81. THE SONG OF THE WANDERING AENGUS/ THE LAKE ISLE OF INISFREE – Hamilton Camp/ W B Yeats

Not until my second year at university did I discover the poetry of WB Yeats. And what a fabulous treat it turned out to be, getting to know his work! Some of the poems felt more searching and stimulating than anything I’d read – I’m thinking of things like the Byzantium poems and ‘The Second Coming’ – which revealed more layers and perceptions on each successive read: far too complex to be interpreted in song, I thought (though many years later Joni Mitchell had a pretty good stab in her ‘Slouching Into Bethlehem’). The earlier, more lyrical and pastoral pieces were another matter though. I was learning to put more than just two or three chords together on the guitar, and also at that age (oh that it were ever so!) melodies just seemed to be there, ready to be snatched from the air! And so it seemed natural to try and make some of these poems singable!

Scene change: college holidays: home town. At this same time I had a girlfriend whose parents had a piano in their front room. I had no piano training of course, but I knew I could plonk out a melody one-fingered with my right hand, while making simple chord shapes with my left. Poor Margaret must have endured many an hour of me ‘finding’ tunes to poems. Actually, tackling WB Yeats required slightly more courage; I/we ‘practised’ first on a copy of the complete poems of W. H. Davies (I can still recall my cringingly jaunty melody for ‘What is this life if all of care/We have no time to stand and stare..’).

During this period my parents’ house also finally regained a piano (the family of a college friend were getting rid of theirs. I jumped at the chance!). I say ‘re-gained’ since in my very early years, until I was about five, perhaps, we had possessed a piano – my elder sisters had both been sent for piano lessons, my elder brother not for some reason, and by the time I was old enough to sit at the piano stool… one-day I woke to find that that wonderful and mysterious instrument had been chopped up by my father for firewood! I seem to recall vague talk of woodworm. I won’t say I was resentful but in some measure I felt its absence right up until that replacement was procured, when I was 19, and on which I could practise and play around during college holidays.

So, with those two pianos, and the guitar, and more time than I seem to have these days, and certainly more melodies available to pluck from the air, having desecrated enough of W H Davies’s poems, I cracked on more confidently with Yeats – ‘When you are Old and Grey’ was one of the first to get the treatment – ‘The Pity Of Love’, ‘Down By The Salley Gardens’ followed, and a few others. They weren’t good, but at least it taught me that any valid musical adaptations of these beautiful poems would have to be very special indeed.

Enter Hamilton Camp. Or to be quite precise I suppose I would have to say enter Judy Collins, again, since she has appeared in these little essays an embarrassing number of times. The thing is, she was at that time such a brilliant song selector, discoverer and interpreter. Her second album –much more easily available today than it was then –showed that she was beginning to feature ‘composed’ songs not just old traditional ballads; it not only featured Hamilton Camp’s setting of Yeats’ ‘Song Of The Wandering Aengus’ but made it the title track of the album – calling it ‘Golden Apples of the Sun’, and perhaps deliberately dropping the reference to Celtic mythological characters and folklore. But that suited me fine –it seemed and it seems now a more universal little pastoral fantasy about love and longing, loss and search. And Camp’s tune is a suitably subtle, haunting one.

Some years further on, several albums further on, Judy Collins picked up on another of Hamilton Camp’s settings – this time ‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree’ on her ‘Living’ album. The same respectful delicacy of melodic interpretation, a tune which couldn’t handle the words any more subtly and sensitively than it does. Again, something as romantic as moonlight, another idyll whose natural images say much about the human longing for connections with the earth, but also (more internally) for peace – even when we are ‘standing in the roadway/Or in the pavements grey..’

Love this one so much that it has become my ‘go to’ song when I sit down at the piano, howling out to a few lugubrious minor chords ‘And I will have some peace there/ For peace comes dropping slow…’ But it’s not everyone’s cup of tea! I sang the song unaccompanied once, as an ‘opening number’ for a little set of songs in a disastrous concert when I was opening for Frank Hennessy.(or perhaps it was ‘Let’s snog’ that the audience didn’t find too tasteful.) I wasn’t invited to repeat the experience. Ho hum.

So I take my hat off to Mr. Hamilton Camp, who has done so exquisitely what I failed to manage in all those compositional efforts of my student years! Strangely enough, it’s only recently –through the wonderful power of Deezer – thanks Deezer – that I’ve got to hear the originals and to discover the man himself, an old sixties’ Greenwich Village Guthrie-ite folkie if there ever was one. Oh and while we’re at it, let’s also hear it for his too often unsung lyricist –Mr. William Butler Yeats. Go, guys.

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80. ST. PATRICK’S BREASTPLATE – ancient Celtic hymn

Here’s one I’ve carried around in my head for a long time; and knew I’d have to write about, but how to start? I think I need to tell you about my first trip to York.

It was the late 1970s. For youngish twentysomethings with aspirations of lives characterised by meaningful Christian service, and by deeper, fresher and more creative worship, there was much to be excited about. Whether it was jumping on bandwagons, or simply recognizing communities, churches and movements that were proving visionary and innovative, it was hard not to chase up sources of inspirational teaching and vibrant worship resources. Saint Michael-le-Belfrey in York was one of those places where ‘it was happening’. Not only had their rector, Canon David Watson become a renowned conference speaker on many aspects of New Testament lifestyle-rediscovery taking place alongside the broader ‘charismatic renewal’ in the church, but the church’s worship-life and ministry were also beginning to make names for themselves, perhaps along the lines of The Fisherfolk /Community of Celebration output, which, one imagined, had helped to inform their own communal vision, as it had for so many up and down the country.

Fairly fancy free in those days, at least during holiday times, I decided to go and visit the church to get the flavour of it, and even -who knows-return with sparks of something which might prove useful for my own little fellowship. I caught trains (my pre-car days, I think) and booked into a youth hostel for the Saturday night. Mooched around the charity shops and bookshops of York on the Saturday afternoon, (bought some CS Lewis first editions sold decades later on ebay!), checked out the glorious Minster, discovered St Michael’s own coffee-and-book shop across the square from the church, and picked up the music group’s debut LP ‘With Thanksgiving’. Some cracking songs on that, a few of which I was to sample on the following morning.

