I WISH I WISH by John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris; & SERVING GIRL’S HOLIDAY by Maddy Prior and Tim Hart

I’m a little bit embarrassed by the under representation of traditional songs in this collection of reflections, particularly when friends so often think of me as a ‘folk’ person (while the sad reality perhaps remains that, for the most part, the idea of folk music appeals a little more than the general experience of it).  So I’m glad that these two songs have resurfaced, from somewhere, into my recent consciousness, reminding me that I am not, after all, totally forgetful of the pleasures and the value of traditional songs.

When I say that the idea of it appeals to me, and I suppose I mean that I so admire the preserving, rediscovering and championing of the old ballads and folk tunes; and stand in solidarity with the whole ethos that music and song should be the birthright of the ordinary man and woman –rather than the privileged classes, with leisure, wealth and opportunity to develop art-forms which –however life enhancing, however valid their exploration of universal themes –ironically distance themselves and their craft from the vast majority of people.  One important thing that the old songs do well is to celebrate the worth and the struggles of ordinary working people; including, as in these two songs, giving a voice to the various kinds of oppression and deprivation suffered by women.  So, OK, when I hear these songs (if the ballads don’t stretch out to too many verses!), and when I remember them, I’m often stirred, roused.  [it’s just that, I don’t know, when I compare myself to ‘real’ folk enthusiasts, I feel like I lack something of a passion: I will need to return to this in a separate essay].

Now, the anecdotal connections.  The first folk gathering I attended was that Freshers’ Week at university –and I remember it surprisingly well.  Jeremy Taylor was the guest; some undergraduates sang first –one earnest longhair sang both ‘Sweet Baby James’ and ‘Gold Watch Blues’ a lá Donovan.  A lively trio sang Dylan’s ‘She Belongs To Me’, with fiddle accompaniment.  Why I never went back, to this day I don’t know.  So the first real (ie. In a pub) folk club I went to was in Cowbridge Road, Cardiff, and John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris were the guests, largely showcasing the collection of songs and tunes on this classic album ‘Amongst The Many Attractions…’ I bought it, played it much, recommended it to others…  But weirdly, my visit was a one off.  I don’t know why, but it was probably another 15 to 20 years before I started attending another folk club [this story is certainly for another essay.]

Meanwhile, there was Steeleye Span.  Our first encounter was when Al and I went to see Ralph McTell at the Corey Hall, Cardiff.  The first half support act were great fun –lively and accomplished musicians with a range of instruments, playing electrified, rocked-up traditional songs!  “Who are these?” we asked the young guy sitting next to us.  “Steel Ice Band” is what we heard.  Days later, Allan came home with an album from this band, with a slightly different name.  We played to death ‘Please to see the King’ and later ‘Below The Salt’ – loved their harmonies, and all these crazy songs about shepherds, foresters, kings and sailors, and ancient rustic rites, which we’d never heard anywhere else.  When I later found ‘Summer Solstice’ (just Maddy and Tim, less electrification) in a Swansea record shop, I bought it for Allan for Christmas 72; but I loved it myself!  Pastoral songs, for the most part, some narratives, a drinking song, and the final song ‘Serving Girls Holiday’, doing what I’ve said folk song so importantly does –giving a voice to the poor, working through their labours and privations, finding joy where they can.  This song lists the chores of an ordinary serving girl – sweeping floors, cleaning fireplaces, milking, kneading dough, fetching herbs etc.  –and inevitably, looking forward to the holiday when ‘spindle, bobbin and spool’ can be put away. Kate Rusby has recorded an equally lovely, though slightly truncated, version of this.

Sue Harris’s song, to Kirkpatrick’s squeeze box accompaniment, ‘I wish, I wish’ is apparently a version of a song much diversified, replicated and modified throughout the British Isles; giving a voice to another common ignominy suffered by young girls –wooed, impregnated, abandoned.  However common this experience of betrayal, the song gives a lively, credible, individual voice to the betrayed, fleshing it out melodically with overtones of regret, longing, wistfulness and even pleasant remembrances. In its tight regular form, and its hauntingly simple melody, there’s all of that, with some ambiguity, and persistent love too.

