While the church and the human rights commissions represented Dad’s vocation, his soul loved music and it played a substantial role in his life. He was well known for bursting out in song and loved to listen to others whether amateur or professional. He was basically self-taught and helped others to open up to their own music.
Brought up in a family and community who had relocated from Denmark, singing together helped them to keep their spirit strong and maintain their sense of identity. At the same time, when others in the community introduced them to songs in English, like the songs of Harry Lauder, the family embraced them, too. His parents taught him folk and children’s songs and songs of Christian faith and their Danish heritage. Hymn singing provided the foundation for his understanding of harmony and he learned to harmonize from his father, who had learned to sing bass and tenor in Denmark. Learning new music at school, he brought songs of the British Isles home to his parents, which I’m sure helped their English skills, as within the family they spoke only Danish. I realized later that their English was better than many other immigrants, a combination of a musical ear and singing.
Around the time when he was in grade 8, Dad heard a rehearsal of the Messiah with the choir of Trinity United Church, in New Glasgow, and said in his memoirs “My spine tingled and the blood rose to my face as I listened to the Halleluja Chorus”. After moving to Halifax, he enjoyed attending performances of the Messiah and participating in the Messiah from scratch. Heather and I both shared this experience with him. The last live performance he attended was when I was singing with the Halifax Camerata Singers in 2005, a treasure for both of us.
In grade ten, he heard Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury and HMS Pinafore. Throughout the rest of his life he maintained a fine appreciation of the witty political satire and music of Gilbert and Sullivan.
At around the age of 13 or 14, while washing dishes with his mother, they sang songs including Nearer my God to Thee, during which he held his own on the tenor line with his newly changed voice for the first time. No hesitation for him!
While living in Truro where his father was the caretaker for the Maritime School for Girls, he was hired as a janitor at a church which gave him access to the piano and organ. In school he had learned about the scale “do, re, mi ” and about sharps and flats. From a magazine advertisement for piano lessons he figured out where middle C was and started teaching himself to read music. When discovered by someone in the church, he was guided to a simpler hymn which would be “a bit easier”. This led to his parents borrowing an organ to have in their house for him to play and “a couple” of lessons. In our grandparents home was a pump organ which we use to play as children. I don’t know if this was the same one, or what the story was, but it was there. Eventually, he developed enough skill to be able to accompany simple hymns for country churches. The pinnacle of his choir career was conducting the choir at Brunswick St United, and writing arrangements of Danish hymns for his choir. He also helped with music for the Scandinavian Society in the Halifax area.
Not long after starting on the organ, his family moved back to Pictou county, and he procured a mouth organ. In his sixteenth year, Dad developed polio, for which he was treated mostly at home. During this time his mother was pregnant and for the period close to delivery, he was admitted to the hospital. For the delivery, his mother was in the next room to him. So, some of his brother John’s earliest music would have been Danish songs played on the harmonica!
He wrote about listening with his family to the Old Fashioned Revival Hour from Pasadena, California on the radio. I can imagine this must have been as inspiring for him as the television program Hymn Sing was for me.
Being introduced to the accordion on a couple of occasions planted a seed. After finishing his theology degree and along the way to his first charge in Readlyn, Saskatchewan, he bought an accordion to keep himself company on long winter nights. I understand it held music together at times for services, too. That accordion was a common sound as we were growing up and Heather eventually took it up, and has played all over Nova Scotia with her bands Cuckoo Moon and Salt and Heather.
He had his own foray into the theatre…. when studying at Pine Hill Divinity School, each year the theatrical society put on a play, and the theology students did a spoof on it. In his last year, he undertook the re-writing of Othello, and at one time we saw a copy of his script and a photo of himself in tights!!! Imagine this modest dresser in costume that showed his legs in tights!
In 1956 when Dad met our mother, he found someone else who liked to sing, and had had a year of piano lessons and had started on a guitar. She, too, had musical genes waiting to be strengthened and her brother, who was playing guitar professionally, had given her a radio that opened her to new genres of music, like opera and classical music.
Soon after marriage, they purchased a record player. While pregnant with Heather, they had listened to Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, which has continued to be a favorite of Heather’s throughout her life. Some of my favorite early memories are of Mom & Dad singing Scottish & Irish songs or hymns while doing the dishes, with dad harmonizing to mom’s melodies.
As children, when the night settled in on our drives back home, I spy games would cease and singing would begin. This was where we children heard harmonies, and were encouraged to try our own. Singing accompanied hikes through summer and autumn leaves (songs like “I love to go a wandering…” and ” “Waltzing Matilda”) and around the Christmas tree, and through church activities.
Dad considered Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi as his favorite classical composers. Most Beethovan stirred up emotions too much for him. After moving to Halifax, Dad led the choir at Brunswick St United and sang in the one at Port Wallis. He loved music for worshiping God. He loved to sing and he loved to hear the beauty of souls expressing themselves through music.
When I heard about Dad’s heart attack, as I started to pack, the music I wanted to sing with him started to come to mind. First was the Messiah and especially the aria: He shall feed his flock. When I arrived, after he had passed away, Heather produced a list of his choices of music for his funeral. This was one of his choices, too. All of the music today was from that list.
Thank you Dad, for your love of singing and your drive to learn music and share it with the world. You have inspired my musical and theatrical path, and helped to lay a great foundation.
Bev and Josephine will join me now in performing, from the messiah, “And He shall feed his flock”
The lyrics are significant:
And he shall feed his flock like a shepherd,
and he shall gather the lambs with his arm.
And carry them within his bosom
And gently lead those who are with young.
Come unto him ye that labour
Come unto him that are heavy laden
and he will give you rest
Take his yoke upon you, and learn of him
For he is meek and lowly of heart
And ye shall find rest unto you souls.