86. SO WILL I (A HUNDRED BILLION X) _ Hillsong United (Hastings/Houston/Fatkin)

 

 

We had a beautiful time in  Mary and Dan’s church, couple of months back, where prayers of thanksgiving and dedication for our lovely granddaughter were being incorporated into the service! In the middle of this service, I was introduced to this particular song, and it had quite an effect on me.

In fact, the ‘worship’ generally, drew me in to an authentic experience of the same.  Despite my ruminations in an earlier essay (no.63 ‘When the Music Fades’), I confess I can still be quite dismissive about much modern Christian worship music – and I can sniffily and patronisingly point out limited-range, repetitive melodies, unimaginative language choices, too performance-orientated a stance etc etc.  And I can also keep forgetting that to some extent Christian worship music is meant to be utilitarian, in the sense that if we are distracted by a particular intricate melody, by imaginative imagery, by clever construction, then in some ways a song runs the risk of failing to do its job, to be a vehicle in which we can, with freedom and focus, express praise, adoration or even supplication.

As someone pointed out to me recently, for the above reason, it’s OK for hymns/songs to be ephemeral in this respect – eg.  probably the bulk of the Wesleys’ prodigious output  had its season and served its purpose for its generation.  But then I think I’m also right in saying (I kind of hope I am) that a song can manage both to be a praise-vehicle for its time, and yet because of the care and beauty of its composition has perhaps more lasting quality and can –on a more objective level maybe –be admired for its artistry.  And perhaps in the very best songs we can hold these two things together, and the intrinsic beauty, the compositional and lyrical movement within the song can even elevate our worship-expression as we sing..?

(Musing aloud, folks.  You’d think, after half a century of ‘involvement’ with Christian worship music, that I would have it all sussed out by now. Clearly not.)

I suppose what I’m saying is that for me, this is one of those special songs which manages to do that.  There is a definite millennium generation vibe to the melody, I think, keeping the range narrowish and building in plenty of repetitive pattern (useful for learning, obviously). But the construction is anything but bland! Just on an organisation level, the 3 verse & chorus patterns are broken up by a powerful ‘bridge’ and there is a repeated verse three, and a final power-punch of a three-line coda or ‘tag’. And none of that seems ‘forced’ or contrived.  Plus, none of the choruses  are the same, but instead, while retaining a similar structure, reflect the thematic scope of the preceding verse.

Here’s something of how the song develops .The opening section – well, the whole thing, really – is very much a paean to God the Creator. It’s hard to remember any hymns that have done this with such a sense of sweeping expansiveness – there’s ‘All Creatures of Our God and King’, a fabulous example, and based on something St Francis wrote, but even he was less space-aware, of course. So here we have ‘You spoke to the dark/And fleshed out the wonder of Light’. We have ‘And as you speak a hundred billion galaxies are formed/In the vapour of your breath the planets form’. ..  Of course there’s plenty of precedent for this kind of talk in the psalms (see Ps 89, 139..) – what’s startlingly fresh is the modern succinct colloquial response to follow the perceived example of Creation’s testimony to the Creator’s glory – ‘If creation sings your praises So will I’

In the second section the composers  shift us on to considering God’s communicated purposes, His ‘word’, his promises – but even this is of course inextricably linked with his creations. It acknowledges that since God is a God of meaningful communication (‘You don’t speak in vain/No syllable empty or void’), then the universe too is consequently of ultimate meaning and value. This is a vision of Nature that somehow reveals God’s ‘heart’ as well as his power, and we are led to a new response , this time to emulate creation in ‘obedience’ not just in praise.

Though the two are linked.. and the wonderful ‘Bridge’ to the song highlights this with a pulsing cumulative force as each condition builds on the last ‘If the stars… so will I’; ‘If the mountains..If the oceans..’ blending these ideas of praise and obedience here – ‘If the wind goes where you send it, so will I’ and culminating in an acknowledgment that no amount of praise can adequately match God’s praiseworthiness – the expression is oddly literary – ‘If the sum of all our praises still falls shy’ – then hyperbolic ..’Then we’ll sing again a hundred billion times’ – but hyperbolic only in the sense that the Book of Revelation is hyperbolic in its descriptions of worship in Heaven.

