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Longtime Church Organist Keeps Traditional Hymns Alive

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Many American churches are doing everything they can to attract new generations of parishioners. And often, that means less traditional organ music and Christian hymns. But the organist at the West Auburn Congregational Church in Auburn, Maine, is as popular as ever.

His name is Charles Marshall, and he celebrates his 70th year on the keyboards with the release of his new CD at the age of 86. Since World War II, Mr. Marshall has rarely missed a service. And as Maine Public Radio's Susan Sharon reports, he has no intention of retiring anytime soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC)

SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: Every Sunday morning, several dozen parishioners settle into wooden pews in their 200-year-old church as Charles Marshall opens worship with a musical prelude. And every week, it's a different selection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC)

SHARON: Marshall was a pianist for his high school chorus in 1945 when his music teacher asked him to play the organ for an upcoming concert at a church that had no piano.

CHARLES MARSHALL: I says, I can't play the organ. I've never tried it, never even seen one, hardly. He says, you go up and practice. And he says, we'll have the concert, and we did.

SHARON: Despite his initial reluctance, Marshall's been playing the organ in this same church ever since. He estimates he's outlasted 30 ministers, played the organ at hundreds of weddings and funerals and memorized almost as many hymns.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC)

MARY BUKER: He's excellent. And if he makes a mistake, he doesn't like it at all.

SHARON: Mary Buker has been a member of the church for more than 60 years. Years ago, she sang with Marshall in the choir and knows how seriously he takes his role. Sometimes, says Buker, it's as if the music comes to him from God.

BUKER: One day, he just ate a little mistake, and he started crying. And then he said he didn't know if that was going to be it or not. And we're going no, please. And we just love to have him here.

SHARON: The church choir may be gone, but parishioners like Richard Creighton and others are often called upon to sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH SERVICE)

RICHARD CREIGHTON: (Singing) Go tell it on the Mountain.

SHARON: At the West Auburn Congregational Church, Reverend John Williams says music is as important as the spoken word. Williams has also been coming to this church since he was a young boy.

REVEREND JOHN WILLIAMS: You know, the more music people hear, the more inspired they are, the more passionate they are. And I think people embrace that.

SHARON: For Charles Marshall, that passion is traditional Christian music, even as much of the rest of the world is now embracing a more contemporary style.

MARSHALL: The type of music today in most churches is they want to get an orchestra or a band or something like that and follow the ways of the world. I don't think that should be any part of worship.

SHARON: After 70 years of playing the church organ, Marshall says he's occasionally considered retirement. But the close-knit congregation, who are mostly elderly themselves, won't hear of it.

MARSHALL: (Laughter) It's true. I'd like to slow down, but they won't let me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC)

SHARON: For most of his life, there's only one thing that Marshall has loved more than playing church music and that's his wife, June. They've been married for 60 years, and Marshall says his music wouldn't be possible without June as his muse. For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon in Auburn, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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