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When the kids start singing and the band begins to play

Sarah Olowofoyeku talks to Andrew Blyth about incorporating new music in an old Salvation Army tradition

People have more time to listen to music at Christmas

MARIAH CAREY’S ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ is probably one of the last tunes passers-by would expect to hear a Salvation Army band playing on the street or in a shopping centre, but this year they might. The Salvation Army has included it and other seasonal hits in a new book of Christmas tunes for its musicians to play.

‘We want people to engage with us,’ says head of music editorial Andrew Blyth. ‘We want people to recognise the tunes, to stop, to listen and to enjoy the new songs.’

Brass bands have been associated with The Salvation Army since its earliest days. Originally, the organisation’s members would go out on street corners to preach about their faith. In 1878 a Methodist preacher and his three sons took their brass instruments along to help a Salvation Army group who were facing opposition in the streets of Salisbury – and their playing proved to be a hit. As a result, Salvation Army bands quickly started up in churches all over the country.

William Booth, the founder of The Salvation Army, was initially unsure about organised music groups, but he knew music was a good way of reaching people. Consequently, by 1883 there were 400 Salvation Army bands in Britain. Today there are more than 2,500 Salvation Army brass bands worldwide and more than 427,000 music group members.

Andrew is the leader of a Salvation Army band and knows what it is to stand on the street and play Christmas tunes for hours on end. However, he recognises that his efforts, and those of the other band members, are appreciated by the general public.

‘We do hear people saying that for them it’s not Christmas until they’ve heard the Salvation Army band,’ he says. ‘Many people enjoy Christmas and they have a little bit more time to listen to music at this time of year.’

However, Andrew also acknowledges that Christmas can be a tough time for some.

‘We want to be there for people,’ he says. ‘The music enables people to connect with us, and then hopefully afterwards we can have a conversation with them. Some people have heard us in the street, then attended one of our carol concerts, and have gone on to ask questions about faith.’

As well as braving the cold high streets, at this time of year many Salvation Army bands deliberately connect with people who are going through tough times or are unwell.

‘A lot of bands play in hospitals on Christmas Day,’ Andrew says. ‘One year, after our band had played some carols, a nurse came up to me and said there was a family they wanted me to pray with. The family weren’t Christians, but their baby had died that day. So I held the baby and prayed with the family.

‘That’s the essence of what we do – we want to love people.’

Adding new, secular songs may seem an unusual way of showing love to the public, but it has been done before. Andrew mentions that songs such as ‘Here We Come A-Wassailing’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ were added about 50 years ago. But the history of playing secular music goes back even further.

Although William Booth believed it was important for songs to have clear ‘soul-saving’ messages, he also wanted people in The Salvation Army to ‘sing good tunes’. He has been quoted as saying: ‘I don’t care much whether you call it secular or sacred. I rather enjoy robbing the Devil of his choicest tunes.’

So Salvation Army musicians did not always play traditional hymn tunes but would set new religious words to popular Victorian music hall songs, which were readily recognisable to the general public.

More than 100 years later, the motivation is the same. The tune book includes brass arrangements of contemporary Christmas songs including ‘I Wish It Could be Christmas Everyday’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’.

One artist pleased to be included is Noddy Holder, lead vocalist of Slade. The rock band’s 1973 hit ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ features in the new carol book. Noddy, who co-wrote the song, told the War Cry: ‘It’s always wonderful to hear new arrangements of our songs.’

Andrew says: ‘It wasn’t easy to make brass arrangements of these songs, but I hope we’ve done them justice.

‘Ultimately music is only a small part of Christmas. Every bandsman and bandswoman’s prime motivation is to gain attention with the music and then connect with people and share the good news of the Christmas message of love, forgiveness and strength.

‘I have experienced all of these and have been better for knowing that God wants to help and support me through life’s twists and turns. That is something definitely worth sharing.’

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