My Sue might dispute the sincerity of the feminist-sympathising going on here. Ha. Still, how great the mind, the memory, to bring these two lovely songs back for a visit…

AS THE RUIN FALLS by Phil Keaggy

I stumbled back onto this, a few days ago, after a gap of 30 years or more, and it stirred up a lot of thoughts.  (Also, I was rather surprised about how well I remembered it, and could sort of sing along, despite its fairly intricate construction.)

Here are some of the thoughts it brings to mind.  I’ve already and elsewhere touched upon the winds of change in the 1960s: renovations, reawakenings and renewals in the global Christian church, and the inevitable innovations it brought to forms and expressions of music both in ‘worship’ and in reflective/performance/message-conveying formats.  For bad or good, this spawned a new industry in the 60s and 70s –the ‘Christian music industry’.  Mostly bad, it began to seem, since capital-minded corporations suddenly discovered a new niche market to exploit, and surely that couldn’t be good?  Initially excited by what was being produced –and I’m talking mainly ‘performance’  output here – I soon sort of lost track of what the industry was all about, and sadly felt that in many ways the industry itself had, too.

While the interest lasted, we were listening to, and awaiting the next albums of (in the UK) artists like Graham Kendrick, Malcolm and Alwyn, Garth Hewitt, Len McGee; and (in the U.S.) Chuck Girard, Phil Keaggy, Randy Stonehill, Keith Green, Michael Omartian, Annie Herring et al.  It’s easy now to dismiss it as a bit of a sad business.  To underline my dismissal of if, I’m remembering too a concert I attended in Cardiff about…eight years ago, with Pierce Pettis and Julie Lee (see my blog posting on ‘You Did That For Me’), two artists I discovered at Greenbelt Festival.  It was a very poorly attended gig, so there was plenty of opportunity to chat with them.  While both were fervent believers, they had also both resisted being drawn into the world of the U.S.Christian music industry.  The murky world, they implied.  The wonderful Julie Miller, also, had started her recording career in that world, but had managed to escape it to eventually disseminate her great songs more widely.  It was Richard Hines (fellow teacher at Colegio San Andres) who taught me that we do best to resist creating sub cultures –Christian poetry, Christian art, Christian diets, Christian music industry etc.  –and instead, try being ‘salt’ in the world.(Hmm. Discuss)

So, as I’ve said, it’s been easy to dismiss those early seventies Christian albums.  But this is what hearing Phil Keaggy again reminded me: that there was much within that industry that had both quality and integrity.  Just think, for instance, about the earnest and honest anthems of Keith Green; think too of the exquisite vocals of Matthew Ward –while several of his songs suffered from cliché, there is a handful in his canon that stand any stringent test of time –his ‘psalms’, ‘Love’, ‘Summer Snow’, ‘Noah’ (isn’t that a Keaggy song too?).On this side of the pond, real craftsmanship in such as Adrian Snell…

And Phil Keaggy himself: so, let’s get back to this song.  Keaggy was/is a consummate guitarist, and the exquisite guitar-work on this track attests to that too.  But most interesting too is the ambition of actually attempting a musical version of this sonnet by CS Lewis!  Its fluid syntax, its enjambements, its condensed and complex images do not lend themselves easily to musical adaptation!  But this is as brave and close to brilliant an attempt as you can get, and the 40 years since its composition only confirms that for me.

While there may be several levels of explicit and implicit meaning in the sonnet, at the very least it’s about an awareness that much of what we are and do is motivated by self gratification.  CS Lewis clearly highlights (and Keaggy underlines) that this often leads us into mere delusions of knowledge, our ‘flashy rhetoric about loving you’ keeping us from the true experience of the real thing – ‘I talk of love – a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek…’ Like many good at-the-core Christ-infused creations, there is the hint of the end-of-self and the divine redemptive mercy and grace that rescues us from that state.  We get this in the final lines and Keaggy captures the note of hope in the final couplet (‘For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains/You give me are more precious than all other gains’) with a minor to major change mirroring the gratitude of the rescued.