The final section hones the focus onto God as ‘God of Salvation’, his redemption of fallen mankind in the person of himself as Son, as God-made-man Jesus. The brief verse does two things – it highlights God as initiator – You chased down my heart/Through all of my failure and pride’ and it highlights the supreme heavenly irony (in a similar way to Graham Kendrick’s ‘Hands that flung starts into space/ To cruel nails surrendered’) – ‘On a hill you created, the light of the world/ Abandoned in darkness to die..’

We’re on holy ground here, and I can imagine the composers needing to take specially prayerful steps putting these lines together. For in the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice we cannot blithely offer up an intent to follow suit, yet the images are carefully chosen –firstly a great note of victory – ‘If you left the grave behind you so will I’! – but also of the necessity of following Jesus, as he bids, in ‘surrender’, and compassionate sacrificial-living ‘Every precious one a child you died to save/If you gave your life to love them so will I’. Wow – the song has led us, through natural steps, from awed praise to a remembrance of God’s word, his saving grace, the cross, and our own discipleship steps following his lead. And in case we’ve missed the point, the little ‘tag’ reminds us that God – and our calling in him – is all about love for people – ‘What measure could amount to your desire/ You’re the One who never leaves the one behind..’

This is a powerful conclusion  – the repeated  mega-number the ‘hundred billion’ have helped to create an expansive sense of the unlimited variety of God’s creative energies, and of the need for worship to echo that limitlessness and variety – but then with seemingly improbable miraculousness, the apparent converse is also true – the individual counts, with a value as great as the huge number. As God sees that, so must we.

I was wondering if  ‘Hillsong United’ were not keen on acknowledging individual composers, but I think I’ve got them now: Benjamin Hastings, Joel Houston and Michael Fatkin. Thanks guys, for listening hearts, and poets’ tongues to give us a great song to sing. Thanks Freedom Church for introducing me to this (and for Dotty’s dedication) x

 

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85. FAMOUS BLUE RAINCOAT – Leonard Cohen

Now, here’s a lovely jolly sing-a-long for all the family, for campfires and suchlike. Just joking, although it was a similarly incongruous setting which made me ‘hear’ the song for the first time, freshly, you know, despite having been acquainted with it for a few years by then. Details in a mo.

I have mentioned in a previous essay about my friend Barrie who moved from a comprehensive interest in Paul Simon’s work to an equal fascination with the songs of Leonard Cohen. He brought me up to speed, lent me the first two albums (the only two albums Cohen had released at that point) and also let me borrow the ‘Leonard Cohen Songbook’ which had been published, I presume, after the release of ‘Songs From A Room’ since in my memory it contained all the songs from those first two albums. But, glory be, it also included (and I’d certainly never seen this before) ‘tabs’ ie. fingering patterns needed to play the songs like Cohen did. Turns out they weren’t that difficult or complicated, and both Barrie and I could churn out a credible version of ‘Suzanne’, ‘Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ (virtually the same chords), ‘Sisters Of Mercy’, etc. I think Barrie liked the dark imagery of the more lugubrious compositions – and I suppose I wasn’t averse to them either, even though I was gravitating to the more sunshine/starry/seaside/dreams and love things I was encountering in early Joni Mitchell.

When ‘Songs Of Love And Hate’ was released, Barrie bought it of course, and sat me down to listen to it. Ashamed to say, my Cohen-attention was wavering by this point, but I warmed to what I saw as the more accessible items – ‘Joan Of Arc’ for one, ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ for another. In fact, I’d say it was hard to be a late adolescent in the early 1970s and not feel some sort of angsty response to the mysterious and gloomy romance of the shadowy relationships hinted at in this haunting minor chord ‘epistle’! So, I learnt to play it, as you do, enjoying the cumulative sequences of those undulating dactyls (I wouldn’t have known that then, but I see it now ‘Four in the/Mor-ning the/End of De/Cemb-er..and so on) but even more the unspecified dark romance of… New York in the middle of the night, in winter….some mysterious addressee who’s had a connection with Jane (?) as well as the writer…and who has breezed into town with enigmatic lack of purpose, and with relational ambiguity (‘my brother, my killer..’). We loved dark ambiguities. But even now I’m probably projecting analysis retrospectively! -it was probably just the feel of it, man.

