McKeithan Column

Published 6:53 pm Friday, December 21, 2007

By Staff
Church music offers praise in many forms
Octogenarian teaches youngster a lesson
At a young age, I had a dramatic introduction to a different style of worship than I had ever witnessed.
How we are raised is the biggest factor in what seems “normal” to each of us. If you grew up in a lively church with people dancing in the aisles; then that seems normal to you. These same people might sit through an entire service at my church and wonder when it was about to begin. “Where’s the band?” I can imagine them asking. “We’ve only been here an hour. Somebody throw me a tambourine and let’s get this thing started!”
I had the honor of playing timpani in our church on Sunday. I was a minor participant in a moving service of music, singing, candle lighting and Scripture reading at First Presbyterian Church. Our minister of music, Mike Morgan, pulled all the stops (that’s organ humor) for a special musical celebration of the Christmas story. (Be sure and tell your church music director, choir and musicians how much you appreciate their efforts, especially this time of year.)
My first memory of playing drums in church was in 1972 in the fellowship hall of First Baptist Church in Laurinburg. My good friend, Johnny Mac McLaurin, and I played snare drums together in the church production of The Boy Who Liked to Fish. (I will play drums again with Johnny Mac when “Klutz” begins a worldwide reunion tour in ‘08.)
Sunday was the first time I had played timpani (also called “kettle drums”) in over 20 years. It was nice to play in church again. This experience brought back memories of a time when I was an over-confident drummer-for-hire in my late teens and early 20s.
Let me tell you now about the “dramatic” experience I referred to before.
I had been hired by the East Laurinburg Church of God to play drums at a special service sometime around 1978. (I’m not sure if it was a Christmas service or not, but let’s imagine it was to support the theme of the column.)
Having only attended conservative “downtown churches,” I was surprised that any church would want a drummer to play, especially on Sunday. I couldn’t imagine how a drum set would sound during Amazing Grace. No matter, they were paying me good money on this “church gig.”
We had one rehearsal on Saturday night. The band was comprised of an electric bass player, a guitar player, a trumpet player and a piano player — not a pianist — there’s a difference. (Think about the difference between a violinist and a fiddler. Are you with me?)
The piano player could barely stay vertical sitting on the piano stool. She must have been pushing 90. I wasn’t sure if I was there to rehearse with her, or to resuscitate her.
Then it started. There was no warning. No one counted off, “1, 2, 3, 4…” This sweet old lady just suddenly launched into an energetic, double-time rendition of an old gospel tune I had never heard. The band followed her lead and kept playing as they all looked at me. I had no idea what to do.
The next morning, I was praying that the regular drummer would return. God had different plans.
The service began just as rehearsal had the night before. This Golden-Girl-Liberace was clearly in charge. She was a Christian soldier and was taking no prisoners. She was able to fire-up the congregation despite the young “drummer-for-hire” who couldn’t keep up. I managed to stumble-in finally and tried desperately to hang on for the next hour or so.
What a sight to behold! At the first refrains of “Daddy sang bass, Mama sang tenor” the entire congregation leapt to its feet. All were clapping — some were briefly in rhythm — but they couldn’t keep up with the old lady either.
Hands were raised, feet were stomped, tambourines were shaken and God was praised!
A young boy on the second row was overcome. He fell into the aisle and shook on the floor in what I was sure was an epileptic seizure! It didn’t faze anyone. No one reacted or made a move toward him. “Help him!” I said to myself. I couldn’t help; I was scared to death (and playing the drums, after all). As it was later explained to me; the boy was fine, he was just “overcome by the Spirit of the Lord!”
(What a sight it would have been if I had thrown down the drumsticks and run to that boy’s aid!)
My shock at seeing this wondrous display of unbridled worship was evident to at least one other person that day. One of my Mom’s good friends was a member of the church and was as entertained at watching me as I was at watching them. Apparently, my eyes were as wide as quarters and my face as white as the choir robes.
I recall this “church gig” with a great deal of reverence and respect for all of the members of the East Laurinburg Church of God, and for their dynamo artist-in-residence who humbled me.
For all I know, she’s still there playing to a congregation that’s trying desperately to keep pace.
Postscript: The historians at the Rock-n-Roll museum in Cleveland called this week to demand a correction on last week’s column. According to official Hall of Fame records, “Klutz” performed over 30 gigs prior to 1982, 33% more than was reported. Mr. McKeithan regrets the error.
He also regrets devoting way too much space to childhood musical exploits the past two columns. Thank you for your patience and understanding.
Ray McKeithan is associate publisher of the Washington Daily News. If you have suggestions of topics, or questions about operations at the WDN that can be addressed in future columns, please send an email to: or call 252-940-4205.