loathers and the admirers, one admirer threatening to leave the group because even a hint that The Old Rugged Cross may be open to criticism is enough to shatter faith in continued existence, while another posted a somewhat tasteless image of someone vomiting on hearing The Old Rugged Cross.  Such is the intellectual furrow deeply ploughed by Facebook groups.

Many of the comments which my post prompted referred to the nostalgic associations of the hymn, the fact that for many Methodists and Baptists during the 1930s, it served as a beacon of light during the dark days of the great depression, and such a strong impact did it make, that they still cling to it affectionately.  A handful of comments popped up from Youngstown, Ohio, where it was written, suggesting it was the town’s sole claim to fame.  Several comments referred to it as a “Funeral Hymn” – in that it is often sung at funerals as the generation brought up in the 1930s dies away (sorry, “passes on”) – and others referred to it as being “loved by older generations for its sentimental associations”.  My trouble is, when I hear it live in church, I am surrounded by hundreds of under-30s; young people for whom it can hold no sentimental or nostalgic associations.  Nobody will tell me why it is so popular with the Singapore young.

Barry Humphries’ programme celebrates the nostalgic value of once-popular music which has all but passed from our modern consciousness.  But while there is a novelty factor in occasionally being reminded of the Bad Old Days through Isham Jones, Eddie Stone et al, is it good to try and keep alive something of little artistic value which was intended only for one time and place? Are hymns like this, devoid of artistic worth and preserved only for sentimental reasons, really relevant to 21st century society?  Despite the masses getting involved, I still don’t have a convincing answer.

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