And for a while I consigned it, and my Cohen-interest – to being part of ‘my early years’. Now for that ‘incongruous setting’. End of the seventies, possibly the early eighties, a group of us were on our what-had-become regular Easter time tour of Scotland, staying in various youth hostels. This particular one was by the side of Loch Lomond, the day before a planned (leisurelyish) ascent of Ben Nevis. It was not unusual for youth hostels to be populated with a colourful variety of international backpackers, and this one was no exception. A group of various European travellers had gathered in the common room/lounge area, and one young hippyish German was entertaining the group. He sang ‘Donna Donna’ – that weird folky song about cattle being led to market (popularised as far as I can remember by Donovan and Joan Baez..) . What a beautiful tune, I thought. Then he sang ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, and I swear that several of the fellow guests –French, Austrian, Dutch, other Germans – joined in. And I suppose that’s what I mean about hearing it ‘for the first time’!

I’m not claiming there was some epiphany or anything, but the surprise and oddness of the reacquaintance with this song perhaps made me see again something of the alluring beauty of its construction. And that has stayed with me, I think.

The shadowiness of the unnamed character, the addressee, is deliberate, and draws us in, the way a good novel or a good piece of cinema would: we get to hear disparate, disconnected snippets – building a house in the desert …looked older on the last ‘sighting’..unexplained visits to the station…a torn raincoat. And even then so much of it is rumour (‘I hear that..’) or is questionable conjecture (‘Did you ever…’ ‘If you ever..’). Some of the images are presumably impressionistic – ‘with the rose in your teeth/… Thin gypsy thief’… Including references to his past relationship with ‘Jane’ – ‘you treated my woman to a flake of your life’; ‘thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes’..

We cannot but be intrigued by this apparent triangle of relationship, but at the same time are kind of moved by the strange peaceful reconciliation to which this odd tangle of responses has led: ‘.. What can I tell you, my brother, my killer/.. I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you/am glad you stood in my way…Your enemy is sleeping, and his woman is free..’ There is a repetition too, of the ‘going clear’ phrase – also deliberately ambiguous –free from drugs?/ Scientologically?/or simply enjoying a more general personal ‘clarity/freedom’?

One last thing that gives this song an interesting charm- and perhaps this is peculiarly Cohen –is the way that this poetic ambiguity is blended with a tone on the one hand conversational (‘Did you ever go clear?’ ‘Well I see Jane’s awake/she sends her regards..’) and yet with the odd ‘semi-formality’ of the ‘letter’ conceit at the end. (‘Sincerely, L Cohen’)

So yes, I still play it to myself occasionally, not with the skill or with the startling impact which that German backpacker gave it nearly four decades ago, and not with the blind gloomy romanticism of my adolescent self, but with some kind of appreciation perhaps not dissimilar from that note of weary gratitude conveyed by the song’s narrative persona as it reaches its conclusion.

Sincerely, J Hankins.

84. IT MATTERS NOW – Jonatha Brooke

We’re sitting on adjacent sun loungers topping up the tan in the Mallorquin sunshine. I’m plugged in to my ipod. I reach over and hand the ear-buds to Sue. ‘Have a listen to this,’ I say. ‘I’ve been listening to it non stop for a few days now. I can’t get it out of my mind, but I’m still not sure what it’s all about..’ Sue listens to it a few times, her head nodding slightly to the rhythm, her face thoughtful, smiles at one or two of the lines. She gets a bit more insight on it than I do, I think, maybe a woman to woman sense of empathy. ‘some boyfriend or partner,’ she suggests, ‘who’s vindictive, or can’t let go of some wrong..’