That following morning was the main reason I’d come, of course. I got there bright and early, and was glad that I did, not just because there was a modest struggle for a good seat, but because Andrew Maries, director of worship at Saint Michael-le-Belfrey, used the 30 minutes prior to the start of the service to lead the congregation through a few of the more unfamiliar songs, so that when we encountered them in the service itself, we could join in with unembarrassed abandon. One such practice was the children’s song – Robert Stoodley’s ‘Everybody Song’ (from the aforementioned LP). And then there was this long, strange hymn I had never heard before. ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ he called it. Maries must have been a brilliant teacher that morning because we got into it; we couple of hundred or whatever gathered before the service, were led to surprising confidence in the twists and turns and trills of that alien song. So much so that although I remember very few of the words, the tune has never left my head since that time.

Hard to say exactly what thrilled me and arrested me so completely about that song – no one simple factor, I’m sure. I know more about the song now than I did then of course; I know for instance that this hymn was a tidied up, metrical version of the long Celtic prayer/hymn/series of invocations attributed to fifth century St Patrick, but probably written ‘in the spirit of Patrick’ (as scholars seem to agree) in the eighth century. The Victorian hymn-lyricist, Mrs. Alexander, based her version on several prose translations of the original. I know too that the man who set this metrical hymn to music (Stanford) chose two Irish tunes as the bases of his melody. Those tunes certainly helped to arrest me! I say tunes, because of course, the penultimate verse of the hymn changes completely into this (as it seemed to me then) poignantly simple, invocatory chant (‘Christ be with me, Christ within me,/ Christ behind me, Christ before me…’). This too was intriguing!

But the language of the song seemed so different from most hymnody I knew -less flowery and sentimental than Victorian hymns, less didactic than many of the Wesleyan hymns, less simplistic than many of the modern hymns. I felt caught off guard, even, by the kind of robust earthiness and physicality of some of the imagery – even the very idea of ‘binding [spiritual truths] to myself..’ seemed quite startling and new.

Today we are all pretty familiar with the idea of ‘Celtic spirituality’ – and perhaps it’s a little bit sad, even, that its ‘in-fashion trendiness’ in at least the UK Christian church (including slightly unreal prettied-up versions of it being marketed) has perhaps distracted from some of the valid reasons why Christian writers and teachers began to find in aspects of ancient Christian Celtic texts and symbols elements which could help to refocus and reinvigorate contemporary worship. Including, for instance, more holistic praise-responses incorporating an awareness of the natural world. So we get this in the song too – ‘I bind unto myself today/ The virtues of the starlit heaven/ The glorious sun’s life giving ray..’ Encompassing nature in all its moods –‘the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks/ the stable earth, the deep salt sea/around the old eternal rocks’. This too was arresting!

Scholars will no doubt propose several hypotheses about why the idea of ‘trinity’ grabbed the Celtic imagination so unshakeably (some magical, mystical power to the number 3 etc) but the song sort of reinforces that theological concept with new vigour, too. Another reason. I could go on. I could comment on every verse but, as ever, that would give a slightly unrealistic reflection of its initial impact on me which was of course not close and analytical. [Others have written in both commentative and reflective ways about this song. See footnote*]. Other imagery in the hymn boldly referenced the scary hostilities and evils of a dark world, though, that needed us to pray prayers like the ones for protection and shelter included in the song , and to invoke and declare stuff like this about ‘binding to ourselves’ these God-bolstered vigorous and virile realities!

So I returned to our little valleys congregation, with a few books, a half-poem about York Minster, a new LP, some stories about the church (‘There’s no easy answer to involving kids in the service’ I said, remembering how chaotic the presence of children had been in St Michael’s as much as anywhere else; oh and extolling the excellent teaching of young Rev. Graham Cray). Why I didn’t share this song which had been a memorable discovery from my trip, I’m not entirely sure. It wasn’t a guitar song, that’s certain, so I couldn’t have ‘shared’ it easily. Did a selfish part of me want to hold it secretly in my own head for my own private prayers and invocations? I don’t know. But I’ve certainly buried it firmly within myself.

I do know that I regret not having sung it enough over the years – not just in my head or on my own, but out loud with others, I mean, in congregations of the faithful, and preferably with some loud lusty pipe organ as accompaniment!

[I mentioned that at least two modern Christian books reflect on the hymn – David Adam’s ‘The Cry of the Deer’ and John Davies’s ‘A Song for Every Morning’]

79. VENI CREATOR SPIRITUS – Mahler (8th Symphony)

… But please don’t let that choice lead you to expect any kind of erudite musical analysis . What you’ll get here is just some faltering attempts to chart my introduction to and enthusiasm for this ‘song’, this song-and-a-half (!), this extraordinary spirit lifting piece of work.

I was first introduced to Mahler when some teaching colleagues of mine at my first school (so we’re talking 40 years ago) invited me for coffee one evening. They had recently moved in together and seemed to have very little in the way of luxuries but they had a record player on the floor of the living room, and a bunch of LPs, and the guy was eager to play some of them for me. ‘Listen to this’ he said with some excitement, putting on Mahler’s first symphony, and moving the needle to the third movement. ‘Listen to the way he plays with ‘Three Blind Mice’!’ I listened politely, was amused and intrigued and something more by what Mahler was doing with this simple canon of a tune – three blind mice or Frere Jacques or Bruder Martin or whatever you want to call it. He had made of it a very neat, slightly spooky funeral march and it gave me a little bit of a chill. Yep, Mahler, one to watch, I thought. But although I bought a copy of that first symphony, it’s fair to say I more or less forgot about Gustav for the next two decades.