Speaking as someone who has dabbled with “collaborations with CS” myself (!! –songs for my ‘Pilgrim’s Regress’ dramatic adaptation, pale little efforts by comparison!)I recognize what an impressive achievement this lovely song is .  I’m very glad to have stumbled back across it, after far too long.

JESUS, I LOVE YOU by The Church of the Redeemer/ Fisherfolk

The other night, unable to sleep while lying in a constricting sleeping bag on an uncomfortable airbed on the floor of a church hall (doing a rare stint supporting the local night shelter) I put this song on repeat on my iPod, until the battery gave out and I still wasn’t asleep.  But at least .. I remembered… and I remembered what this song meant to me.  And –incidentally – the wakefulness allowed it to minister to me.

Winter 74, spring 75, my then girlfriend Tina passed me a cassette tape of worship music which had been passed on to her by her close college friend.  Apparently, this friend had made an amateur recording of a service she had attended at a dynamic church in Houston, Texas, while she had been travelling in the States.  Sadly, this friend was later discovered to be a spectacularly mendacious attention seeker.  And sometime later, I realized that this recording was in fact a commercially available recording which the Church Of The Redeemer choir(and musicians?) had recorded and released under the title ‘God’s People Give Thanks’.

None of this minimizes the effect of this little cassette.  In amongst stirring traditional hymns like ‘Crown Him With Many Crowns’ and ‘Glory be to Jesus’ there were unusual items – a boys’ choir singing an unusual setting of ‘Micah’s message’ to some subtle rhythmic percussion; a gorgeous  acappella Jewish-type tune, ‘Glorious in Majesty’; some jaunty Alleluia songs with tambourines (which later I came to appreciate as joyous Mimi Armstrong–Farra praise expressions); a wonderful ‘8 fold alleluia’ of utter simplicity, but growing in worshipful intensity.  And in a not too dissimilar vein, there was this.

Five chime bells signal the melody of the first line, and from there on the song is unaccompanied.  What was thrillingly fresh about it, I think, was that on the one hand there were these exquisite choral harmonies, but on the other, the song itself could not have been simpler.  And what simpler expression of adoration could there be than the entirely unadorned sentiment ‘Jesus, I love you’?

I was later to see that this is a mark of Kathleen Thomerson’s style, or perhaps rather, a mark of the way God had clearly taken hold of this talented composer-organist.  All her songs are marked with that same freshness and simplicity of authentic expression.  Take for example the other song of hers included in this recorded Eucharistic service – and now much more widely known and used – ‘I want to walk as a child of the light’.  This has the same disarmingly direct kind of lyric.  Later on, I was also to discover and appreciate other songs of hers – ‘I love the name of Jesus’ and ‘The Shepherd Of My Soul’.

Something else about the lyric of this song –one gets the sense that she didn’t necessarily go for neat poetical crafting – e.g. it didn’t always rhyme (‘now we have seen/the love of God/he has poured out/the spirit of truth…’) because it simply says what she wants it to say, and that seemed then – and seems to me even now –wholly part of its ‘anointed’ status.

Listening to it over and over in my unsleeping state that night, I realized that in my love and appreciation of this song I may well have mentally sidelined a major part of its lyrical thrust –the fourth line of the chorus: ‘Take my life.’ In the first verse too – ‘Life is your gift/I give my heart…’ and this beautiful song helps to lead us there –simple adoration, yes, but surrender and self-giving too.

