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.

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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….’

 

71. A TOUCHING PLACE – John Bell & Graham Maule

 

 

What a gift John Bell is to the church in the 21st century.  As a contributor to BBC Radio’s ‘Thought for the Day’ he speaks an infinite deal of very listenable common sense and godly compassion.  As a speaker representing the Iona community and the Wild Goose Resource Group, he is both engaging and inspiring.  Yet in extremely low key, human ways.

In my early years as a Christian, I remember that we were often counselled about the dangers of ‘being too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use’ (Ha! Really?  I’m not sure even now if this can ever be a genuine concern, since most of the really heavenly minded people that I’ve met tend also to be those most focused on making a difference in real, practical terms too.)  Still, if there’s any validity to this malaise, it’s an accusation that can certainly never be levelled at John Bell, whose Godly down-to-earth-ness is tangible, and whose most worshipful songs never lose touch of the needs and sorrows of humanity.  Which makes this song eminently representative of both his style and his concerns.  Heaven touching earth etc.

If you’ve been in a John Bell singing workshop, you know what a privilege that is.  I suppose I first saw him in that role in Greenbelt festivals, where not only is he often a keynote speaker, but in the past has often been known to help lead Wild Goose Sing A Long sessions in one of the meeting tents.  These are always incredibly well attended, and you can sense the palpable delight of people learning to sing these beautiful new chants and songs, in unison, in men-and-women ‘echoes’, and gloriously also in four part harmonies.  I was privileged enough to go to a whole day workshop he led in a church in Cardiff-oh, probably 20 years ago now –I’d just started teaching in the Catholic comprehensive school where I ended my fulltime teaching career –and was delighted to find, when I got there, others from my teaching staff with an equal interest in developing and exploring worship songs.John Bell clearly crossed ‘sectarian boundaries’!  It was a great day.

I can’t remember if we sang this one, but it seems to have been on my radar and in my mental repertoire for quite some time, along with his other classic ‘The Summons’.  Many of the pieces that I love from John Bell’s prolific output are the short, simple chants that allow us to meditate in more focused ways on simple God-realities– he demonstrated that we didn’t have to rely on the Taize output for this kind of song! ‘A  Touching Place’, though, is one of the longer,  more ‘fully formed’ songs and (this again a very Wild Goose approach) employs a traditional Scottish melody –Dream Angus.  For me it’s not just a beautiful song but it’s beautifully crafted too.  We start off establishing a Christ-centric perspective of the world “Christ’s is the world in which we move;/Christ’s are the folk we’re summoned to love;/Christ’s is the voice which calls us to care,/and Christ is the one who meets us here.” While the chorus underlines Christ as actively compassionate in that world through/with ‘his friends’ : “to those who cry in pain or disgrace/Christ makes with his friends a touching place’

What a fresh, interesting phrase. John Bell  (and Graham Maule, presumably! Sorry Graham that I know less about you!) not only avoids the clichés of traditional hymnody, but he finds language, phrases that make us think and rediscover spiritual truths –because yes ‘touch’ is very much at the heart of of Jesus’ ministry, if we think of the gospel narratives of his interactions with people.  There’s been quite a bit of footage of Princess Diana on TV over the last couple of weeks (20th anniversary of her death) and I had forgotten what a revolutionary thing it was when she broke with royal protocol to visit Aids victims, people afflicted with leprosy and other diseases –turning up gloveless!  Touching them and allowing them to touch her.  I’m not beatifying Diana here, just saying that kind of spirit was a reminder of the Christ spirit which this song addresses.

The remaining three verses of the song start with the same imperative ‘feel for..’ addressed  I suppose to the singing congregations themselves, but also implying (if we think of feel as sort of a synonym for touch) that these are the people Christ’s hands are reaching out to draw into that tangible embrace.  And the verses catalogue some of the hurts of ordinary humanity ‘feel for the strange or bereaved or never employed’;  .. ‘feel for the women whom men have defiled’; ‘feel for the lives by life confused/riddled with doubt, in loving abused’etc…And there is the realistic recognition that this is not always easy for us- ‘Feel for the people we most avoid..’ After the painful reminders of these verses, it is a joy to return to the affirmations of the chorus.