I knew Jonatha Brooke was bound to be cropping up somewhere in this series of essays. She’s too good, and too haunting a songwriter to leave one alone, once her songs have encountered you. I thought I might have been writing about ‘Inconsolable’, a track I keep coming back to with similar goosebumpy results, or songs charting her relationship with her mother – not just the whole album looking at her mother’s descent into dementia, but earlier stuff too like the wonderful ‘Angel in the House’. But no, here I am, writing about a song from the odd (I think of it as) middle-career album ‘Back to the Circus’ – an awkward release in some ways – eg the UK distributors knocked off the great covers on the original album (eg God only Knows, Eye in the Sky) and padded it with a few tracks from the previous album Steady Pull. Bonkers or what? Despite it all, there are some true crackers…and this one, practically ignored on first listen, has stolen in to my consciousness to the point where… well, like I said in the first paragraph.

Ok, let’s get into the song. The opening lines certainly back Sue’s reading – ‘Sour, sour grapes make bitter wine/ You’re no funny valentine/ you take such pleasure in revenge/ A perfect settled score/ but it just whets your appetite for more..’ It’s a scathing indictment, straight off, it’s pretty vitriolic. But somehow it’s not the heart and pulse of the song. The refrain is intriguing – the first person voice proposes – what? – a more hopeful perspective on life and interaction? ‘Listen how my heart beats inside me/ It’s the story of a thousand better days..’ Implying that, somehow, perhaps, she is able to hold onto a bigger picture of the possibility of improvements and potential… What we call hope, I suppose. Here is the implication also, then, that the second person of the song, being addressed, is unable to see that, and rather is stuck at the hurdle of a present upset and disappointment or hurt. She says ‘And I wish I could say anything to take away today’ and here comes the rub: ‘but it won’t matter when we’re old/it matters now’.

Sorry, perhaps I’m making heavy weather of this, perhaps I’m being a bit dim… But this core and much repeated line seems ambiguous. Is the idea: let’s not agonize or dwell on these present momentary drawbacks and disappointments, but instead realise that in the longer scheme of things they will pale into insignificance? Or is it rather: the time for addressing this relational problem is now, rather than letting it fester into the future? Without wishing to appear sexist or overly-binary in my thinking, I wonder: is this more often the gift of a more ‘feminine’ perspective? – to say ‘it’s not nothing, it needs dealing with: it matters.’ Consider the song’s bridge: It matters now, it mattered then/ It matters how why or when /If at first you won’t try/You’ve gotta try again’ – a plea for hope and action, not just passively succumbing to defeat or resignation.

What do we make of the images and ideas of the second verse? ‘You break it now[hope?/dreams?] you own it/Like original sin/But you cannot take it with you in the state you’re in’ . In some odd way a challenge to take responsibility? The final verse is a brief couplet: ‘what price love, for how much pain?/What a surprise –you pray for rain’. Is this, then, juxtaposing two contrasting outlooks: the first a recognition that love inevitably calls for sacrifices, compromises, difficulty and ‘price’; the second outlook intrinsically pessimistic and calling forth its own defeat?

Well, as you can see, I’m not really any clearer about it than I was sitting on that sun lounger a few months ago, but I still keep listening and listening to it! And this is the wonderful Jonatha Brooke, many of whose songs retain that poetic edge of uncertainty, that makes us work at it, doesn’t hand us facile platitudes on a folk-rock plate, but gets you engaged, feeling, listening, thinking. In this respect with a compositional skill not unlike that of Dar Williams (see blog essay no.52)

It was being a bit of a Bruce Cockburn completist that brought me into acquaintance with Jonatha Brooke, when I heard her song ‘War’ (on which Bruce had duetted). The voice was a strong and intelligently distinctive one, I felt, right from first listen. And I am indebted once again to John Van Tiel for acquainting me more fully with her work, not just as a solo performer, but also in her coffeehouse performances with Jennifer Kimball as ‘The Story’. All the albums are worth chasing up. I’ve seen Jonatha perform live only once, in quite a low key venue, a small club in Bristol, but what a performer – clear and confident about the power and validity, I think, of her elegantly constructed compositions. (Bit of trivia – her band included, on bass, the remarkable Gail Ann Dorsey. Someone in the audience told me they had attended the gig just to see Gail perform!). It was a great evening.