So we picked up our acquaintance again about a decade and a half ago in some local municipal library where, browsing through the CDs, I noticed the complete symphonies of Mahler, a nice little box set that I could book out of the library for a minimal fee for three weeks. It was the days of the mini disc player – (in fact, if I’m honest, I can’t quite disassociate Mahler from that now defunct, outdated little silver machine, which for at least a year or so I carried everywhere..) What I did was to transfer all ten symphonies onto two mini-discs, yes, feeling a little proud of myself for condensing so much music into so small a space. (Ha) And I became, as you do, a little obsessed. When I was out and about, or when I was marking papers, it was either symphonies 1 to 5 in my ears, or symphonies 6 to 10. And perhaps I ought to be a bit ashamed to say that although I loved and lived in the music, they all kind of blended into each other, and I didn’t really take the time to distinguish one masterpiece from another.

But…. a few years further on… that is less the case. In particular this here eighth symphony has established a particular place in my listening and in my heart, especially, as you might not be too surprised to hear, the first section, based as it is upon a ninth century Pentecost hymn ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’.

A 9th Century Latin text, certainly (some scholar called Rhabanus Maurus, apparently) though I suspect that this kind of invocation song has been a bread-and-better chant amongst Christian Communities from their earliest foundations ; since Pentecost, perhaps, a communal reminder and an affirmation of our dependence on God’s own spirit to infuse, strengthen and enable us. I’ve long known Edward Caswell’s 19th century hymn ‘Come Holy Ghost, creator blest’ without realizing that this too was a translation of the same ninth century Pentecost text; another similar version ‘Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire’ is probably of the same origin. Isaac Watts in the early 18th century wrote his own invocation hymn – ‘Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove’. The wonderful Taize repertoire includes the powerful chant ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’ where soloists sing more extended invocatory prayers over the general repetition of that one phrase. And many contemporary Christian songs echo the same call. It’s our heart cry.

And in Mahler’s eighth symphony, after one brief organ chord, the cry ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ breaks upon us in full throated chorus – in fact this symphony, often nicknamed with slight hyperbole ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ boasts three choirs (two mixed choirs and a boys choir) as well as eight (count ‘em, eight!) soloists. It packs quite a punch, and the phrase is repeated, broken up and overlapping for the next couple of minutes, before the soloists come in separately and the rest of the Latin text is taken up and developed. Let me be honest and say that in the whole 25 minutes of this section of the symphony ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ are more or less the only words that I can clearly distinguish; for most of the time I am just carried along by the twists and turns, the changes in key and tempo, the shifts from one choir to another, sensing the more reflective passages, till we surge back towards the end of that time to the words of that initial invocation. I find it utterly exhilarating. I’ve read enough to know that Mahler himself felt that it was one of the most special and most optimistic pieces that he had ever created. I believe he felt it to be ‘an expression of confidence in the eternal human spirit’. I can see that – but isn’t it kind of ironic too that it’s in crying out to be touched and invigorated by the Original-Creative Divine spirit, that the unique wonder and creativity of the human spirit also comes into focus?

I have yet to, but would love to, see this symphony being performed live. Up until now I have made do with youtube clips. I recently watched one with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Such is the intensity of the piece that within minutes, Bernstein’s hair takes off and acquires a life of its own as he stabs the air with his baton in a seeming frenzy of ecstasy. I know I don’t need it exactly, but I’m searching for clips that have simultaneous Latin and English translation subtitles ( as yet no luck) wondering if understanding the lyric will give an even further dimension of joy and enlightenment to my appreciation of this ‘song’. You never know.

78. TRANSCENDENTAL REUNION – Mary Chapin Carpenter

 

‘What is it with you and girls-with-guitars?’ a room mate asked me when I was in college.  Well, whatever it was, it doesn’t seem to have gone away.

We were talking, weren’t we, in number 77, about ‘Country girls’, and how Emmylou and her contemporaries helped to change something of the public perception of what formerly we might have been quite dismissive of, ol’ Country and Western.  Perhaps I’ve still got a slight aversion to the unremitting twanginess of the genre, and , forgive me, without really knowing much about her, I probably slotted Mary Chapin Carpenter into that category, even though I was also kind of aware that she had a bit about her – things like ‘He thinks he’ll keep her’ suggested a feisty feminist challenge to the genre’s stereotypes; and I had even heard some great collaborative work that she had done with Shawn Colvin.

So I don’t know why I should have been taken by surprise by her appearance on one of the series of the ‘Transatlantic Sessions’, and perhaps wondered how well she’d fit in to the earnest folkiness and the decidedly august musicianship characteristic of the series.  I watched her perform this song accompanied by Aoife O’ Donovan.  At first its simplicity seemed a bit embarrassing – I waited for the melody and the guitar accompaniment to develop with some subtleties and complexities into a song with more substantial architectural construction.  But it didn’t: the simple melody was, instead, consistent and determined, the guitar chords likewise, in a way that I began to find oddly hypnotic and stylishly, bravely appropriate to the piece of work that she had created.

If I’m honest, and if it had only been that one occasion when I had seen and heard that song, I might still have had a few niggling reservations  about its potential for monotony, but let’s give thanks to youtube, that has allowed me to watch that clip again and again (and yes of course, I listen to it too on my ipod etc) because the more that I listen to it the more I am impressed by the courageousness of its composition.  That mesmerising dreaminess of its style seems more than ever entirely apposite to the ideas it explores and the perceptions it conveys.

Carpenter is not of course the first girl-with-a-guitar to think about the way that air travel can convey interesting fresh outlooks  on life.  I remember us flying over the Pyrenees with Nicola our friend, on the way to Seville.  She told me about the song ‘From A Distance’ (popularised then, but not written by, Nancy Griffith ) and something of the lyric – looking down on the world’s beauty and somehow (OK, rather facilely, I know, because it’s that kind of song) seeing the world’s problems in perspective. (I heard this song later, and despite it all, have come to rather like it).  Then I can think of Joni Mitchell’s great song ‘Amelia’ filled with aviatory images ending in the last verse with ‘747s over geometric farms..’ Oh, and here’s a boy-with-a-guitar – think of the last verse of Jackson Browne’s great song ‘How Long?’ -‘If you saw it from a satellite/ With its green and its blue and white..’ Also,  Dar Williams has a great song called ‘Empty Plane’ which has a surreal dreaminess in its depiction of the airport experience, not a million miles away from the kind of feelings MCC has evoked in her song.

