The Music of The Jonestown Express

by Tom Graddon

(Tom Graddon is a native of the United Kingdom, where he obtained an undergraduate and masters degree in Law from Aberystwyth University. Tom has written previously on criminal and constitutional law and works primarily in police station advocacy and mediation. His interest in Jonestown surrounds the community’s musical contributions and influences. He can be contacted at tom.graddon@gmail.com.)

Jonestown’s legacy, for better or worse, lives on in the 300 cassettes which were recorded there between the town’s inception and its eventual end. Many of these are recordings of Jones reading the news, People’s Rallies and so-called White Nights, but a small number record the community’s musical creativity and flair.

The table below sets out all the songs known to have been recorded by the Express in 1978. There are 91 tracks recorded across 14 cassettes, ranging from covers of popular R&B hits to jazzy instrumental jams to politically charged original compositions. Included in the table is Q785, which is a poor quality, low-res copy of He’s Able. While this is not an Express cassette, a number of artists from the Express feature on the album including Marthea Hicks, Deanna Wilkinson and Loretta Cordell.

The house band of the community, the Jonestown Express was one of a handful of performance groups who played regularly for the Sunday night entertainment in the Pavilion, as well as for visiting guests and new arrivals. The seventeen-strong band featured vocalists, guitarists, drummers, horn players, saxophonists, a bass player, keyboardist and a band conductor. No wonder one visitor called them “the nucleus of a very majestic orchestra.”

The band, for the most part, was a collaboration of amateur and casual musicians, but  Shirley Hicks and her sister Marthea were experienced performers outside of Jonestown and brought their slick professionalism to the band’s performance. Joining them was Robert “Rob” Edwin Davis, who graduated with a music degree from Washington State University and played the saxophone with Brian Bouquet, who worked with him in the carpentry workshop.

Predominantly Marthea Hicks takes lead on vocals, with either Loretta Cordell or Deanna Wilkinson, who also sings on a number of tracks, playing piano. Prior to coming to Jonestown, Loretta had been instrumental in assembling the Peoples Temple Choir for their 1973 album, He’s Able. Between them they polished up the Jonestown Express into a competent performing group, who played regularly not only for the community and its guests but also at venues around Guyana.

Supporting the artists was 17 year old mic tech Don Scheid, who managed the recording equipment and gave lessons to the others in how to use it. It is largely thanks to him that any record of the band in performance exists at all.

Only a few of the band’s performances were recorded, and these are all performances that were made in Jonestown. The majority of the cassettes are undated and of varying quality, partly due to the constraints of the technology and also because different members of the band appeared to have recorded performances at times. As a result, there are considerable audio defects such as reverb, echo and tape distortion on some — but not all — of the recordings, although loud background hiss is common to all the tapes.

The Express stands as a demonstration of the band’s aptitude and enthusiasm for music, and Shirley Hicks and Deanna Wilkinson in particular were fiercely talented vocalists. The songs of the Express are at times heartbreaking for their joyfulness and their passion, made more moving in the knowledge that the members’ careers as musicians were so brief and cut short as they were.

SCHEDULE OF CASSETTES

Total Tracks: 91
Instrumentals marked in bold
Spoken word marked in italics

No Q CASSETTE REF TRACKS
1.1 172 Betcha, By Golly, Wow
1.2 Keep on Running
1.3 The Way We Were
1.4 Everybody’s Talkin at Me
1.5 Strong, Gifted and Black
1.6 I’ll Make the First Step
2.1 174 Message in Our Music/Make it Happen
2.2 Keep on Dancing
2.3 I’ve Just Seen a Face (instrumental)
2.4 Love Ballad (for Jonestown)
2.5 Float On
2.6 The Greatest Love of All
2.7 The Jonestown Funk (instrumental)
2.8 Our Love
2.9 Alfie
2.10 Summertime (and the Living is Easy)
3.1 219 That’s the Way of the World
3.2 Miner’s Story (spoken word)
3.3 The House I live in (spoken word)
3.4 A Change is Gonna Come (spoken word)
3.5 A Knock on My Door (spoken word)
3.6 El Derecho De Vivir En Paz!
3.7 A Vietnam Story (spoken word)
3.8 Don’t You Worry
3.9 Never Can Say Goodbye
3.10 Ka’Ba
3.11 Comedy With Moms Mabley (spoken word)
3.12 Love Ballad (For Jonestown)
3.13 How Deep is Your Love
3.14 Comrades
3.15 Everybody’s Talking About me
3.16 I’ll Make The First Step
3.17 Jonestown is So Beautiful to Me
3.18 Strong, Gifted and Black
4.1 275 ***No identifiable or usable tracks***
5.1 338 Abraham, Martin and John
5.2 Guyana is So Beautiful to Me
5.3 I’ll Take the First Step
5.4 Summertime (and the Living is Easy)
6.1 365 Message in Our Music
6.2 The Greatest Love of All (instrumental)
7.1 408 The Greatest Love of All
7.2 I’ll Make the First Step
7.3 Jonestown is So Beautiful to Me
8.1 410 (PRACTICE SESSION) Lively Instrumental
8.2 Everybody’s Talkin at Me (instrumental)
8.3 Keep On Running (instrumental) Rehearsal 1
8.4 Quiet Instrumental
8.5 Funky Instrumental
8.6 Keep on Running (vocals) Rehearsal 1
8.7 Keep on Running (vocals) Rehearsal 2
8.8 Summertime (and the Living is Easy)
8.9 Guyana is so Beautiful to Me
8.10 I’ll Make the First Step
8.11 Abraham, Martin and John
8.12 Saxophone Instrumental
9.1 438 Cruising on the Cudjoe (instrumental)
9.2 Everybody’s Talkin about Me
9.3 Feel Like Making Love (rehearsal)
9.4 Georgetown Jam (instrumental)
9.5 Golden Time of Day
9.6 Short Percussive Instrumental 1
9.7 Short Percussive Instrumental 2
10.1 442 Be Glad (You’ve Got Communism in Your Life)
10.2  Communism is the Way
10.3 Jungle Jam (instrumental)
10.4 Tellin’ the News
10.5 Keep on Running (partial)
10.6 Movin’ Around in Socialism Every Day
11.1 466 ***No identifiable or usable tracks***
12.1 723 Ain’t Gonna Bump No More
12.2 Summertime (and the Living is Easy)
12.3 Abraham, Martin and John
12.4 I’ll Make the First Step
12.5 Guyana is so Beautiful to Me
12.6 Message in Our Music
12.7 Everybody’s Talkin at Me
13.1 785 He’s Able (album — low quality)
14.1 936 3 Orchestral Instrumentals (Not JTE) 150% speed
14.2 A Mighty Long Way (over-recorded)
14.3 Guyana is Good Enough for Me (partial, over-recorded)
14.4 Joy to My Soul
14.5 I Thank You Jim
14.6 This is Our Socialist Land
14.7 Can We Count on You?
14.8 I was Glad (JJ Leads Singalong w/Dianne Wilkinson)
14.9 13 Orchestral Instrumentals (Not JTE) 150% speed
15.1 975 Can We Count on You?
15.2 Comrade! (Welcome to the Socialist Land)
15.3 Jonestown Calypso
15.4 Comrade! (Reprise)
Originally posted on February 17th, 2021.

Last modified on July 3rd, 2021.
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