THE DONOR by Judee Sill

Any Britisher of my generation who remembers the late Judee Sill will also then probably remember the first of her two appearances on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ where, off-script, she made a direct plea to the viewing audience to buy her debut album so that she would not have to open for any ‘snotty heavy rock bands’ anymore…  then proceeded to play and sing the tender, deftly crafted and intriguing put-down song that is ‘Jesus was a Crossmaker’.  The next day I went to Pete’s Record Shop in Bargoed to buy the aforementioned album.  “You’d be surprised how many people have come in as a result of her appeal,” he said, or something like.

While critics praised the way that mystical, religious imagery metaphorically charted her love life and inner conflicts, to me, my ears and eyes youthfully starry with Jesus  – many of the songs sounded simply and authentically Christian in their language –‘the Lamb ran away with the crown’ comes to mind- but perhaps I too easily saw Jesus where there were just strange mixed-up pictures from the biblical teaching in the correctional institutions to which her teenage addiction/prostitution horror stories had consigned her.  Still, here was a strange, talented girl, whose (reportedly) messed up background had nevertheless led her to a place where the iconic symbols and images of Christian theology, and of Christ himself, had somehow captivated her to a point where they informed and inhabited her creative responses to life.  So yes I liked it; I liked her songs.

When I went off to university, Judee Sill took her place in the lineup of the many singer songwriters (several ‘girls with guitars’ among them) that was never far from my vision, though her limited output –just that one great album –perhaps meant that she was not in the forefront, either.  Until I came upon her second album – ‘Heartfood’.  I snapped it up, and was delighted to find that her spiritual language, her obliqueness, her unusual perspectives were just as alluring and potent.  There were even songs that felt like ‘straight’ Christian anthems e.g.  ‘When the bridegroom comes’.  And then there was the 7 minute extraordinary treasure which is ‘The Donor’…

If ever there was a song whose meaning was conveyed impressionistically rather than through lucid lyrical content, then it was this one. First that long introduction itself seems eloquent: a sequence of ponderous piano notes quickly becomes built upon with what sounds like xylophone accompaniment, and then with a repeated chant of wordless musical phrase (like Hey Jude but at the beginning not the end!), growing in intensity and tiers of sound; from this wordlessness ‘kyries’ begin to emerge with increasing distinctness. At a climactic point, when the kyries have reached unequivocal clarity, the voice begins the song ‘proper’, to a starker piano accompaniment. There’s a profound, elemental feel to the song; and inevitably and instinctively I assumed that it was about the Great Donor, Jesus, with the great ‘donation’ of himself implicitly referenced in typically indirect, esoteric Sill-style.  I think that it was the first time I had ever come across the phrase ‘Kyrie Eleison’ (hard to believe now, but bear in mind my spiritually sheltered background of Welsh nonconformity); and its use as a refrain in this song is haunting, plaintive, the layering of voices accentuating the utterly appropriate aching dolorousness of the prayer.

There was no lyric sheet with this second album, and it’s only now, 40 odd years later, that I come to look at them…and find them, like water, hard to hold, without any obvious linear coherence.  Take the opening –‘I’ll chase ‘em to the bottom/Till I’ve finally caught ‘em/Dreams fall deep…’ Like I said, sort of, the meaning is more in the sound than the lyric –but what you can say about the lyric is that everything leads to the Kyrie.  The hints and implications seem to be that inner impulses (the voices ‘Moaning and a-rhyming/…Ringin’ and a-whining’) and the profundities of human experience (‘Songs from so deep/while I’m sleeping’) and the sadnesses of life (‘Sorrow’s like an arrow…  Reaching to the marrow’) all lead us to this prayer –Lord, have mercy.  ‘So sad, and so true…’ – and Judee, bless her, on what level of consciousness I don’t know, helped to highlight the bedrock necessity of that prayer. Well, for me, at least.

