One night last week, my wife was preparing her seminary lesson for the morning. "In all your thousands of MP3s," she asked me, "do you happen to have a recording of 'In My Father's House Are Many Mansions'?"
Obviously, she was teaching from the 14th chapter of John: "In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you."
Well, it wasn't going to be a problem. I have hundreds and hundreds of recordings by the Tabernacle Choir and various soloists — not to mention hundreds more MP3s of sacred music by non-Mormon groups.
Five minutes later, I was at Amazon.com, looking for a recording we might download. At first I was pleased to find dozens of MP3s — including one by Elvis.
Then I was not so pleased — it was the wrong song. Well, it's hardly a surprise that somebody else had set that scripture to music — but this other version was mostly written by a lyricist, with very little of the scripture in it.
What surprised me and my wife was that it was the only recorded version of the song that we could find — on Amazon or by Googling. Not even the Deseret Book Web site seemed to recognize the existence of the song.
This despite the fact that when we Googled "Many Mansions," one of the listings that came up was a recording by George Dyer, citing Deseret Book and saying that Dyer had "recently" recorded the song with the Tabernacle Choir.
Unfortunately, the quotation that Google had found was from an old listing and referred to his debut album; now when you click on the link from LDS Music World (www.ldsmusicworld.com/artists/george_dyer.html), you get taken to his most recent album, which does not have that song. And Deseret Book does not offer any of the earlier albums on its Web site.
So I went back to Amazon, searched on George Dyer's name and came up with three albums I could buy through third-party sellers. Alas, none of them listed the songs they contained, so I gave up and ordered all of them. I sure hope I like his voice.
This is a song my wife and I grew up with. We're both in our 50s, and when we were young, choirs and soloists sang it all the time.
In fact, I grew up in the home of a church soloist — my mother. Operatically trained, her only musical performances were at church events, mostly sacrament meetings.
"In My Father's House Are Many Mansions" was in her repertoire, along with demanding solo pieces like "O Divine Redeemer," "The Lost Chord," "The Holy City" and, at Christmastime, "O Holy Night."
From earliest childhood I remember standing beside the piano, joining my voice to hers (it went more smoothly after I learned how to read). It was thrilling to feel as if I was part of the glorious sound when, in "The Holy City," her voice soared during the chorus of "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, lift up your gates and sing!"
My mother stopped singing years ago, without enough warning for us to make sure we had recordings of her voice. Her standards were so high that when, with age, her vocal cords could no longer produce a sound that she could be proud of, she wouldn't sing at all.
It broke my heart. In vain did I remind her of the career of Rosemary Clooney.
"Yes, she's still singing," my mom said, "but she sounds awful."
"No," I said, "she still understands how to find the heart of a song."
"Not good enough," came the answer.
So all I have are memories — which is, I suppose, what my mother wanted: to make sure we only remembered a voice that could fill a room and lift up the roof — just a little — to make sure the song could be heard in heaven.
Now, though, my wife and I were facing the fact that one of the great old songs was simply not available. The Tabernacle Choir apparently stopped performing it, and if there were any old recordings, they aren't easily available.
With all my online searching, I did find the name of the composer of the version we wanted — the one that has only scripture as its lyric. It is by James G. McDermid, and I ordered a book that collected several of his songs.
I also went to Jackman Music Corporation (www.jackmanmusic.com), where I was relieved to find the sheet music still available — though their "search" box was no help at all. I bought it as a download, paying for 25 copies, for my wife and I by now were determined that our ward choir was going to perform the song.
It was such a joy to hear my wife playing the song; I hadn't realized how much I had missed it. Later, I sang through it myself, remembering how it sounded when better singers performed it.
It would have done no good, however, for me to get up early and sing it for the seminary students — my voice never wakes up till noon — or half an hour after the choir is through performing in sacrament meeting, whichever comes last.
While we were searching for "Many Mansions," I mentioned the great LDS contralto Jessie Evans Smith, and even searched using her name, until my wife reminded me that her signature song was "He That Hath Clean Hands."
Immediately I could hear her low voice beginning to sing that haunting melody. So as long as I was looking for music, I might as well get a recording of her singing that great classic.
No luck. And that was a shock. I mean, this woman was married to President Joseph Fielding Smith. They used to sing duets — rather, "do-its," since, as President Smith explained, the only reason he sang in public was because that's what his wife said to him. She was a beloved figure in the church as recently as the 1970s.
And yet I could find no extant recording of Jessie Evans Smith singing "He That Hath Clean Hands."
Now, it's one thing for a song to fade into obscurity, and quite another for us to lose the ability to lay hands on recordings of a great LDS singer. We can find an ancient copy of old sheet music that's in the public domain, and Xerox it back into usable form. But it's not so quick and easy with recordings. Maybe you still own a turntable — I don't. If it was never recorded digitally or transferred to CD or MP3, it's out of my reach.
I know that we're a practical people, as unsentimental as they come. If it's not useful, it's gone. If it were not so, we could never have torn down the beautiful old pioneer-built Coalville Tabernacle, or gutted the beautiful handwork inside the Logan Temple, both of which could have been avoided simply by building new buildings on different property.
We seem not to treasure what our forebears created in worship of God and for the use of the Saints.
It's so cheap and easy to keep recordings alive. Why hasn't someone made all the recordings of Jessie Evans Smith available? Let people download her performances as MP3s, at no charge — after all, she doesn't need royalties any more.
This could be done with so many of the creative endeavors of the Saints. Wouldn't it be lovely to have an online anthology of, for instance, all the poetry written by Latter-day Saints and published in church publications. Even if we only collected the ones with expired copyright, they could easily be indexed by author and browsed.
When Elder Boyd K. Packer spoke to students in the College of Fine Arts at BYU back in the 1970s, he made a point of praising the poetry of Eliza R. Snow, and asked why her work was not taught along with worldly literature.Comment on this story
Let me now add to that, and suggest that one gift of the Internet is the ability to keep old writing — and old recordings — easily findable and available throughout the world. It's part of our heritage. It would cost us almost nothing to keep it alive.
Orson Scott Card is a writer of nonfiction and fiction, from LDS works to popular fiction. "In the Village" appears Thursdays in the Deseret News. A longer version of this column can be found at MormonTimes.com. Leave feedback for Card online at www.nauvoo.com/contact_desnews.html.