Many of these little blog essays, while claiming to have been about songs, have often ended up focusing on particular recordings by the composer or this or that artist.  This time, though, we are very much about the song, not the recording.  The song as a living breathing usable thing, of affirmation, celebration, reminder and challenge.  Having said that, recordings do exist of course, from the stable of  the Wild Goose Resources.  And what is always lovely and commendable is, on their own recordings [and I couldn’t find a youtube clip, sorry]the sheer unabashed Scottishness of the singing –so refreshing in this X factor age when –even in some Christian music –the temptation seems to be to distort ones vowels to something more (at least) ‘mid-atlantic’!  And this may seem a simple thing, but in a small way I think it adds to the very authentic humanness of this kind of holiness. Lovely song: let’s keep using it.

70. BAÏLÈRO – Canteloube from Songs of the Auvergne (as sung by Kiri te Kanawa)

 

 

This is definitely one of my ‘happy’ songs – but I only tend to play it when I’m up in my shed/study/den/man-cave at the top of the garden, because that’s where I have it on a little cassette.  Let me tell you about that little cassette tape.

Isn’t it true that sometimes the greatest songs and the most beautiful pieces of music we seem to stumble across by accident? – and somehow that kind of adds to their magic and charm.  When we lived in Paraguay, it was notable that when non-indigenous colleagues and friends returned to their own countries after their period of work there, they would often want to offload items they no longer deemed necessary, or didn’t want to pack to take back.  Sometimes, in a way that I hope didn’t appear too ghoulish, those of us who remained might sort of sidle up, ‘help to pack’ in ways that meant we might pick up a few little items (no? Oh, just me then).  Anyway, thanks dear Nigel and Ally for a lovely red sleeping bag, and for this cassette tape by Kiri te Kanawa, showcasing music I had never heard before, or even heard of.

Joseph Canteloube was apparently as much of a musicologist as a composer, and I think this means  that he was as fascinated by songs as I am!  I’m joking – he was much more fascinated, because he actually got off his backside and went around the country ‘collecting’ songs that had developed and emerged through the oral tradition.  Yes, in other words he was a bit of a French Cecil Sharp, I suppose.  He went and collected throughout the region of the Auvergne, and then presumably took his collection and composed beautiful orchestrated versions of the songs. So the little tape was ‘Kiri te Kanawa sings Chants d’Auvergne by Joseph Canteloube’, and this song is the big ‘hit’ of the collection!

I’ve seen it called ‘Pastoral’, ‘Shepherd’s Song’, but most often ‘Baïlèro’, with its funny accents and all, because of course the songs are all in the local lingo, Occitan (thanks Wikipedia).  I think I may have assumed, listening to this first of all in a Spanish speaking country, that the title definitely had something to do with dancing (Spanish ‘bailar’ to dance), but no, from all the transcripts and translations I’ve seen, it appears that bailero and the frequently repeated ‘lero lero lero’ in the song is nothing more than your average kind of ‘fal-de-ri’ or ‘fa-la-la’ folk song filler!  But the repetition of those beautiful spilled out liquid sounds is part of this song’s glorious charm, for me.

These songs of course are filled with the staple diet of good rustic folk song- rather less murder, sprites and such than might appear in their rustic English counterparts – but plenty of shepherds and shepherdesses, hard work, harvesting, seducing, and unrequited love.  And it may seem a bit funny that I have called it one of my ‘happy songs,’ for apparently what we have in this particular song is the pining of a shepherd separated from a shepherdess (or vice versa?) by a river, and resigned to singing some melancholy but maybe hopeful(?) lero lero leros.

But there you go – sadness when depicted by the artist, the writer, the composer, is often heartbreakingly beautiful, and so – perversely – solidly life affirming, and happiness making!