So, I have no other anecdotal or autobiographical material into which to weave this odd little song. And maybe, who knows, it won’t even pass the test of time; maybe in a few years it won’t matter at all. But it matters now. [Ha – see what I did there?]

83. VOICES – Leon Rosselson

With what now seems a sharp layer of irony, I once wrote a song entitled ‘Songs Are Cheap’.  Oh yes.  Bizarrely as it seems, there once was a time when lyric/melody combos seemed to be easily there for the picking, like ripe whinberries in late July.  The chorus of the song ran thus : ‘Songs are cheap/ There’s one born every minute/ Just to feed our need/ For the dreams we keep. /songs are cheap/ Rhymes without reasons/Full of easy deceiving/ just to conjure sleep/ Songs are cheap.’ Hmm.  In my defence, m’lud, I think the song was trying to make a valid point, something like this: in our auditory lives, we are surrounded by songs –OK, many that are mass produced, some more carefully crafted, some even within mass production which are moderately crafted – most of which have some sense of ‘content’.  And it’s going to seem a bit sniffy to say this, but..  those of us (sad, sad people) who feel that a particular genius of words/tune has occasionally touched something deep in our core..  must bemoan the fact that within the great swirling soup of songs in which we live, this doesn’t happen often enough, maybe.  Or to put it another way, perhaps I’m saying, if you’re lucky enough to be able to write songs, then make ‘em good: say stuff that’s real and that counts. (That’s a bit rich coming from you, you might say. I’ll take that on the chin.)

And so the verses to my song – don’t worry we’ll get to ‘Voices’ eventually – all start with the same (rather portentous!) ‘lamenting’ quality.. ‘Where are the songs that..?’ eg, final verse: ‘Where are the songs to drive my soul along/ For joy and justice and for fighting wrong/ The pounding rhythms of a working song…’ etc etc. It’s perhaps not difficult to see why I’ve allowed melody and chording of this song to slip from my memory…

But….. On those occasions when I start to think of myself as a songwriter, and then find I need a reality check, I call to mind – as sobering contrast – not the great luminaries of commercial, concert and critical success, but people like Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg, even, and like Leon Rosselson. Writers who have over many many years unpretentiously continued to engage with issues around them and used their songs to reflect, highlight, disturb, provoke. Songs as ‘voices’ indeed. I can’t say I’ve ‘followed’ Rosselson like a fan would follow a singing star, but having looked on his website recently I was not surprised to see a song posted there about Grenfell Tower, another song of compassion for victims, and about a push for justice.

I think I heard Leon Rosselson sing ‘Voices’ when he came to Folk Club a decade and a half ago, and certainly it’s on the cassette which I bought on that occasion. But it’s equally likely that I first heard it from the singing of Frankie Armstrong, that fierce folk balladeer who often championed Rosselson’s songs and on this occasion interprets his composition with a chillingly incisive appreciation for its power and content.

In some ways you could say the song is sort of dated: it was written when the focus of lefties was on South America and suspect US involvement there; equally there are hints of ‘township-awareness’ and a protest against apartheid; there is also more than a sniff of Greenham Common here.  But this should not distract us from the primary focus of what the song is saying: the necessity of standing up, communicating our feelings, responses, experiences, protests – in other words, our ‘Voices’. And here is an affirmation of the sheer potency of that often unacknowledged power of the individual voice – ‘In the stagnant squalor of a shanty town/ A woman is singing /She cannot read, she cannot write her name / But the voice that lives inside her makes her strong/ It calls a thousand other voices into song..’

And basically this is what the song is about. The power of voice to speak out for justice and compassion.  The final lines are the most affecting of all : ‘Can we be silent when we hear these voices call/ Upon the unique voice that lives inside us all..? because not only is there a stark challenge here (and my analysing brain does not shrink from it); there’s also something quite sophisticated here: a reminder of that individual sensibility (I would think of it as a God-particle conscience, of course) interacting and responding (with human sympathy) to the suffering of others.

