When self-professed guitar-strumming hippie Hans Fenger became a grade school music teacher in rural Canada in the mid-‘70s, he wanted to try something different.
Instead of having the children sing traditional fare such as “Jimmy Crack Corn” or “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” he had them do David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Wings’ “Band on the Run.” He also had them perform songs by the Beatles, Beach Boys and Bay City Rollers, among others.
“For me to go in there and start singing these generic children’s songs I always thought was so goofy,” says the 53-year-old Mr. Fenger, now a music teacher at a Vancouver, British Columbia, grade school. “I went in and just taught music that I kind of knew and the kids kind of liked.”
Thanks to Irwin Chusid, a New York area disc jockey with an ear for the unusual, the strange but captivating tunes sung by Mr. Fenger’s students recently were released on compact disc. (So far, 10,000 copies have shipped to retailers, and at one point during the weekend after its Oct. 23 release, it was a top seller on Amazon.com.)
“This is genius,” Mr. Chusid says. “This is sheer genius.”
What Mr. Chusid describes as genius may be heard best in the children’s singing of “Space Oddity,” accompanied by banging drums and a steel guitar played with a glass bottleneck.
“‘Space Oddity’ was just a sort of freak out,” Mr. Fenger recalls. “It kind of blew the older teachers’ minds.”
Even the song’s originator was captivated.
“The backing arrangement is astounding,” Mr. Bowie said in a statement. “Coupled with the earnest if lugubrious vocal performance you have a piece of art that I couldn’t have conceived of, even with half of Colombia’s finest export products in me.”
There are quieter, but no less bizarre, moments as well such as 11-year-old Tina van de Weteringe Buys’ solo rendition of “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.”
“We were just singing what we were humming to in the back seat of our parents’ cars,” says Miss van de Weteringe Buys, now 35 and living in Vancouver.
Because the students enjoyed what they were singing so much, parents and other teachers did not object to the offbeat song selection, Mr. Fenger says.
Mr. Fenger relied on the 60 or so students ages 9 through 12 in fourth through seventh grades in the conservative Langley, British Columbia, community to help pick the music they wanted to learn.
He made the arrangements in his head and told the students what to play and when. Nothing was written down.
“They liked singing heavy songs. The heavier the better,” Mr. Fenger says. “That was part of the strangeness of the whole thing.”
The instruments were as eclectic as the songs: electric bass, hand cymbals, Orff xylophones and metallophones, tambourines and a steel guitar from the 1940s.
Using a two-track tape recorder, Mr. Fenger captured nine songs on tape in 1976 and with the help of a friend pressed about 300 albums for the children, their classmates, teachers and families.
After moving to a nearby Langley school, Mr. Fenger recorded 12 additional songs and pressed another album in 1977.
The songs were never intended to be heard beyond the area served by the schools.
They went unnoticed for years until a Canadian fan sent a copy of the children singing “Space Oddity” to Mr. Chusid, host of a program titled “The Incorrect Music Hour.”
Mr. Chusid played the song on the air, and the response was intense.
“Everyone was having the same reaction to it,” Mr. Chusid says. “They were flipping out.”
Mr. Chusid led the effort to have the music released on a compact disc, titled “The Langley Schools Music Project: Innocence and Despair” (Bar None Records).
Part of the money made from the CD will be used to finance music scholarships in the Langley schools and to pay students who participated in the recordings.
Twenty-five years later, Miss van de Weteringe Buys doesn’t know what all the fuss is about.
“I’m having a hard time understanding why anyone other than the parents and children involved in this project would care,” she says.