Lyrically, although she starts with an observation about ‘the lights below me..’,  it’s less about the flight (‘and the curve of the world passed..’) than about the arrival, the slightly unreal experience of the Airport itself.  At first despite the song’s leisurely , floaty kind of pace, the airport images are concrete and organisational and decidedly  untranscendental – ‘stamped ..waved through..mouth of the cannon(!) …  Then the baggage carousel , and her prayers that everything’s OK, and her initial ‘envy’ at some of the emotional displays at the reunions of loved ones.  But then MCC begins to make the ‘Hall of Arrivals..where the great river empties’ seem more otherworldly, a transitional  space between actual places; and it’s within this slightly spiritualised zone that she encounters illuminating perceptions.   Ironically this new sense of detachment perhaps also allows her to feel an empathetic sense of unity with the others around her – ‘all borders vanish here’ seems something of a key line. And despite the fact that there is ‘no one to meet me’ her heightened distance-enhanced awareness allows her to appreciate the richness of humanity and its interactions all around her.  She feels ‘all but surrounded/by the tears and embracing/by the joy unbounded..’  And where this line of visionary perspective takes her is to a perception of ourselves as transient, not fixed but always moving…  but not aimlesslessly or in some nihilistic vacuum –  moving on in positive, hopeful directions.  This is a song infused with a sense of hope about the human journey. ‘we are…. travellers… gypsies’ but in MCC’s eyes not without wisdom of some kind.  ‘We are… philosophers gathering…finding our way…to the next destination…from night into day..’

I go back occasionally to that youtube clip from the ‘Transatlantic Sessions’.  I love the way that Aoife O’Donovan is clearly enjoying her opportunity for gentle harmonies and particularly joining in on the ‘Hey hey  hey’s and  ‘Ah ha ha’s.  And I join in too, rather pleased to share a little in those few minutes of dreamlike ‘transcendental’ perspective, as a fellow traveller, gypsy, philosopher (hmm)……and in imaginative sympathy with the song, looking down on the world and seeing (oh, despite it all, Syria, Trump, ISIS, famine and corruption, sex slaves, North Korea, capitalism, consumerism), by the grace of the Great Spirit I believe to be both Love and Creator, ‘lights twinkling below me..’ or ‘glowing’ as they become in the song’s final lines…

77. BOULDER TO BIRMINGHAM – Emmylou Harris

 

A lot of autobiographical stuff here, I’m afraid.  Feel free to skip (quite) a few paragraphs, to get to the song!…

I can carbon date my love for this song to that time, mid seventies, after graduation; I still lived with my parents; I worked for the DHSS in a big office on Newport Road in Cardiff.  It was a funny old time.  I often stayed in the city after work and caught the train home late.  There were things to see –I mentioned in an earlier essay about discovering opera (see no 13 ‘Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades’) But there were concerts, too, in Cardiff’s Capitol theatre – saw the Beach Boys there one night, and Donovan in his ‘intergalactic laxative’ phase.  Enough said.  And there was a funny couple of months when I hung around town because I was visiting a Trichologist. Yes.  Blame my mother for this one: my premature hair loss was of great concern to her, and when I declined her suggestion to ‘rub half an onion over my scalp and bury the other half’ (??), she then cut out for me an advert from the South Wales Echo for a clinic on Cardiff’s Queen Street, which for a modest fee would cure the problem of premature baldness. On her encouragement, I went along (and hey, it worked a treat, clearly!) I won’t go into the detail of treatments here but part of it involved a fairly noxious-smelling potion.  For everyone’s sake, I felt that wandering around town for a few hours would give my head’s smell a chance to wear off.

The relevance of all the self indulgent reminiscing, you may ask?  OK, I’m getting there.  One of the places I ended up ‘hanging around’ was a newly opened fairly trendy hamburger restaurant –can’t remember its name now –which played some really interesting music, which I suppose now that we might identify as ‘Americana’.  There was stuff like the Eagles, I think, country-tinged stuff I might not have paid attention to much up until then.  But I think this is where I first heard Emmylou Harris’s voice.  The Beatles’s covers blew me away – ‘For No One’, ‘Here, there and everywhere’…  But wow, that voice.

Then suddenly, of course,  she was everywhere.  The music mags – NME, Melody Maker  -showed pics of this cowboy-boot woman and raved about her music. Did I perhaps hear her as a fabulous backing voice on Dylan’s ‘Desire’ before I heard her solo performances?  I can’t remember.  But I remember an appearance on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ and suddenly too,  Country seemed to have shed something of its redneck right wing conservative image and become sort of cool.

No doubt it  helped too that the lady was pleasing to the eye, in a simpler and more fashionable way than most ‘country gals’: she in no way presented herself as a Tammy or a Lorretta (etc) – there was no primped-up hairdo, no mawkish sentimentality or TV show-smiles either in her introductions or in her performances.  And ah, that voice, that voice…  which of course has been much commented upon since those days.  While, yes,  it has a distinctive listenability, its uniqueness also relies undoubtedly upon a peculiar ‘catch’ in her register which adds, as some have said, a note of ‘ache’ or ‘heartbreak’, and therefore is ideally suited to tender songs of love, longing, and loss. Which brings us almost to the song!

But before then, back to memoirs.  Towards the end of my two year stretch in the civil service I was encouraged to seek promotion.  I went along to an interview in Bristol (a bit of a waste of time, since I had already planned to leave the job in a couple of months’ time).  My memory of the interview is that, having just read a book about the beginnings of the charity ‘Shelter’, I talked at length about the problem of homelessness in the UK.  Probably nothing to do with the question they asked me.

I came out of the interview and wandered around Bristol in an oddly euphoric mood.  In a record shop, I purchased Emmylou Harris’s ‘Pieces of the Sky’ album, because it seemed the right thing to do.  Back home that evening, I played it and played it.  There’s not a bad track on the album; even Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat of many colours’ seemed to be redeemed from something twee into something noble…  But THIS song, ‘ Boulder to Birmingham’,this self penned songs of hers (OK, alongside some other bloke) brought prickles down the spine, tears to the eyes.