As a kind of footnote…  I had also assumed that Kiri te Kanawa must have claimed this particular bit of music/song territory as her own, and certainly as I have played and replayed (and ‘lero’ed along to) that cassette tape up in my shed, it’s been hard to imagine anyone bettering her vocal interpretation!  But, dear reader, if you are at all interested/intrigued or can be bothered, the magic of youtube allows us to sample other singers taking on this particular classic.  I’m not sure that my ear is good enough to distinguish great from greater…  but take a listen –none of them disappoint, and some are accompanied by very nice pictures of the Auvergne!

 

69. MISS OTIS REGRETS – Ella Fitzgerald

If I had been aware of this song, and I probably was, I don’t remember being really aware of it until I heard it in a really odd setting: some guy  – sorry, no idea of his name – who ‘opened’ for Ralph McTell at a concert in the 1980s (St David’s Hall, Cardiff) included this song in his small set.  It was his speciality, I think, taking old Great American Songbook standards, and singing them in an semi- folkie setting, to an exquisitely handled acoustic guitar.  So, behind the song, the guitar work was all minor sevenths and ninths etc; he brought all the melancholy he could from it; and it was beautiful.  And then I heard Ella Fitzgerald’s version of it.

I’m not sure that I would have liked Cole Porter.  I’m not even sure where I’ve picked up these impressions, that I have the feeling that he was all urbane wit, cleverness and musical talent sold to glittering slick city hedonism, etc. (Envious, moi?)  And, just gleaning bits of myth and trivia from various websites about the origin of this song, one story goes that in one of these very same high class uptown society party soirees, someone challenged Cole Porter to come up with a song employing these random words ‘miss Otis regrets’; a more credible variant of the story suggests that he was challenged to write off the cuff a kind of parody of a popular country and western style song .  Whatever, it’s quite weird to think of the genesis of this song as something a bit show-offy, improvisational, almost throwaway.  Because, however it started, it has certainly become something else.

How far Cole Porter influenced the development and evolution of the song’s popularity, who sang it and when, I don’t really know.  Let’s forget about him for a moment and just think of the song.  It’s interesting that the best versions of it have been by black singers: no, that’s naive –it was inevitable, because the persona of the song is understood to be of the servant class –inevitably Afro American in the 1930s ‘society’ America.  Porter (sorry, I said I wouldn’t mention him) put the song in the mouth of a black butler in one of his lesser known musicals.  In 1934 Ethel Waters recorded a still poignant version of the song.  Ella didn’t record her version until two decades later, and it is part of her classic ‘Cole Porter songbook’ recordings.  More about this in a moment.

When I say ‘interesting’, perhaps I’m thinking of the fact that some of the strange and incongruous resonances of the song have more startling poignancy coming from African-American lips .  The premise of the song, perhaps hilariously comic in the original cocktail-fuelled setting of that Manhattan dinner party, is that the seduced and wronged woman driven to jealous murder is not some simple country girl from a cowboy story, but –we assume –some sophisticated high society lady; the sordid tale is not blazed as society scandal, but modestly narrated by a faithfully formal servant as ‘excuse’ for the lady’s non-appearance at a social engagement (!); and the punishment for her crime is not some expensive legal battle fought on her behalf by city attorneys, but an ignominious lynching.  And there, of course, in that particular incongruity resides the particular potency of hearing these words from a black American female voice. ‘Strange Fruit’ in an affluent white society setting.

It’s become fashionable, I reckon, to regard Ella Fitzgerald’s voice as just a little bit too controlled; I hear people suggesting that Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holliday are far more ‘authentic’ jazz voices, but I’m OK with Ella’s ‘control’ –it’s a thing of beauty –she could scat-sing with the best of them when she wanted to, but she brought an extraordinary sensitivity to some songs that not everybody could have done.  Like this one – and while most of her Cole Porter recordings have sumptuous orchestral accompaniments, this one has a single piano, as if somehow to accentuate its dark charm –those few simple, repetitive verses, the ’spareness’ of the tragic tale in its ‘formal’ narrative. That’s all. Madam.

