The Langley Schools Music Project: Innocence & Despair (Bar/None)

In the mid-1970s, Vancouver area elementary school music teacher Hans Fenge conceived an idea: gather elementary school students from the Langley District and record them singing contemporary pop and rock hits. Gathering them in a school gymnasium, he and several children’s choirs ran through nearly two dozen songs, which were then released as two albums in 1976 and 1977. Like many school recordings, the pressings were small–perhaps less than 100 each. Happened upon buy a crate digger in the late 1990s, the two albums were reissued on a single compact disc in 2001.  Upon its release, Innocence & Despair became a surprise hit, thanks in part to the uniqueness of the backstory and the charming innocence of the recordings.

Although the quality of the recordings leaves much to be desired––it was recorded in a gymnasium after all and it sounds like it––what Innocence & Despair lacks in fidelity it more than makes up and charm and innocence. Perhaps fittingly, it is the Beach Boys who are covered the most, as Brian Wilson‘s innocent nature and songwriting was a natural choice for young people. It’s hard not to smile when you hear them earnestly and sincerely tackle “Help Me Rhonda” and “I Get Around.” When the group travels into more peculiar choices, such as David Bowie‘s “Space Oddity” or Fleetwood Mac‘s “Rhiannon,” the results are compelling, if not disorienting; one doesn’t expect a gym full of little kids to sing such complex, abstract songs with such verve, gusto, and sincerity. “Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft,” by Klaatu, is perhaps the biggest shocker here, but not really; after all, it was a major hit for The Carpenters.

And that’s the thing about Innocence & Despair  it is completely devoid of irony. Remember, the songs these students were singing were either radio hits at the time of the recording, or working temporary enough to still be in the collective consciousness and/or regular rotation on pop radio playlists. The zeal of the children singing leads one to believe that many of them––if not most of them––already knew by heart the words to the songs they were singing.  Go to any Elementary School choir classroom, and you will hear student singing Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, or any number of contemporary pop songs. Why? Because they are what the children know. Hans Fenge wasn’t doing anything original when he recorded his students; he simply had the foresight and desire to capture for posterity the joy and innocence of young children singing the contemporary songs they knew best. And humanity is all the better for it…

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