I had no idea about the inspiration for the song.  I didn’t know then that it was about the grief of losing Gram Parsons; but you get it from the weariness of the opening declaration  ‘ ‘I don’t want to hear a love song..’; you get it almost impressionistically, even through those images ‘this airplane…  the wilderness…  the canyon…  on fire’ you get a sense of someone struggling to give expression to a fierce kind of sadness (‘The last time I felt like this…’).  It’s there in the repetitions at the end of the two verses – ‘watched it burn…  watched it burn’ then ‘coming down to wash me clean…wash me clean’ – somehow a kind of need for catharsis.  It’s there most poignantly in that enigmatic chorus with its oddly ‘spiritual’ allusions – ‘my soul…bosom of Abraham…. saving grace’ and the longing in the conditional ‘if I thought I could see..  your face’.

Well I’ve said that was the most poignant, but perhaps that’s not true – on a conscious level I feel I hardly listened to the lyrics, certainly not initially in the analytical way that previous paragraph suggests! Because, really,  most telling of all was the voice that handles the lyric and that pretty exquisitely sympathetic melody.  It still feels like a classic, doesn’t it?

Emmylou has aged gracefully, opted for silver locks instead of dark dye; and kept on singing.  With a kind of modest sensitivity she seems to have become a ‘duetter’ for many other performers, and when she does, always enhances the sound.  You might remember her, for instance, in the first of the wonderful   ‘Transatlantic Sessions’ duetting with Mary Black on Sandy Denny’s ‘By the Time it gets Dark’. OK, just joining in on the refrains, but there’s that kind of understated shiver of silver which her accompaniment adds to others’ performances.  I’ve never seen her live, and I don’t know if she still performs ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ but it’s enough that we have that enduring recording on her first solo album.  Amen.

76. HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING? – Quaker hymn

Or only possibly a Quaker hymn –some unsure provenance here, but I like that idea.  And let me say too that any song which Pete Seeger chose to weave into his repertoire is fine by me.

Graham and I were ‘jamming’ around the piano the other night, as we sometimes do, flicking through the pages of some hymn book or another, and came across this which I think was sort of familiar to us both somewhere in the background of our brains, but we’d not noticed it in a book before.  Yes, definitely the background, because even though I knew I had heard this song in different versions through different singers, and could generally sing along to it, it hadn’t really featured as something I should use regularly or commit to memory.  Rather late in the day, I want to redress this and drag it right into the light!  It’s a great song!

The particular flavour of this song is an irrepressible note of celebration transcending the sorrows and difficulties of the world.  It’s there, like a bold affirmation of unquenchable joy, right in the first couple of lines – ‘My life flows on in endless song/ Above earth’s lamentations’.. In its earliest versions, appearing in 19th century American hymn books, the motivation and underlying strength for this strain of joy is unequivocally Christian – ‘What though my joys and comfort die?/ The Lord my Saviour liveth’ and ‘since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth…’ and ‘the peace of Christ makes fresh my heart..’.  But here’s the thing: something of the driving impetus of this song –a victory of light over dark, the discerned strand of hope and newness at the very heart of creation’s rhythms –perhaps has a universal resonance.  And I have a feeling that this is a song which my humanist friends can also join in with, and will want to, if tweaked a little to remove overt theistic references.  Well, this brings us to Pete Seeger’s version.

Interestingly, what he has done I think is to add a whole new tone or a different dimension to the very question ‘How can I keep from singing?’ In his version the question is not the celebratory proclamation of Christ’s ultimate victory over sin, sorrow and death; it is not even just that expression of an unstoppable joie de vivre which even ‘tumult and strife’ and ‘gathering darkness’ can’t overcome.  He seems to have added another verse to the song, or at least he has found and incorporated a verse written by someone with the same sense of political conscience and activism as himself. ‘When tyrants tremble, sick with fear/ And hear their death-knell ringing..’ In the context of most of Seeger’s active musical career, this time the question is a shout of victory over oppressive regimes which must meet with inevitable overthrow.  There’s more: ‘When friends rejoice both far and near…/ In prison cell and dungeon vile, / Our thoughts to them go winging/ When friends by shame are undefiled,/ How can I keep from singing?’ Now the song’s focal question sounds like a compulsion, fulfilling a responsibility of solidarity with those suffering the injustices of persecution and imprisonment –prisoners of conscience, protesters (‘undefiled’ because they have nothing to feel ashamed of) making a stand for compassion and human rights.  It’s a song he might well have used as a fearless victory-proclamation during the civil rights protests, for instance.

If indeed the song did start life as an early Quaker hymn, its more modern incarnations will also strike a chord with today’s Quakers.  Not that I know many, but I got talking to one at (strangely enough) a Peggy Seeger concert a couple of years back.  We shared good solid common ground on the music, on the joy of life, on a sense of social justice, and on (much) talk of peace – but he was less comfortable with Jesus-references, or with God-talk generally, and gave me to understand that most Quakers he knew would probably be of a similar persuasion.  I couldn’t help feeling that it was a long way from George Fox.  Not judging, just saying.

So anyway, we can all join in this fabulous song in one form or another, if we want to.  I am rather taken by this clip on youTube of the folk group from the Notre Dame Catholic University somewhere in Australia.  Friends even more cynical than me might say they all look a bit too fresh faced and young to be taken seriously, but I love what they do with this song – and I note that they too have chosen the more ‘inclusive’ ‘Since Love is lord of heaven and earth’ , and they have made the four lines in which that appears into the song’s repeated ‘chorus’ –which works really well.  So ‘more inclusive’ it might be, but the tone of their performance can’t help but give the song the sense of a clear and vigorous Christian affirmation!

If I hadn’t had already filled the bill with previously chosen ‘requests’ this would be a humdinger of a song to add to the funeral anthems, wouldn’t it?  Meanwhile, let’s give it a good run for its money, while we’re still around.