68. WATERS OF MARCH – Antonio Carlos Jobim

I’ve started to try to learn to play this song on the guitar.  No, don’t laugh –give me another 17 years or so, and if my aged hands have managed to stay free of any crippling arthritis, who knows, maybe I’ll have got the basics by then.

Meanwhile, let’s just say that this is one of the greatest songs of all time. As any fule kno (Molesworth).  When I first heard it, from Art Garfunkel no less (was it the B side of something?  Or an album track?), I just thought it was quirky, different, and rather fun because of that.  Over the years I have become aware of what a legendary glegend Jobim was, and have come to appreciate the glory of these little bossa nova (?) masterpieces – a few tracks on Diana Krall’s lovely ‘Quiet Nights’ album….  Ella Fitzgerald’s album of Jobim’s compositions (those sadly not in the same league as her other ‘Songbook’ albums –recorded rather later in her career, and with a tireder voice), and there’s a nice Sarah Vaughan Latin rhythms album too.  And down the years have become aware of what a classic it is. The song was only written at the beginning of the 1970s – amazingly just a few years before Garfunkel recorded it! –so perhaps it is still in fairly early stages of gaining the reputation that it must inevitably achieve.

It’s oddly refreshing to have a lyric that is not a linear lyric –not attempting to express emotion, persuade a lover, explore angst, because on one level it is purely a kind of colourful collage –I presume –  of items swept along in Brazil’s floods, in the rainy season.  Musically it’s the kind of echo of that flow, too –often a kind of bobbing monotone, or rather rippling lazily along between two or three notes, and then suddenly quick trills into a high register as the streams take minor detours perhaps, divide around rocks, tumble over shallow falls, join each other in the gutters running down Rio’s favelas, maybe.  For our family, it well recalls our Asuncion days, the subtropical climate giving us not so much a rainy season as a regular cycle of building humidity then powerful street-transforming storms.  Such as the one where my wife’s flip flop got washed away into a storm drain as she walked the kids to school one morning!

I say ‘on one level’ because clearly there is a little more to it than that.  Jobim’s original Portuguese lyric would have been alluding to the end of the Brazilian summer. Some sense of an ‘ending’ is still there when he came to write his English version (and yes, clever clogs, he did it all himself) – ‘a stick, a stone/It’s the end of the road’…  but I think he wrote his English version with an awareness that for most English speaking singers and listeners, March would more likely have connotations of the ending of winter, thaws and spring rains and an anticipation of longer, brighter days. So we still get the sense of a swirl of disparate stuff being washed along in a downward stream, but in that mix are distinctly ‘abstract objects’ – ‘its a beam, it’s a void/its a hunch, it’s a hope’ and there’s also a great-tapestry-of-life, to-everything-there-is-a-season sort of feel in the way that darker references, objects of threat or pain are there in the flowing water – ‘a spear, a spike/ a point, a nail..’. And yet, and yet…this is a joyous song because the ‘refrain’ as far as we can call it that, leads us to this affirmation: ‘And the riverbank talks/Of the waters of March/It’s the promise of life/It’s the joy in your heart’. But because of the context, nothing facile about this kind of joy and hope.

There are plenty of performances of this song out there now –Sergio Mendez and his Brazilian band were perhaps one of the first to popularise it, and their version is as bright and shiny as everything they did; youtube has an interesting and slightly awkward duetted version with Suzanne Vega and Stacey Kent (who has also recorded it in French); jazz chanteuse Jane Monheit zips it up a little; Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan do a nice job, tackling the whole thing in its original Portuguese.  And there is a fine performance from the composer himself of course (also known as Tom Jobim).

