“It only takes a spark
To get a fire going
And soon all those around
Can warm up in its glowing
That’s how it is with God’s love
Once you’ve experienced it
You spread His love to ev’ryone
You want to pass it on”
— Kurt Kaiser
The early history of me and the guitar is inextricably tied to my early history with the church, and with one very special song by the great Kurt Kaiser.
I’m not alone in this.
There are very likely millions of folks my age who remember Kaiser’s iconic song, “Pass It On.”
We sang that song every week, at the conclusion of our UMYF song-time at First UMC, Richardson. And for a few short, glorious years —which somehow feel like they still go on forever— I was one of the kids who led the singing with my guitar.
It was the late 1970s. And as the great Dr. Dick Murray used to teach at Perkins, in those days youth ministry was comprised of “folks who believed you had to hold hands and play guitar.”
The Eagles and Jackson Browne (and, eventually, Dan Fogelberg) were kings of the radio. And Kurt Kaiser was the king of Christian youth music.
And to me, it was all one piece. One “thing.”
I never grew up with the hard separation between “secular” and “sacred” music that I later learned other people did. I played it all –the stuff on the radio, the stuff from Youth Group– sitting in my room, on my Yamaha guitar, practicing for hours and hours. It was all “music.” It all moved me, spoke to me, and nobody shamed or told me anything different.
I mention this last point because, as I grew, I came to understand others grew up differently in their faith/music experience as teenagers. People in more fundamentalists backgrounds grew up believing that Pop/Rock music of was of the devil, and that only Christian music should be played. I have, to this day, never understood that division. I mean, I understand the words. I just can’t understand the experience, because it wasn’t mine.
For me, it was all one thing. It was Music. It was Spirit. It was sometimes silly, and sometimes sacred, and sometimes moved you to tears…and there was no hard division between the two.
I took my first guitar lessons in the 8th Grade at Westwood Junior High (note: Yes, they offered guitar in public schools back then…). That led to hours and hours, practicing “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” and “Take It Easy” in my bedroom by myself. I had songbooks of 70s Country-Rock, and a copy of Yohanne Anderson’s book, “Songs and Creations.”
The latter was the Bible of Youth Group music. The Sargent Pepper’s of 70s youth group guitar players.
And I loved it all. I especially loved The Eagles, early on; because, since their guitar was dominant, you could strum the chords in your bedroom, and vaguely approximate the recordings you loved from the radio.
It makes me laugh a bit to realize how the barely pubescent me belted out, “I wanna sleep you with in the desert tonight…”
I know I had no idea what I was singing about.
But the idea of sleeping under the stars?
That sounded awesome.
I practiced and practiced this stuff. I started writing songs…really BAD songs….those lyrics sheets are still on a shelf behind me here, somewhere.
It was my friend, Stu Roberts, who first invited me to play guitar in public, at church, at the youth group. We idolized the kids who were just a few years older than us, playing guitar and leading the group. And, as we grew older, we became those kids. And, to this day, I run into friends from that era, who tell me they remember these moments, and our playing guitar.
At our weekly UMYF Group, we spent 15-20 minutes a week in a gathered group before splitting off by grades. Yes, by grades. It as HUGE group. Sometimes 150 kids or so on a Sunday night (not an exaggeration), all gathered together in the upper room of Middlebrooks Hall.
We called it “SingSong, and we would sings songs out of “Songs and Creations.”
Again, it made perfect sense to me. In that book, there were “secular” folk songs, and Christians songs too. There was no separation. The book contained songs from Peter Paul and Mary, and the Beatles. There were folk songs by Bob Dylan, and John Denver.
And….there was “Pass It On.”
“Pass It On,” was the “Take It Easy” of Christian youth group songs.
Whatever else we sang, we always “closed” with that one.
We guitar players would stand in the midst of the circle, Stu with his twelve string Guild, me with my gut-string Yamaha, and we’d lead the kids in this song.
“What a wondrous time is spring
When all the trees are budding
The birds begin to sing
The flowers start their blooming
That’s how it is with God’s love
Once you’ve experienced it
You want to sing it’s fresh like spring
You want to pass it on”
When I pause to think back, there is really no more deep and abiding imprinted musical memory inside my soul than this one. I can still picture the moment…
Us with our guitars.
Boys in their muscle shirts.
Girls in their “short-shorts.”
Everybody with their summer tans, and their John Travolta and Farah Fawcett feathered hair.
Kids wearing “Boston” and “Kansas” t-shirts.
