Praise music from the past: Marty Haugen’s “Tales of Wonder”

An occasional feature.

Oh, do I remember this … well, vaguely. But I was in at least two productions of “Tales of Wonder”  growing up (possibly three), because the nun who ran music at the parish I was at growing up liked it and had the choirs (and me, because I was the son of a choir member and available to badly state a couple lines, plus some other kids) perform it. I remember having to blurt out “EVEN ME??????” during an ending dialogue scene, holding up a cardboard sun and moon during a song, and walking in a circle of people holding candles during another song. Ah, the early ’90s. The memories. (Single, solitary tear goes down face.)

I have no idea what the background is for this album.

And so keep all that in mind when I reflect on “Tales of Wonder,” a Biblical musical (supposedly designed for kids) that isn’t designed to be done during Mass but does have pieces that could be used during it. I’ve talked about Marty Haugen on this blog a few times before, especially in a post picking out his good stuff. Two pieces in “Tales of Wonder” are on that list. And even if some of this stuff isn’t the best, it keeps a little place in my heart because of those concerts when I was little.

I think it’s fair to acknowledge that the original recordings of this haven’t aged well. This debuted in the late ’80s/early ’90s (officially, in 1990 at an NPM convention, according to GIA), and it carries some of the very, very bad hallmarks of that time. (Hellooooooo, electric keyboard and computer-generated trumpet.) So keep that in mind as we travel through this.

the good

“Job/Where Is Your Mercy”: It’s a little maudlin, I suspect, for some tastes,  but it decently captures the plight Job had and the questions he asked God.

“Many Are the Lightbeams”: This has long been one of my favorites. Based on a hymn from Sweden (I think, but information was fuzzy), it’s a pretty melody with decent words. It might be a little too esoteric to use regularly at Mass, but the song on its own is very solid.

“Send Down the Fire”: This might be Marty Haugen’s best song. More singable than people think, too. It sounds really good on the organ; I wish the recording of this were better.

“When In Our Music God Is Glorified”: A vast improvement on the original, traditional setting, which is way too stodgy for my taste.

“All You Works of God”: There’s a common theme in more than a few hymns where the flowers, trees, rivers, lakes, mountains, etc. bless and praise God. Bingo. This fits very nicely into that traditional, with an upbeat but not hokey melody.

The OK

“Creation”: When you consider things on that scale of “made for kids,” then this is fine. There’s only so much you can do with the creation story.

“Against the Grain”: This song arrives courtesy Donna Pena, who, as far as I can tell, was one of the early adopters of the English/Spanish bilingual songs. It’s not really liturgical, and “against the grain” isn’t an easy-to-get phrase. The song is just kind of there.

“Many Times/I Say Yes, Lord”: Also borrowed from Donna Pena, “I Say Yes, Lord” is solid generally, but runs into trouble in the second verse. “Tales of Wonder” uses the Spanish version, which makes sense, because here’s the English version:

I am a servant of the Lord, I say “Yes,” my Lord.
I’m a worker in the fields, I say “Yes,” my Lord.
I’m a prisoner of their wars, I say “Yes,” my Lord.
Like a politician, inevitably, I say “Yes,” my Lord.

Those last two lines are entirely incoherent. No wonder Haugen stuck with the Spanish there. Generally speaking, if I’m doing the song (and I have a couple times at Mass), we’ll skip verse 2, as the other verses are fine.

The Regrettable

“The Storyteller”: This might not be entirely fair, because it’s an introductory song, not entirely intended to stand on its own. (After all, the song mentions the title of the musical multiple times.)

“One Ohana”: Do you know what “ohana” means? Neither do I. With the exception of Latin (because it’s the language of the Church), it’s a bad idea to throw words people don’t know from other languages (in this case, Hawaiian) into songs.

in sum

“Tales of Wonder” is very much a product of its time. I think the production as a whole is rarely produced these days, which is OK — not everything has to have a long shelf life. But on balance, there’s more good than bad, and some of the music deserves longer-term consideration. Though “Tales of Wonder” will likely soon be forgotten, much of its music will likely be recalled as high points of Marty Haugen’s long career.

All of the music, with at least some of the dialogue, is on Spotify. A free account is required.

For other Praise Music from the Past features, click here.

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