Saturday, February 27, 2016

Shoot Your Own Side First - Finding My Favorite "Lost" Song

Forty years ago on a quiet Sabbath afternoon, I was hanging out with a college friend, Bow Walker in my hometown of Keene, Texas.  Bow put on a reel to reel tape of Christian folk music he'd collected. We were listening to the usual collection of spirituals, old gospel tunes on six string guitar and other folksie religious music, when Bow said, "Listen to this. You'll like it."

The singer had a resonant bass voice and a nice guitar style, but I'm a word guy and it was the lyrics that caught my attention.  The song was about soldiers gearing up to go into battle - kind of an unusual metaphor, although I was a big fan of Onward Christian Soldiers and The Captain Calls for You when I was a Primary and Junior.

But the song wasn't some martial call to Christian arms. It was satire. In this song, the sergeants were quite well versed in Scripture, upright and chaste, but as the troops were preparing to advance upon the enemy, the sergeants gave the battle cry.....

"Shoot Your Own Side First!"

If you read much of my stuff or actually know me, you probably realize I have what people in authority think of as "issues" with authority. Not in a big way, mind you, but I do tend to be at all times cognizant of the fact that my leaders do put on their underpants one leg at a time. As such, I am not over-awed by authority, which probably accounts for my checkered career as a church school teacher.  At any rate, this song really appealed to me, having grown up in and SDA college town and encountered spiritual bullies, holier-than-thou gossips and the full range of barons of private religious fiefdoms throughout my formative years.

After I heard it, I looked everywhere for the song. Bow wasn't sure what album it was from, his having copied a copy of a pirated tape to obtain the song. All I could remember of the song was that bit from the chorus about the sergeants giving the battle cry.  Had I been able to find the song, I would certainly have learned the chords and introduced it to every youth group, summer camp and sabbath school I came in contact with.

More than likely, the disappearance of this excellent song/parable is due, less to the popularity of the song than it is to the discomfort it no doubt gave to the legions of SDA deacons, elders, and local church good old boy networks it lampooned.  More than one creative artist of my generation got the old lecture about the dangers of encouraging the arrogance of youth, including me and one of the members of "Take 3", and SDA singing group that was pretty much run out of the church as heathen rock n' roll dope-fiends (they sounded a lot like Peter, Paul & Mary).  Even The Wedgewood Trio took a beating from the church's sergeants back then - so bad that the president of Loma Linda University eventually apologize 30 years later for his letter to his fellow college presidents urging that they be banned from SDA college campuses for their use of electrified stringed instruments and banjos for sacred music. Elder HMS Richards Sr., meanwhile, took The Wedgewood Trio on tour with his evangelistic crusades and Del Delker sang with them.  Both were roundly criticized for doing so, but Richards obvious success with the Voice of Prophecy radio broadcast, made the immune to the finger-pointers and they survived, although the Wedgwood Trio did not, disbanding in the mid 70s.

It says something about the character of that generation of creative young people that most of us remained in the church despite the fall of some of the leading lights of the righteousness by faith revival of the 60s and 70s. I rather think that by enduring persecution from our own church and hanging tough, we were being prepared by God for the persecution we will receive at the end of time when we ourselves will be the old graybeards (in my case literally) of the church. 

Let us hope we do better than our elders did. Let us hope we change the battle cry from "Shoot Your Own side first!" to "Lift your own side up!" so that our church doesn't wither as it had begun to do before brave men and women sounded the call to faith in the grace of God and the righteousness of Christ.

Here's what Jim looked like in his folk-singer days back
in 1976 when he made this album.
In the meantime, I've found the album and the artist who sang that wonderful song.  He is Jim Ayars. You may recall his name as a longtime member of the King's Herald Quartet. I imagine he was a perfect fit, given HMS Richards' independent style and self-assured brand of Adventism that focused on soul-winning rather than ivory-tower building. Ayars is now a pastor in Southern California and I found that he has a Facebook page and has for years been friends with people I know, including Steve Darmody, Jaime Jorge, Mike Tucker, Gerry Chudleigh and even a kid I taught in Primary at Tyler.  All these years, I've been looking for that song and the singer was right out there in plain sight.

I've done Google searches for five years without luck and then, suddenly this morning, there were three references to this song at the top of my Google Search.

I was sorely disappointed that this lovely tune was not available for download anywhere, nor could I even find it for sale in its original 12" vinyl. Jim has a deep rumbly bass voice, so it's not your usual folk music album. Some of the song titles are intriguing. Once, I had Ayars' name, however, I found the lyrics to the song in comment in a discussion on the Women's Ordination issue.  A commenter called "Billie" said, "There's a song that fits so well... one that I've been resisting quoting even in part.... but ... just can't resist any longer...  The name is "Shoot your own side first".... the lyrics were written by C. Mervyn Maxwell at the height of the seminary purge of the 1960's... and sung as a folk song by Jim Ayers...  It goes like this..."

Shoot Your Own Side First
by C. Mervyn Maxwell

  • Our young recruits came marching by
    So proud they almost burst.
    Our Sergeants raised the battle cry
    "Shoot your own side first".
  • The battle smoke crimped every nose
    Our men were wracked with thirst,
    But thru the ranks the watchword rose
    "Shoot your own side first".
  • The foreign ranks came marching hot--
    Our soldiers feared the worst,
    But in their panic they ne'er forgot to
    "Shoot your own side first".
  • The bullets whirred! The cannon roared!
    Our men were doubly cursed!
    Upon us two times death was poured--
    "Shoot your own side first".
  • Our men fell wounded, maimed, and dead,
    In bright red gore immersed,
    But never blame the foreign lead--
    "Shoot your own side first".
  • "Help! Help!" The dying soldier cried.
    Stop!" The private cursed.
    But in our ranks holes opened wide--
    "Shoot your own side first".
  • 'Tis Christian, man, to notice sin
    and twice so if thou durst.
    Behold! The fault lies with thy kin, so
    "Shoot your own side first".
  • The enemy would worship God,
    In scripture be well versed.
    They'd never sin if we were good, so
    "Shoot your own side first".
  •  "Shoot your own side... ... first".

John Ayars in his current pastoral incarnation.
Now that I've got the lyrics, I'll look for the chords and a copy of Jim's wonderful version of it. This song needs to be sung in churches and seminary, colleges and youth groups across the land as a warning. I'm not surprised that Maxwell wrote it. He was a bit of a thorn-in-the-side to the sergeants himself back in the day. Maxwell was an SDA historian and, himself, involved in some of the disputation over theology that took place in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Some of it got rather brutal, but in checking out Maxwell's history, he seems to have managed to avoid setting fire to himself throughout the conflict. 

The song was evidently popular around the SDA seminary at Andrews in the late 60s. It's not surprising, however, that it didn't make it into "Advent Youth Sing" when Adventist youth music was canonized back in 1977. The song would have taken a rather advanced level of sophistication to see the value in this satirical gem.  

Whatever happens, the song is going into my personal Songleader's Songbook as soon as I figure out the chords. If you'd like a copy, click on the link above to download a PDF copy. This songlist of mine is not for sale or reproduction, but is for personal use only - learning to play it, sing it, etc..

If any of you know the chords to Shoot Your Own Side First, please send them to me.
In the meantime, I'll be searching my limited musical memory for the nearest approximation I can muster.  Also, if you have any other such songs you'd like to share with all of us, please add them to the comments below and thank you in advance. We SDA songleaders have to stick together.

© 2016 by Tom King