Kids wearing church youth group t-shirts, “Richardson Eagle” and “Pearce Mustang” shirts.
And the hundreds of kids, holding hands, and swaying together to the music as we sang this song.
Kurt Kaiser died this week.
This is, of course, what causes all these memories to well back up into my soul. A few posts from old fogie-friends around my age have helped the memories come flooding back.
I haven’t thought about Kaiser, or about “Pass It On,” for a couple of decades. Heck, I haven’t played “Pass It On” for a couple of decades.
I doubt there are many Youth groups at all who still play it. It sort of fell out of favor over time. I’m sure folks got sick of it. It happens.
I mean, when was the last time you heard anybody play “Blowing in the Wind” non-ironically?
Newer generations always create their own traditions, and this is as it should be. Soon after, both Contemporary Christian and Pop/Rock music moved toward the synthesized and away from the folkie. Interestingly, I sort of drifted away from contemporary Christian music in the that period.
“Christian culture” became more exclusive during the 1980s…more willing to critique, in soft and hard forms, the alleged “mushiness” of a theology that would embrace both Bob Dylan and Kurt Kaiser.
Christian music became the balkanized form it remains to this day. But, that balkanization was but a symptom of a broader cultural movement that can be seen as…
“Secular” = “Bad”
“Christian” = “Good”
Those messages were just starting to seep into the culture, in the late 1970s, as we strummed those guitars.
This was increasingly the message of the 1980s “Christian culture.”
Again, as I’ve said and written many times, this message didn’t make sense to me. It was not then, nor is it to this day, my experience. But that harder division increasingly led me in two outwardly ironic existential directions:
Toward a calling as a clergy person…
Away from the increasingly balkanized format of “CCM.”
I was not a fan of 80s Pop, nor 80s CCM. Musically, the 80s felt like (and still does) a wasteland to me. (Sorry, Gen Xers, this is the one sharp dividing line between us…)
I hibernated into the world of folk music, and for myriad reasons –much having to do with the increasing division I’ve just described– landed on the “secular” side, musically. And that’s pretty much where I’ve been ever since.
(Although, I must observe, much of the newest Christian stuff seems to be very acoustic-driven, like “Mumford and Son” wanna-bes. And that makes this old folkie smile…)
So, even though I have not played “Pass It On” for decades, as soon as I hit “send” here, I’m gonna pick up my guitar and play it today. (Update: Here you go…)
Because I realized this week that I must include “Pass It On” in the list of my all-time favorite songs.
Without “Pass It On,” I would never have learned how to play guitar in front of a crowd.
I would never have kept playing, or had a reason to practice.
I would have never have eventually written/recorded my own songs, which are decided not CCM, but definitely do speak of Spirit and holiness in exactly the way the “Songs and Creations” book first taught me.
I would have never found my way to my folk music tribe, and places like Kerrville.
I would have never have had the courage to play the live shows I play now. (Youth group taught me that I could play in front of people…)
I wouldn’t be playing with Connections….with whom, ironically, I’ve been able to perform almost all of my other “all time favorite songs” from 1970s classic rock.
NONE of that happens, without Stu asking me to play guitar at youth group, and without the two of us and our friends, time and time and time again, playing “Pass It On” for those youth group kids.
I’m confident I’m not the only one with this kind of story about this one song, which is what drives me to post this today.
So, God bless you, Kurt Kaiser.
May you rest in peace.
And I hope you have a sense of just how important you and your song were, and are, to so many of us.
You most definitely changed my life.
“I wish for you my friend
This happiness that I’ve found
You can depend on Him
It matters not where you’re bound
I’ll shout it from the mountain top
I want my world to know
The Lord of love has come to me
I want to pass it on”
— Kurt Kaiser
Here’s a video of Kurt Kaiser talking about his life and musical legacy.
One thought on “Pass It On”
Pass It On still speaks to me and sometimes, it is sung in church or with a youth group. It is amazing to me how much MYF at FUMC Richardson formed each of us that passed through it-molded us, changed us, knit us together in a mosaic of faith and friendships. As an ‘old fogey’ peer, I am know that the music we shared pushed some to play publically and others to lend their voices publically, in conjunction with others or in private to express faith. Because, like you, music is not sacred or secular. It all seems sacred to me when it expresses our humanity.
Thank you Eric, for playing for us as youth. And thank you to Stu Roberts, Todd Toney, JR Netherland and all the others that lent their musical talents to Sing Song.