Note: This reflection first appeared a few years ago in my old artist blog page on spiritandsong.com.
The exhibit area in the convention center was the usual mix of color, sights and sounds, with music and videos blaring out of hundreds of booths, costumed street teams passing out flyers, and countless people bumping into each other. This was the scene at Atlanta in October 2005 at the National Catholic Youth Conference. I had just finished playing bass for the concert of my friend, Angus McDonell, and was looking around for members of my youth group. Suddenly, directly in front of me, there stood a vaguely familiar person.
“Ken!” said the smiling man as he extended his hand to me. “Gary Ault.”
Did I hear that name right? I had to look at his nametag to be sure. Gary Ault! A little older and greyer, perhaps, but still tall, with the same trim collegiate-styled hair and winning smile I remembered from his record album covers. It’s been, what? Over twenty-five years since I last saw him at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress? Of course, we embraced.
Gary Ault! A founding member of the Dameans, one of the pioneer singing groups of the Catholic Church’s first generation of contemporary composers. In the late 1960s, the Dameans stood out among the increasingly crowded field of Folk Mass artists. Whereas most of those artists were individuals, the Dameans were a group: five seminarians from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. How well I remember their names, prominent on the credits of the songs that were beloved by so many of us young Catholics of the time: Gary Ault, Darryl Ducote, Buddy Ceasar, Mike Balhoff, and Dave Baker.
I can still remember when I got my first Dameans record, Tell the World. There they were on the back cover, five handsome young men dressed in the same uniform that I was wearing at Queen of Angels High School Seminary in Los Angeles: white shirt, thin black tie, and black pants. Their photo could have been taken from our yearbook in the way they held their Folk Mass instruments of three guitars, upright bass, and tambourine. I showed the album to my classmates and we had a good laugh. It seemed that all seminarians looked alike back then, right down to the regulation close-cropped hair. But what we heard on the record and saw on the sheet music wasn’t something to laugh at. In fact, it was the answer to our prayers.
By 1969, the Folk Mass was no longer a novelty in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Although we were one of the last dioceses to finally use guitars and folk music at liturgy, once we got official approval the Folk Mass spread like wildfire, especially in the seminaries. Our early repertoire consisted of the fun catchy songs of Ray Repp, Joe Wise, Paul Quinlan, Sebastian Temple, Peter Scholtes, and a few others. We loved these songs, with their immediately singable melodies, but we wore them out very quickly, too. The Folk Mass repertoire was limited. After all, it had only been three years since Ray Repp was first published. Thus, we experienced an unprecedented phenomenon in Catholic liturgy: the constant need for new music. In our youthful minds, the Dameans’ music was heaven-sent.
“Tell the World” was an upbeat song that seemed to capture the enthusiasm for the Spirit that framed those times. We had fun singing in rounds with “Shout Out Your Joy.” “All That We Have” was the perfect Offertory Song. “Look Beyond,” the song that introduced me to the concept of the major seventh chord, was a seeming rarity: a folk Communion Song that actually spoke of bread and wine as it reflected on the Eucharist passage of John 6:
Look beyond the bread you eat. See your Savior and your Lord.
Look beyond the cup you drink. See his love poured out as blood.
In addition to their prolific songwriting, the Dameans had a great vocal blend. Their intricate five-part harmonies were reminiscent of the Lettermen or the Beach Boys. What a cool sound for liturgy! It was folk music with choral harmonies. We seminarians ate this stuff up.
As a budding liturgist it was great to grow up with the Dameans. When I moved on to St. John’s College in Camarillo, Bob Hurd taught me Gary Ault’s song, “The New Creation.” It was an outright rock song, with that stunning C-G-D power chord riff. But more exciting were the lyrics, which spoke of social justice:
Hear the cry of the needy, your brothers each one.
Too many people talking and nothing gets done.
And you better hurry!
Come along to the new creation . . .
Social justice in a liturgical song! That was groundbreaking in 1971. I wished more liturgical songs would address that theme. As my seminary classmates got closer to our priestly goals, the Dameans had one more song for us that we sang at ordinations and first Masses everywhere: the memorable “In My Name”
I call you from your brothers;
I send you in my name.
I’ll light you with my Spirit’s fire,
to burn as my love’s flame.
I call you for your brothers
and send you in my name.
Seems like there was always a Dameans song that spoke to me at various stages of my teen and young adult life. From them I learned more about music, chords, and songwriting in general. You can imagine my thrill when I finally saw them at the Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, California in 1972. They were giving a music workshop on Youth Day, and the large auditorium was packed with over 1000 hyper teenagers. Gary and company managed to keep the young crowd entertained, singing their terrific songs while telling stories that helped us to enter into deep and meaningful prayer. I met Gary a few times after that. One fond memory I have is from the 1978 Congress, when Gary introduced me to the “new” Gary of the group, a young and eager Gary Daigle, who was apparently fresh out of high school. I thought to myself, “Dang! How’d this kid get so lucky to join the Dameans?” Gary Daigle replaced Dave Baker, who had to move on to other commitments in his ministry.
As time went on liturgical songwriting matured to embrace more scriptural lyrics and ritual awareness, and the Dameans’ music also matured. Remember Your Love was their most successful collection for liturgy and ritual. But their early folk music certainly paved the way. Before Tom Booth and Matt Maher, before Bob Hurd and even before the St. Louis Jesuits, there were the Dameans. We must never forget the enthusiasm and dedication they brought to what would later become known as contemporary Catholic music.
All these memories flooded my mind as I shook hands once again with Gary Ault at the Atlanta NCYC. He was there to chaperone a group of teens from his parish in New Orleans, and I invited them to check out a concert that Jesse Manibusan and I were giving later that day. I saw them in the crowd and was excited to perform in front of someone whom I considered as my composer role model. After our set, Gary was gracious in his compliments. He also had an idea.
Gary was teaching religion at a special Catholic high school in hurricane-damaged New Orleans. This school was special because it was more than just a school; it was SEVERAL high schools combined together out of necessity because of Hurricane Katrina. Gary invited Jesse and me to come to New Orleans to perform for his students, who needed encouragement and support as they dealt with the many issues of hurricane recovery. How could we refuse such an invitation? That gig in New Orleans turned out to be the most memorable performance of my life.
TO BE CONTINUED . . . not here, but in SPIRIT SPOT on spiritandsong.com in the blog, Rummel T: Hurricane Survival Story.
Hear the Dameans’ music on my latest Keep the Fire Burning podcast, either on iTunes or via RSS subscription.
Keep the Fire Burning: The Folk Mass Revolution available at Amazon.com.