Frankie’s interpretive performance (with Leon’s blessing, she tells us) gets us involved willy-nilly, echoing ‘voices’ in the refrain…and this approach is entirely appropriate of course , in ways you can work out for yourself.

It’s a powerful statement, a wonderful song. I hope this makes some sense of my ramblings (re. Songs are cheap..) in the first few paragraphs of this posting? Shouldn’t I make an effort to learn this song, and from it?

82. AMERICA – Simon & Garfunkel

Driving to Bath recently, we allowed the iPod to run us through all the Simon and Garfunkel tracks it contained – and it suddenly became something of a sentimental journey, because listening to Simon and Garfunkel seems very much an activity which is rooted in the past.  We sang along, snatches of ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘For Emily..’ and even ‘Cecilia..’ But when this one came on, my heart did a little jump and began to melt (two quite contradictory metaphors of course, but there you go.) Just hearing those harmonised hums that begin the song takes you to a younger you, doesn’t it?

…  Before we launch into ‘Let us be lovers/ we’ll marry our fortunes together’ let’s acknowledge this is a young person’s song, the irony of the opening line perhaps being that romantic youngsters have only their poverty and idealism to share, their only ‘real estate’ in their bags.  Never truer. This is a sort of studenty song, backpacking across the country with that youthful sense of quest and curiosity to discover the real nature of what they’ve taken for granted, to discover the concepts and the reality behind the geographical materialism – ‘we’ve all come to look for America..’

And for me this is a sixth form song.  I saw and heard John Rogers Prosser singing and playing it in school one day and I felt straight away the kind of yearning beauty that the song possessed.  And at around the same time one of my best friends, Barrie, (where are you now, Dr./Professor of Soil Science?) was becoming a huge Paul Simon fan.  Barrie learnt to play the guitar way before I did; he was our sort of local (ie.  Church youth group ) guitar player, and hitting adolescence he began to learn to play his way through all the early Paul Simon songs up until ‘Bookends’, and he played them well. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ came out towards the end of this period of shared (because he got me interested too) enthusiasm…oh, maybe not, I also recall Barrie enthusing over songs from Paul Simon’s ‘first’ (post S&G) solo albums, and learning to play things like ‘Duncan’ and ‘American Tune’.  But in my mind, the ‘Bookends’ songbook both ‘capped’ the sense of Simon’s extraordinary talent…  and somehow ended our peculiar fascination with those great early songs of his. (Barrie moved seamlessly into a Leonard Cohen obsession, by the way, as a yin/yang thing with my JoniMitchellism..)

To me ‘Bookends’ seemed to have a rare almost mystical beauty, despite the quirky things like ‘At The Zoo’ and ‘Punky’s Dilemma’, and ‘America’ was the song that most encapsulated that spirit, or that most appealed to the unformed teenage senses of angst and incipient wanderlust.  More about that in a moment maybe.  There was also something delightfully refreshing about the lyric and the construction too – the conversational tone, the sense of the ordinary (‘so we bought a pack of cigarettes/and Mrs. Wagner pies..’), the credible touches of youngsters conspiratorially observing and inventing back stories for the people around them (‘..  I said be careful, his bow tie is really a camera…’).  I knew nothing then about Greyhound buses, and could only imagine these exciting journeys across the states – though I got a taste of it a few years later, and Simon’s charm-touched song to youthful fun, quest, longing…  came back to mind then.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t articulate it to myself when I first heard this song, but now I’m aware of at least two elements of appeal held in delicate balance – that sense of search for the wider ideals, for the particular discovery of what is so big that it can only be unknowable, but must still be known… ‘To look for America’ reminds me of that fabulous passage at the end of ‘The Great Gatsby’: “For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” And at the same time for me perhaps as well the sense of a spiritual thirst and emptiness that will not easily be satisfied by lesser goals.  This weariness and longing is also there in this song: ‘Kathy, I’m lost, I said…/ I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why..’  Faltering but fairly fervent little Jesus-believer that I was back then, these dual longings within us seemed very close to the heart of what it was all about.

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.

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.