Where IS your wandering boy tonight?

carry-nation-inlineIn the summer of 1967, my wife of about a month and I lived at the American Baptist Assembly in Green Lake, Wisconsin, as members of the staff of the idyllic retreat center. Like nearly every program/ institution of the American Baptist Convention, “Green Lake” has been taken over by the most fundamentalist wing of that denomination and morphed into the crassest money-making operation where the little religious contemplation that survives is of the most rabid conservative and proscribed kind, completely at odds with the 500-year true Baptist tradition of soul-freedom. But in 1967 Green Lake was a hotbed of free thinking and rigorous biblical and theological discussion.

I was staff organist and Ann was in charge of activities for teenagers whose parents were attending conferences. The director of the music staff was forgettable, but the soprano soloist, the pianist, and the alto and bass soloists will live in my memory until my last day. The alto and bass singers were Elspeth and Gordon Pruett. (this is not fair since I have not had contact with them since about 1970, but here they are.)

Among the piles of music in Stambaugh House where the music staff lived, I found a book of old gospel songs with a section of “Temperance” songs, that is, songs that were used to stir up crowds during the political campaign that eventually passed the 18th Amendment prohibiting the manufacture, sale, or use of alcoholic beverages in the United States.

The music staff had great fun with this music. We prepared and presented (several times) a program of “Temperance Songs,” complete with historical lecture by Gordon Pruett, an Oxford-trained church historian. We presented the music straight, resisting the temptation to make fun of it. We decided to be historical rather than hysterical. The first time we presented it was during the week of a conference of church historians. They loved it.

We were surprised and delighted at the wide variety of music the temperance movement used. A couple of Gospel songs we all knew (four of the six of us were American Baptist preachers’ kids) were apparently favorites of the Temperance movement. I don’t remember if we discovered that “Rescue the Perishing, Care for the Dying” and “Bringing in the Sheaves” were, in fact, written as temperance songs or if the movement simply took them over because the words fit their agenda so well.

The only winner during Prohibition

The only winner during Prohibition

But the Gospel hymns we all knew were not our favorites. My personal favorite was “Where Is my Wandering Boy Tonight?” It was my favorite because the question was answered in another song, “Down in a Licensed Saloon.” We would gather ‘round the piano in the giant hotel lobby of the main building of the assembly grounds (a hotel built as a corporate retreat center in the 1920s by the Kraft corporation and given to the American Baptists by the Kraft family—I hope my memory serves me right) and without irony or sarcasm present a program of these songs, with Gordon’s historical information between songs.

I was reminded of all of this because Jerome Sims, photo librarian of the Dallas Morning News, in his entry on the daily photography blog of the newspaper posted a picture of the famous temperance crusader Frances Willard, in Dallas on March 14, 1896.

There’s no punch line here. Except this. Shortly after I finished my dissertation on Henry Kemble Oliver (1800-1885), musician and politician from Salem, MA, the Essex Institute Historical Library in Salem and I received a grant from the Massachusetts Commission on the Arts to present a series of historical concerts at the Institute (1990). I gathered a quartet of professional singers, and one of the programs we presented was—you guessed it—a program of Gospel and Temperance songs.

The other interesting side note to all of this is that a sermon of my father’s titled “Heroes at Drinking Wine” was published, in about 1958. The sermon is based on the biblical story of Lot’s daughters getting their father drunk. The collection of sermons by various Nebraska pastors was published by—you guessed it—the Nebraska Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Oh my, how things get tied up together in one’s life. After the summer of 1967, Ann and I (we divorced in 1975 and she died in 2002) threw a gigantic party every year called “Harold and Ann Knight’s Annual Gospel Hymn and Temperance Song Sing.” It was not, by virtue of the amount of alcohol consumed, an historic event without irony. I’ve now been sober for 26 years.

Pillsbury Hall - the scene of the crime

Pillsbury Hall – the scene of the crime

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