75. MY FATHER – Judy Collins

 

Some while ago now, my sister Judy asked me if I had come across this song.  Her own kids, in their twenties at that time I think, were in the habit of giving her ‘mix tapes’ or the equivalent, to keep her informed of what they were listening to, or because they had stumbled across pieces of music they thought she might like, or maybe even to expand her range of listening, by exposing her to new (or often, strangely enough) rediscovered treasures.  One of those compilations obviously included this little jewel from Judy Collins’s ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ album.

Yes, I knew the song, had known it for quite some time.  Oddly enough, I first became acquainted with it as a warbly cover version from Melanie Safka on her album ‘The Good Book’ which someone gave me for Christmas back in the seventies.  Even channelled through Ms Safka’s rather mannered vocals, the song struck me as quite exquisite in its economical construction, its simple power to move.  I heard the composer’s own version, for the first time, sometime later –the simplicity of the delivery, devoid as ever of any affectations, gave the song a classic feel.

It did not surprise me in the least that the song had struck such a chord with my sister.  Over time it seems to be the case with my siblings and I, not that we have exactly begun to romanticise our past, our ‘mining family’ past, but rather perhaps that we have become almost proud of it, recognizing our father’s sacrifices and achievements and considering with a sense of wonderment the complex relationship between the ways our parents nurtured us within that context, and the people that we are now.  I think the song touches upon these ideas.

The song is not an autobiographical one for Judy Collins.  She had sisters, yes, but her father was not a miner (a blind pianist with a radio programme, did I read?), nor did she go and live in Paris as far as I know.  And yet –and I’m sure I’ve also read this somewhere –she acknowledges that there is something autobiographical about the feel and spirit of the song.  The sense that parental nurture can engender hope, aspiration, promise…  can imply futures that are different, opened up to newer possibilities… Where do we Hankinses come into that? Well, only that ‘he worked in the mines’ – in the Rhymney Valley, rather than Ohio. Well that’s the starting point, anyway.

Because the song – a neat, tight construction in three verses – goes beyond this ‘hopeful promise’ of the first verse (‘We’d go boating on the Seine/and I would learn to dance’). What happens in verse two is the realities of life overtaking the dreams – ‘All my sisters soon were gone…Marrying their grown up dreams’ and the disappointing sense that those kind of magical hopes were linked only to childhood and doomed to dwindle – ‘I stayed behind the youngest still/and only danced alone/The colours of my father’s dreams/Faded without a sound..’ But it doesn’t stop there – in the third verse there is a beautiful bittersweet blending of surprising fulfilment (‘And I live in Paris now/ My children dance and dream..’) with the wistfulness of loss, time’s inevitable generational movement (‘Hearing the ways of a miner’s life/In words they’ve never seen’) linked with nostalgia (‘I sail my memories of home..’) and perhaps too the sadness of loss and unfulfilment (‘And watch the Paris sun/set in my father’s eyes again..’).

I said three verses but actually – with a lovely sense of cohesion – after an instrumental break (at least on the original album cut) the song then combines the first half of the first verse with the second half of the last. It underlines too, by bringing the two references together, the ‘boating/ sailing’ metaphor – and… I think this defies neat analysis – I think it’s something about the inevitability of time’s passing, and loss, has its own sense of watery dreaminess – just as the father’s hopes could never quite ‘sail’ to the Paris of his dreams, his daughter’s thoughts of home ‘sailing back’ through memories, can never recapture that past either.

None of my ‘reading’ here does the song justice! It’s bigger than the sum of these parts, certainly, and in its spare images links subtle feelings about dreams, hopes, time, memory, family, that I haven’t quite been able to articulate.

Judy Collins is best known as an interpreter of other people’s songs – and in the sixties, particularly, a ‘discoverer’ of artists, significantly instrumental in helping to bring to public attention Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell – she even covered Sandy Denny and Robin Williamson, Brel, Brecht/Weill… and the trademark purity of her voice treated their compositions with  a respect which helped redisccover their melodic and lyrical content. But maybe because of this, her own compositions have often been overlooked, but they shouldn’t. Especially this one.

And, yes, Judy (my big sister) the song continues to strike a chord with me too – as we think of our now long gone Dad, and Mam too, we ‘sail our memories of home’ backwards against the tide, remembering fondly and a bit wistfully of the way they often survived sacrificially on their forward-looking hopes for us and what we might be able to have and do that they never would.

74. SPEEDY GONZALES – Pat Boone

OK, what you have to remember is that this blog was never intended as a chart of ‘my favourite songs’ –although it might act like that at times- but rather as a kind of guilty inventory of ditties that have featured in the autobiographical snapshots that make up the fairly messy songline of my life.  And they don’t come much guiltier than this one.

I think I have mentioned already that as a postwar ‘you’ve never had it so good’ working class kid I was surprisingly spoiled with regular gifts of singles to play on the new record player (in my memory very few Saturdays seemed to pass when my indulgent parents would not buy me a ‘45’ of my choice from their shopping trip –on the bus of course –to Bargoed or Blackwood).  Still, there were some records that were more special than others: I believe that for my ninth birthday I received as my main present this disc – ‘Speedy Gonzalez’ By Pat Boone.  While we’re at it, to add to the shame, let’s also remember and confess that for my previous birthday (8th) my main gift had been ‘Transistor Radio’ by Benny Hill.

Oh, discerning reader, you might already have made the connection: both of these were ‘novelty singles’ as I think we might now term them.  What tickled and entertained the nine year old me about ‘Speedy Gonzales’ I can only now guess at.  Certainly I had no notion of the cartoon character on which it is based (I am presuming that now –am I right?); and the whole mild racism of the Mexican stereotype meant nothing to me then of course..  So maybe I was amused by the funny squeaky voices in the same way as I might have been amused by Pinky and Perky and Twizzle on early 60s TV?  Did the very unintelligibility of the foreignness seem a bit of tickly fun? ‘Hey Roseeta, come queek –down at the canteeena, they giving green stamps with tequeeela!’ And I presumably chuckled at all this with absolutely no knowledge of what it meant – Green (shield) stamps I knew about, yes, but ‘ tek-eela’ (fly-killer?), no idea –and probably ‘canteena’ likewise.