But although it’s not the most dynamic of the sounds,and in no way the ‘best’ version, and you could even say there is something a bit lost and insipid –and very non Latin –about his ‘pretty’ vocal, I still come back to the Art Garfunkel version, just perhaps because I am indebted to it for introducing me to the song in the first place..  And now, let me get my fingers back to trying to contort themselves into those very non English chord shapes and rhythms.  Wish me luck!

67. SPARROW – Mary Hopkin (composed Gallagher & Lyle)

I’ve been up to say hello to the lapwings, again.  There’s a breeding ground –fairly rare for Wales, I’ve been told – just a couple of miles north from here.  I’m very fond of them, and I have to try and enjoy them while they’re around, because after all it’s only for a few short months.  I love their erratic flappy, upside down sideways (presumably courtship showings off?) flights, and their little quirky curls as they strut in profile.  When I get near them, though, they rise up in warning, in distraction, and then fly up really high above me.  As high as larks?

I’ve no idea of course; I’m not a real ornithologist; so I don’t know how much ornithological truth there is in the chorus of Gallagher and Lyle’s beautiful song: ‘the sparrow sings, the sparrow flies/ With mighty wings he reaches/ As high as any other bird..’ but I can’t say I’m worried about the scientific veracity of this.  I came across the song (and thank you, peewits, for bringing it to mind this morning!) as the B side of a much fluffier, more instantly accessible –and ultimately more forgettable –single by Mary Hopkin.  I think it was called ‘Goodbye’, and having flipped it to its flip side, I’m not sure I ever flipped it back again, because this song ‘Sparrow’ was to my teenage self an intriguingly elliptical song with a gorgeous melody and an equally gorgeous romantic ‘feel’.  And ‘feel’ was all, maybe, because back in 1969 (I’m guessing) I was no lyrical analyst –otherwise I might have been concerned about how flummoxing the total lyric is.

But the way it works, perhaps, is this –we ‘pick up’ on this phrase, and on that phrase (much like, now I think of it, sparrows in the garden today picking at the wispy tops of last year’s crop of –totally incongruous in this garden –tall rushes, and flying off hopefully to help give a nest a bit of a downier lining?)…  I suspect the smell of freedom and independence was stirred by bits of the lyric – ‘I had to find it out my way/ They couldn’t stop me leaving…’; something romantic about the spare selection of muted imagery ..’a wealth of silence will descend upon the town/ in colours of the evening..’ and open ended ambiguity of the song’s conclusion ‘In the blue and hazy drift of after two, a saxophone is moaning./ I rise and step into the cool night air…’  There’s a whiff of detachment and wistfulness about the observations of the first verse too, observing a village held by its own routines (?) ‘ On Sunday morning everyone will leave the house, dressed for the Sunday service, /and through the streets I used to know, they go…’

But most of all that chorus speaks to something primal within us-the longing for (or the awareness of the unexpected possibility of) the apparently ‘small’ and insignificant to achieve inordinately beyond all expectations.  We are talking Jack and the beanstalk, maybe, David and Goliath, Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mushrooms’, the little engine who could (‘ I think I can, I think I can…’) and perhaps even what we hear from Micah every advent – ‘out of you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small…  Out of you will come…’ Well, you know who comes.   And the biblical overtones here do not go unnoticed  ‘…he shall inherit all the earth’ (like the meek, of course).

I’ve heard the composers singing it – they are/were(?) much undervalued and under-appreciated songsmiths, and their version of their own song is more than serviceable…but having heard Mary Hopkin’s interpretation…  Well, it’s just drop dead beautiful, isn’t it?  (And here’s a thought: having arrived at our aural doorsteps via Opportunity Knocks, how well would Ms Hopkin have fared in the X factor or Britain’s got talent? Just musing, idly.] And that extraordinary sweet voice: isn’t she a bit like ‘Eleanor [who] sings in the choir/ [and] it’s like a lark in summer’?  The ‘production’ here might be seen as a bit overblown – the bells, the woodwind, the saxophone at the end, the ethereal ‘chorus’. Ah but I must confess I rather like it.