It's not that I listen to it very often -- I don't think I've listened to it once in the past 15 years. Even if I owned a copy I wouldn't be able to play it. I don't own a turntable, and it's never been digitized. Still, it's the album I would take with me to a deserted island, because it's the album my family choir made.
The Grimm Family Choir record was made in 1972 but it had its beginnings in the late 1960s, when my oldest sister Marya was studying literature at the University of Southern California. The hippie movement was in full swing, and the sexual libertinism, drug use, and acid-rock music revolted my sister. Classes were no refuge either. One professor turned a lecture on Shakespeare's Macbeth into a rant against the Vietnam War. Disgusted, Marya decided she'd launch a movement to preserve Western Culture from this onslaught. Luckily, she had an ever-growing throng of younger siblings with which to populate the early stages of her new society. Jess, Marya's lone older sibling, who wasn't so sure the hippie movement -- particularly its music -- was all bad, lampooned Marya's society as the Guardians of Edifying and Enlightening Culture, or GEEC (pronounced with a hard C) for short.
The GEEC membership rules were simple: first, obey the Ten Commandments, all of which were under assault in the counterculture; and, second, acknowledge rock music as an instrument of evil then totally reject it. Marya reasoned that it wasn't just the subversive lyrics of the rock music that made it attractive to acid-droppers, weed-smokers, and fornicators. There must be, she thought, something in the very nature of rock music (The electrification? The syncopation? The three-chord repetition?) that, if it didn't exactly cause people to turn from good and embrace evil, at least it helped them along that path.
Since obeying the Ten Commandments isn't exactly a group activity, GEEC focused on the second rule. What better way, Marya opined, to reject rock and roll than to make better music. The problem was there was only one trained musician in the family, my brother Stephen who was a contest-winning pianist. But we Grimms have always had good singing voices, good pitch, and a quick ear for memorizing tunes. So Marya decided to mold the membership of GEEC into an a cappella singing group. For material, she dug into the back shelves of her college library and pulled out sheet music for Renaissance and Medieval madrigals such as "My Heart is Offered Still to You" by Orlando di Lasso, "Never Has My Heart Been Merry" by Pierre Certon, and "Blow Shepherds Blow" by Thomas Morley. Marya learned the four and sometimes five parts of these pieces and taught them to her sisters Paula, Patricia, Anita, and Michelle, and to her brothers Stephen and Danny.
The counterculture, in those days, was not only infiltrating Shakespeare classes, it was invading the Catholic Church. The now-familiar guitars and tambourines were starting to show up at Mass. To fight it, Marya taught the group sacred church pieces from the 13th through 17th centuries, such as the motets "O Jesu Christe" by Jacquet de Mantua, "Alma Redemptoris Mater" by Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina, and the "Missa Secunda" by Hans Leo Hassler. My parents, avowed enemies of the counterculture themselves, were tickled pink. At first, the seven sang at family parties in front of admiring aunts and uncles as well as snickering longhaired cousins wearing bellbottoms and "Fuck the Draft" T-shirts. Later, they started singing small concerts, the girls all in matching dresses they had sewn themselves. A friend of my sister's who had contacts at a recording studio convinced her to produce an album. In 1972, the group gathered in the cold, dark chapel at Thomas Aquinas College (to which Marya had transferred) and sang the six pieces mentioned above plus 13 more.
The album did not go gold. It sold a few hundred copies, mostly to family, friends, and friends of friends. But the Grimm Family Choir lives on. As each of my parents' 17 children came of age, he or she joined the choir. I joined when I was a teenager and still sing with the group when we're all together for a wedding or a big party. Now my nephews and nieces are singing with the choir, and when we're all together the choir, which once numbered seven, now has more than 40 voices. Marya's movement is growing.