I could go easy on myself and say, well, I was very young after all…  But still my susceptibility to this sort of thing seems mildly depressing to me now.  In fact I can picture a whole stream of novelty singles stretching from Tommy Steele’s ‘Little White Bull’ (I even wrote to Children’s Favourites to get this played on the radio…) through ‘Ello my Darlings’ (Charlie Drake) and Bernard Cribbins’ songs ‘Right Said Fred’ etc.  Even something like James Darren’s ‘Conscience’ (‘Ah-ah-ah this is your conscience speaking..’) another 45 which was one of the proudest in my collection….through to the Barron Knights and their parodies of pop bands in the mid sixties.  And if all of that is depressing, this next thought is even more so: that all pop music is a kind of novelty single –a kind of lowest common denominator fun, cynically mass produced from a commercially driven industry eager to exploit the short attention spans, the need for quick titillation, for undemanding hooks, refrains and gimmicks for the new disposable-income generation in the postwar decades.  All of it –the parade (the literal parade – the ‘hit’ parade) of three-minute singles, churned out by (at the classier end of things!) the Brill Building –Klein and Goffin, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weill et al; at the cruddier end, some cynical entrepreneur with capital to hire a studio, some backing singers, cliché-stringing pen, and the means of production. Pete Waterman and the ilk that preceded, and follow in that wake.

Speaking of which, let me take a minor detour for a moment to talk about another Pat Boone record we had bought –the very first in fact – ‘Sugar Moon’, and bought as a larger 78-rpm single in that thicker, harder, more brittle plastic that was used then.  I think I had pointed out to my parents for purchase (‘I’ll have that one’) almost randomly –maybe I liked the sound of the title, who knows, maybe even the assonantal rhyme of ‘Moon’ and ‘Boone’?  I found it on youtube the other day and listened.  The song could have been constructed by Tin Pan Alley computers (had such things existed then) with its predictable, bland, melodic construction, its ragbag of romantic clichés, its verse-bridge-verse format, its syrupy ooh-ing sessions singers behind Mr. Boone, its plinky hammered piano chords in 6/8 (?) dullness, and ubiquitous sixties bits of sax attempting to flesh it out to a fatter sound.  Selling it well, aren’t I?  Its saving grace is its modest brevity –today equally inane pieces of muzak are dragged out to twice the length.  But I played it; and must have liked it? …

Woe is me.  If you want to pile on the agony, you could even say that a distinctly ‘novelty’ single – ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ was even my way in to appreciating Joni Mitchell.  Yikes.

Where does this leave us once the gloom of this realization has settled?  Always good to face up to reality.  The wonder of it is that despite it all –the crassness, the formulaic commercialism, the cynical exploitation of low appetites and lazy listening, somehow, somehow and sometimes, something of value squeaks through.  Sometimes the form can transcend the silliness of novelty and touch the spirit like art can do; or can harness some kind of common humanity in a narrative or a symbol, as the best of folk tale and folk song can do.

Or, presumably, I wouldn’t be bothering to write these things… would I?

73. SEASONS OF LOVE – from the musical ‘Rent’ (Jonathan Larson)

In more recent years of secondary school classroom teaching, much more thought has been given to the structuring of lessons, the way they begin and end, for instance –and when we think about the beginning, not just a ‘starter’ activity, but the actual process of what students (oops, sorry, ‘learners’) encounter as they enter a classroom.  I suspect generally this was meant to mean some little challenging conundrum, or some curriculum based image displayed to get their studenty minds appropriately ticking over.  All good, by the way.  Me, what I liked (in those final years of my class-teaching when we all had PCs, interactive screens and access to youtube) was to put on some feelgood music as they filed in and shuffled to their seats.  Particular coming-into-class favourites for me included Michael Buble’s ‘Just Haven’t Met You Yet’, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On’, and this one here – the opening over-the-credits song from the film musical ‘Rent’: ‘Seasons of Love’.

And I suppose I ought to confess at this point that I’ve never seen the whole musical ‘Rent’, and I half suspect that I actually never will.  I have the DVD, but no reports from friends who’ve seen it have ever quite been sufficiently enthusiastic to make me want to remove it from the box.  Oh I might, who knows – then I may have to add to this posting. Never mind, it’s this song that I love, and that I have found –as I have explained –most serviceable!  The song’s ‘message’ if you’ve never heard it (but surely you have!) is pretty simple – How should we ‘measure’ and presumably validate, all of the things that take place in the course of one year?  In the minutiae of daily trivia? (‘cups of coffee..’) in beautiful scenes experienced, in the maelstrom of emotions (‘in laughter and strife’), in movement, travel?  No, proposes the song, let’s ‘measure’ it by the many ways that love has been demonstrated (in comradely companionship? fraternal empathy?  Kinship and sharing?  Passion and compassion?).  Can’t argue with that.

While the song undoubtedly stands on its own, it’s hard to divorce it now from that brilliant piece of film that introduces the lineup of characters comprising the group of friends around which ‘Rent’ the musical is constructed.  It’s starkly orchestrated – darkness to light via 8 spotlights on the line of characters, becoming visible as the piano strikes the key sequence of chords, gradually added to by other instruments. Then they launch, in unison ,  into the neat bit of maths for which the song is probably most famous – telling us the number of minutes in a year – 525,600, of course. The camera pans along the line (oh look there’s Idina Menzel, probably now the famousest thanks to Wicked & Frozen), and when we hit the chorus bit – ‘How about love?..’ the line breaks into harmonies and parts- and gets very exciting. In the second verse, we get terrific solos – Tracie Thomas the first half, Jesse Martin the second  – and here the lyric, soulfully delivered, gets a bit heavier, maybe – ‘In truths that she learned/ Or in times that he cried/ In bridges he burned/ Or the way that she died..’ On the repeated chorus the vocal focus goes back to Tracie who in apparently semi-improvisational soul-singing ‘choose love – give love’ etc hits an incredible piercing (in a good way!) high note to bring the lyric, the performance, and the song’s injunction (Measure your life in love! )to its dramatic conclusion. Whew.

