Wanda West Palmer grew up in a home filled with both the gospel and music.
That background influenced her composition 50 years ago of one of the most popular standards in Latter-day Saint culture, the missionary anthem “Oh That I Were an Angel.”
“In our home it was a rule that if we were sitting at the piano, we were not to be disturbed,” Sister Palmer recalled in a Church News interview Aug. 16. “I sat at the piano a lot, so I was not disturbed. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have to wash my dishes later.”
But Sister Palmer, now 82, did more than just sit. Largely self-taught, with some instruction from her elder sister Roxie, she learned enough to play, sing and eventually write her own music.
Her father, Karl, conducted music at Church and, while working in sheep camps, had fashioned his own fiddle from a baking powder box and used horse hair to make a bow. With his wife, Irma, chording along on the piano, he would play for dances. “My daddy, when he would have businessmen come in and I was in the room, would have me sing a song, then excuse me and have the meeting. We always were not asked, but expected, to perform at the drop of a hat.”
But it was a joy, not a chore, an integral element in her life. Attending Mesa High School in Arizona, she met future husband, Melvin Palmer, while performing in operettas. They have reared five sons and three daughters.
“Daddy and Mother were not only musical, but were missionaries,” Sister Palmer recalled. “I heard the gospel taught nearly every day of my life.”
Whether selling groceries or pumping gas, her father would teach the gospel to customers. He brought hundreds into the Church through his direct efforts and perhaps thousands through referrals. On a six-month mission to Karlsbad, N.M., during World War II, he never knocked on a single door, yet influenced the conversion of 65 souls.
Thus it was that Wanda, sitting in sacrament meeting in 1964 when a young man about to depart on a mission was speaking, felt overcome with emotion as he read the words of Alma 29:1, “O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!”
“Can’t you hear the music in those words?” she asked the organist who accompanied the choir she was directing. “She said, ‘No.’ But I could hear music all around me when he spoke those words.”
One day at home, while the children were across the street at their grandmother’s house, Sister Palmer felt the presence of angels. She opened her scriptures to the passage in Alma and placed the book on her piano like a piece of sheet music. She then knelt by her piano bench and pleaded with the Lord. “I asked for the privilege of being able to put music to those words, and that this music might be used for missionary work throughout the world,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t know why I would even dare to say those words.”
But with her husband in a stake seventies quorum and four sons as prospective missionaries, she felt an urge to do her part to further the work. She sat at the piano and, within 10 minutes, had the basic melody in mind.
“I know without a doubt it was a melody that had been written before,” she said. “I would put my hands on the keyboard, but wouldn’t dare touch anything for fear I might hit the wrong note and make the melody go away.” It would take her six months to get the piano accompaniment right.
Son Rick, 8 years old at the time, recalls being in bed late at night while his mother, laboring on the other side of the wall, struggled to arrange “Oh That I Were an Angel.”
“I pounded on the wall and said, ‘Mom, I have to go to school in the morning. Can’t you do this later?’
“She said, ‘Ricky boy, I almost have it. I’ll be done in just a minute.’ Sure enough, a little bit later, I heard her yell, ‘I found it!’ She’d found the chord change she was looking for, and that was it. She went to bed.”
A “special trio” of high school girls began performing the song at missionary farewells in the Mesa area. It spread by word of mouth. In those days before computers and photo copy machines, she set the first copies of the sheet music by hand using rub-on characters and lettering for the musical notation. When Rick returned from his mission to Oregon and Idaho in 1974, he became her publisher, and they distributed the music as best they could. Later, Jackman Music took over the publishing role.
Sister Palmer recalls many “sweet testimonies” in connection with the song. Operatic tenor Michael Ballam, who has recorded an album with Sister Palmer’s composition as the title song, reflected, “Wanda, your music is so familiar to me; I think it’s because I’ve sung it before.”
Her music today comprises much of the annual Mesa Arizona Temple Easter Pageant, including a favorite, “Mary’s Lullaby.” With the help of orchestrator Robert C. Bowden, former director of the Mormon Youth Chorus and Symphony, she has had the London Philharmonic Orchestra record an album of her selections. Rick and his wife, Elaine, currently are missionaries serving on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Elaine asked organist Richard Elliott to perform one of Sister Palmer’s pieces in the regular Salt Lake Tabernacle organ recital. Brother Elliott thought that not good enough. So he organized a special recital that was held Aug. 16 in the Tabernacle, in which he and guest soloist Andrea Paulsen of the Tabernacle Choir performed “Oh That I Were an Angel” and “Mary’s Lullaby.” A choir of family members performed two of Sister Palmer’s selections. In a life sketch, Sister Palmer wrote: “Anyone can accomplish the desires of their heart, if they first ask the Lord for help and then TRY. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. The Lord will not condemn you for trying, but He may ask you to account for the talents He gave to you, if you do not try, or you do not seek, or knock, or ask.”