I BELIEVE IN YOU by Bob Dylan

As I have anticipated the first Dylan song I’d be writing about, never once did I consider this one.  For the record –I thought maybe ‘Gates of Eden’, one of the first that I learned to play; ‘When the Ship comes in’, the one I played most in folk clubs, or songs I have just formed a close affection for –‘Lay down your Weary Tune’ and even the much slighter ‘One more cup of coffee’…     But on the ol’ ipod shuffle, yesterday, Judy Collins’s version (what, her again?) of this song came on, and I remembered Dylan’s original, and I knew that I wanted to write about it.

When Victor and I flew back into Heathrow Airport after three weeks of travels on Greyhound buses in the States, we must have had some spare moments in between connections to mooch around in the Airport’s newspaper  and magazine kiosks.  Shameful to confess, on this occasion media and music news caught my attention  more than the news of world events and political issues.  Joni Mitchell was on the cover of Rolling Stone, with the infamous curly perm – and –was this hinted at on the covers of NME?  Melody Maker?  Or was it just alluded to in the Joni Mitchell interview?  -Dylan had found God, and was talking openly, and writing, playing and singing, about his newfound Christian faith!

Vic, a most fervent Dylan fan, said we shouldn’t be surprised –Dylan had been a chaser after truth all his life. And yes, it was the case: he’d been unwilling to settle for easy answers, clichés and platitudes, but had maintained integrity even when, unpopularly, he had refused the pigeon holing of trendy genres (consider ‘Our Back Pages’ – a comment perhaps on the oversimplifications of ‘protest’ singers) “So it was just a matter of time,” Victor suggested, “till he arrived at Truth.” (something like this. hope I haven’t misrepresented the younger you/us, Vic.  But that’s who and where we were then).

The first ‘Christian’ album (the first of three, basically) was an unequivocal underlining of this new commitment –‘Slow Train Coming’-  and perhaps surprisingly met with much critical approval despite (or because of?) its authentic gospel tones.  Our camp, our church community of twentysomethings and even younger, were quietly thrilled.  It graced all our turntables; Colin even taught ‘Man Gave Names To All The Animals’ to the Sunday school.

It was a time when –with that wonderful youthful energy and idealism which needs no apology or regret –we wanted to express ourselves in every possible artistic medium and genre; so, as a church, we had several evenings of ‘offering our gifts to each other’, expressing praise and blessing in song, poetry, drama, music, story and dance.  I can’t remember whose idea it was, but on one of these occasions a few of us prepared, rehearsed and performed an interpretive dance to ‘I Believe In You’.  This is hard to believe now!  Hard to imagine what range and variety of movements sustained us through its full five minutes of recorded song!

But I do vaguely recall the joy, the excitement of doing it, and of course that the experience of performing and interpreting the song in a different medium made one inhabit the song in a different way, listening and living through each phrase.  While it starts off on an almost defensive note, a sort of almost sorry whine from a misunderstood  believer –‘they don’t want me around…  Because I believe in you…’ it moves to something that is very much like real praise,all this very close in tone and content to many an honest, raw Davidic psalm: the affirmations of ‘I believe in you even on the morning after/…  When white turns to black/…  Even though I be outnumbered…’And so, also psalm-like, the content moves not just from complaint to faith affirmation/praise, but also then to the imperatives of prayer/plea –‘Don’t let me drift too far…’, ‘Don’t let me change my heart…’

And each one of those stages, each one of those lines and phrases of self pity, solid commitment and plea is echoed with total conviction by the nuances of Dylan’s extraordinary voice – agonized in places, plaintive in others (and against which Ms Collins’s rendition sounds…sorry, Judy…somewhat bland) – and to each of these stages, we danced, we moved, we tried to inhabit it with our hands, feet, gestures, expression and our own faith.

It’s not surprising, then, that others have wanted to cover this song.  Whatever your stance on spirituality, the song has an obvious authenticity of feeling, and integrity, and it is beautifully structured too.  It lives on –beyond what we now call Dylan’s ‘Christian period’.  My heart lifts to remember it today, my faith – gladly -still making that same arc of psalmic responses..