 ‘Sir can we watch it again!?’ Hmmm – but this apparent keenness may well have been just a wile to delay the onset of more demanding classroom activities. Or ‘work’, as we sometimes called it. Still, I like to think we launched into our academic endeavours all a little bit lifted, energized, stimulated or something like.

72. NEVER IN MY LIFE – Mikel Kennedy/ The Fisherfolk

This morning, while breakfasting on my porridge and blueberries, I listened to this wonderful CD by Mikel Kennedy, entitled ‘Isn’t It Good’, and it wasn’t difficult to concur! The title track, the first track of the CD, is in some ways another wonderful morning song  – ‘a song for celebrating every day new..!'( I love ‘love-life’ morning songs!), and so very suitable for breakfast listening.  When or in what circumstances he wrote it I don’t know, but the song was used in the musical presentation ‘Ah there’s the celebration’ which the Fisherfolk showcased at the Edinburgh fringe in 1976  (see essay number 37  ‘I’d like to sit you down’) and in that context represented the Son’s confident delight in his Father’s love.

But I must have first heard Mikel’s very distinctive voice  on the album ‘Celebrate The Feast’ with a beautiful song about the eucharist ‘When You do This‘; there’s also a track where his acoustic style deftly interprets the old testament lesson, singing and playing the bulk of the Isaiah lyric in ‘Who Has Measured The Waters’ (Maggie Durren’s voice reciting the middle section against his acoustic guitar).  There is something quite captivating about Mikel’s voice and ‘performance’ on both those tracks; as a wannabe folksinger myself I may even have been a little envious of his ease of delivery.

The Fisherfolk’s album ‘On Tiptoe’ brought us quite a few ‘solo’ performances.  I suppose I was becoming aware that even though this ‘worship band’ came out of community lifestyle, it was inevitably made up of individuals, with individualistic musical styles and concerns.  So, in ‘On Tiptoe’ (and probably on most of the other albums, if I stop to think about it) we become aware of particular composers -Jonathan Asprey, Jodi Page, for instance -not that this distracts from the community focus.  It is a reminder that even where intentional community occurs, and people work to live harmoniously, that harmony is always made up of a variety of human beings, all with different wills, backgrounds, personalities, creative leanings – amazingly ‘submitting’ these, with a sense of calling, common purpose, and love.  Mikel Kennedy’s contributions to this particular album are lovely, and I was reminded this morning of my particular fondness for ‘Never In My Life’ which is a kind of unadorned ‘testimony’, an expression of sheer gratitude for the affirmation, the sense of worth we rediscover in acknowledging the unconditional love of God. The delivery is simple, understated: there’s a key change before the last verse and there’s a lovely string-section homage to ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus’ most appropriately woven in to the presentation.

One strange thing was that as I listened again to this much beloved song, I realized that one of my own songs ‘Reconciled’ very much echoed the sentiments of this song. ‘Never thought I’d make friends with myself again…’ etc – all the same sort of wonderment at the grace of the Almighty, the sense of discovery and surprise…  There’s so much that I love about this song, but I think what touches me is that there feels like a sensibility quite complex here (‘my hands were always quick to shed innocent blood/for things like independence, freedom, pride..’) who has been humbled and awed by something divinely simple – the song ends ‘Now that you’ve come in/never go away again/for never in my life/did I know someone could take away my sin’.  That kind of gratitude-song, for our redemption and forgiveness, seems almost too simple, too intimate; but I know its validity.

I know little about Mike Kennedy the person: I have a feeling I’ve read his conversion story somewhere  – remembering that he’d been drawn to the Church of the Redeemer as quite a troubled young man, and had found God, and healing, there ;his friendship seems to have touched many; reading between the lines, I’ve worked out too that he didn’t stop being a ‘real person’ even when Jesus took hold of him: i.e.he encountered some struggles, I believe, especially in the community’s life as lived out in their Scotland base.  There are inevitably struggles in any community, between the call to share together and the pull of our own individuality; still, for Mikel, the excitement and the commitment of the call to share is evident in his beautiful setting of Psalm 133 – ‘Oh how good and how delightful it is/for us to live together like this..’ But we would be naive to think that this was always easy, especially for the creative person he was perhaps?  The only time that I saw Mikel Kennedy perform as part of the Fisherfolk was in that Edinburgh festival – first of all as ‘Jesus on a step ladder’ (see again essay no. 37), but also in that same week – we’re talking August 1976, I think – a late night concert venue – amongst all of the worship songs drawn from the Fisherfolk’s own heritage, Mikel also sang Guy Clark’s haunting song ‘Desperadoes Waiting For A Train’.  At that time I was  surprised by the ‘secular’ song choice!  Which strikes me now as a bit silly and hypocritical!  Like me, Mikel appreciated a good song – but maybe it was indicative of the growing difficulties of remaining within the strictures of that particular covenant community ? I don’t know.

Mikel died in 1998,  and The Community Of Celebration was sensible enough to honour his legacy, by putting together and releasing a compilation of some of his great songs, from Fisherfolk albums and from his own private tapes; the wonderful Fisherfolk cellist Max Dyer did much of the spadework that made this possible.  This is the CD I listened to over breakfast this morning – warmed by the opening song, as I said, I was made oddly tearful by a couple of the others!  Betty Pulkingham’s ‘ sleeve notes’ are wonderfully moving: ‘Mike will for ever be a part of us.  His warmth, his uncanny ability to come alongside another person…’ And it may seem a bit daft, I know, for someone who has never really known him in this life, but in so many ways I can only agree with Betty, finding no better words : ‘over the years, Mike has been turning up regularly in my life through the beauty of his songs…..  I expect him to be turning up again and again for each one of us, until that day when we join him in that ‘larger place’ Jesus has prepared for us all….’