MONOCHROME by The Sundays

Here’s a good example of what I’m trying to explore here: the way that our responses to songs, particularly over time, become a complex blend of – the trivial anecdotal details of how we first connected with the song; what we like/have liked about its sound; the other personal memories evoked by the content; how lines, phrases in the song continue to make us think, feel, smile, remember… That’s all here.

Where to start? The song. It’s not easy to recreate a child’s eye view but this one does it nicely with a few simple brushstrokes – ‘It’s 4 in the morning, July in 69/ Me and my sister, we crept down like shadows/they’re bringing the moon right down to our living room..’ all to a gently shuffling chordal accompaniment, an understated musical background, a simple, sustained melody. The song ‘gets it’ – the magic, the unreality, the strangeness and disorientation of this childhood experience. The vision of those ‘slow puppets, silver ground’ on this historic, unaccustomed middle-of-the-night TV viewing; a sense of the momentous (‘We hear a voice from above/And it’s history’). But what makes this subtler still is that it captures those other elements of a child’s response – that inevitable feeling of not-quite-understanding (‘…lost in space/but I don’t know where it is.’) linked, especially in the final lines, to the child’s excitement focused then on more modest, immediate things – like …staying up really late! :‘I half expect to hear them asking to come down/(Oh will they fly or will they fall) /to be excited by/A long late night.’) Understatedly accomplished lyric – beautiful.

But of course, it’s hard to listen to it totally divorced from one’s own memory of that night of the moon landing, that night of ‘monochrome vision – static and silence’. Me, I was 16, away from home, in a Summer School at Balliol College Oxford – intended, it appears, to give brightish boys (why only boys??) from deprived working-class areas a little taste of rarified Oxbridge atmosphere. So yes, there were about two dozen of us, I think, gathered around a small telly in one of the college common rooms – excited, but perhaps a little too teenage and ‘cool’, even then, to show it too explicitly. Still, the images of those ‘slow puppets, silver ground’ no doubt imprinted themselves viscerally so that even today the Sundays’ song still sets up little shivers of recognition.

I didn’t encounter The Sundays ‘the first time around’ whenever that was. I suspect I was too busy playing cassettes of ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ or listening to Taize on the Walkman , or maybe Mahler on my minidisc player.  But anyway, in 2008, over the August Bank Holiday weekend, I attended a ‘JoniFest’ (organized by the wonderful Lucy Cowie), knowing only that it would be a gathering of people interested in Joni Mitchell’s music, but –beyond that – not quite sure what to expect. What I couldn’t have anticipated included the following: 1. A warm, beautiful group of people. Despite that fact that most of them knew each other already, they were unconditionally welcoming, and embraced me affectionately with ties that continue today. 2. Extraordinary affirmation for my own songwriting, something I had not factored into expectations at all, armed as I was with just a few Joni-covers to sing. 3. That JM songs were appreciated, certainly, but in the most sensible, non-fanatical ways (if anything, slightly worryingly, arguably the most obsessive collector/enthusiast of her music there was..me). 4. That subsequently, and healthily, a whole range of other stuff was sung and shared, so that I ended up being introduced to music totally new and unfamiliar.

It was the lovely Patrick Leader from New York City, whose simple, almost apologetic performances introduced me to the most unfamiliar of things – first ‘Mirrorball’ from Everything but the Girl (who?); then a song called ‘I Feel’ from The Sundays (also, who?). I liked. I liked enough to explore further: a few weeks later in a charity shop in Mountain Ash, I came across the ‘Static and Silence’ CD  and my poor, pathetic little song-enthusiast heart did a familiar little leap.  The other two Sundays CDs (it’s not difficult to be a Sundays completist) were not difficult to track down.

What happened to them I don’t know, even though Google could tell me, no doubt. But I do know that Harriet Wheeler’s voice is something of a rare English treasure, deserving of wider recognition. All 3 Sundays CDs are little gems, worth holding on to. And this particular ‘4 in the morning, July in 69’ song, keeps notching up plays on my ipod.