25. WONDROUS LOVE – North American Folk Hymn (Jean Richie…and many more..)

Not only did we have this hymn sung at our wedding, but I fully intend that it shall be sung at my funeral.

I say ‘had it sung’ because it was not a congregational song; rather, a wonderful team of friends had assembled themselves into an excellent choir for the occasion (having rehearsed for weeks under the superb direction of Hazel Law), performing two set piece items –a more challenging Betty Pulkingham anthem written for her own son’s wedding –‘For You Shall Go Out in Joy’ –with wonderful harmonies, echoes and changes of tempo; and this song sung more simply in unison, but equally powerful.  The legend has it that after the singing of these songs,  I was so entranced and thrilled that I stood up as if to leave, thinking the service over, almost forgetting the bride next to me and the vows I had come to make.  I wish I could say that the legend had no truth.

I absolutely love this song.  So much so, that it is practically the only song I have bothered to learn to play properly and completely on the piano (if we forget Joni Mitchell’s ‘For Free’ and half of ‘Rainy Night House’) painfully working my way through right and left hand parts from my dog eared copy of ‘Sound Of Living Waters’.  The family are probably sick of me playing it on the piano but, bless them, they’re far too nice to tell me so.

I suspect that if I were north American I would have grown up with this song being a far more familiar old chestnut; it is, after all, a north American folk hymn – possibly, I read somewhere, from one of the ‘Great Awakenings’(though probably too employing an early English folk tune).  As it is, I did not hear it until I was into my twenties and it will be no surprise to friends that it was the Fisherfolk who introduced me to it in their beautiful album of hymns ‘Lo He Comes’.  They treated it as a simple choral piece, unison, nothing fancy, and actually the album gives us only two verses – a kind of teasing taster.

Given that the song is always bigger than the sum of its parts, it’s hard to clearly identify why I love it so much, but I think I can put my finger on some of the ‘parts’ that add to its appeal. Well first I’d have to say the content, wouldn’t I, dealing with themes I’ve built my life upon.  Four verses (at least in the version that I’ve become familiar with) declaring a sense of wonder at divine grace in Christ; an acknowledgement of the depth from which I’ve been lifted; the resultant desire to worship;  and a grateful sense of hope and joyous continuation beyond death.  Secondly, the repetitions –ah, tricky, dangerous things.  Repetitions can give a song tedium, frivolousness and even suggest heavy handedness; but here the repetitions feel just right –beautiful key phrases picked out, of or expanding into, longer statements, the repetitions gaining  a meditative strength for these sometimes short phrases, sometimes longer lines, all suggesting simplicity but also a kind of focus.

Thirdly,I have come to see how much the tune means to me, too.  I learned recently that the song is written in the Dorian mode, and this made sense, reminding me of (the only time I ‘learnt’ – in some measure – about modes) when I learned, from a book, how to play the Appalachian dulcimer with its distinctive sound  reliant on drone notes. The Dorian mode tuning was less common, I seem to recall (I tried the tuning and wrote only one song in this tuning – ‘Touch Me’ which I can probably neither sing nor play now, but am quite proud of) and, for reasons I don’t really understand, I find the mode  a truly haunting one. Ironically though, dulcimer queen Jean Richie sings it here acapella.

And though I still love the measured, choral versions, I can see now why its folk origins and format lend themselves perhaps even more naturally to looser renditions in acoustic folk and particularly American bluegrass – listen to this lovely version by Blue Highway, which is a recent discovery for me – I think they miss some of the full range of melodic nuances, but the force of it, the haunting dorian mode, the ‘white spiritual’ of the lyric is all here, especially in that lovely overlapping finale, so stick with it till the end.

I don’t regret it as a wedding choice – My soul was in awe at wondrous love (‘what wondrous love is this…?!’) then as I am now; an even better choice for a funeral , though, you might indeed think (‘And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on…’). On that occasion, if you’re there, it’ll be congregational. Learn it, sing along.

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24. THE FOLKS WHO LIVE ON THE HILL – Peggy Lee

I still really miss Benny Green’s Sunday afternoon radio programme.  Some weeks, especially if, after church and after lunch I’ve gone out for a drive towards the Brecon mountains and reservoirs for some scenery and a little stroll, I stupidly try to twiddle the dials to Radio 2, hoping to still find him there.

His program was quite unique, and –like John Peel, from another context –introducing me to things I might not have heard anywhere else; his knowledge of the ‘great American songbook’, particularly, was encyclopaedic –but he also got you appreciating the context in which there were written, with anecdotes about the composers and the performers, the creative partnerships or business collaborations which had produced these songs.  He got me listening to lyrics in a new way – I remember when he shed light on ‘Paper Moon’, seemingly a throwaway romantic ditty –describing how it deftly proposes the idea that love can give validity and substance to otherwise superficial and insubstantial scenarios.  Something like that.  Anyway, Benny Green wasn’t above repeating favourites on his playlists, from what I (at least imagine) I remember,  this extraordinary beautiful Peggy Lee song seemed to get more than its fair share of Sunday afternoon plays.

It’s a Jerome Kern – Oscar Hammerstein number: in essence, I suppose it reflects the generic dream of every young couple –a home, their own living space, independent house ownership (and ‘location, location, location’).  And the aspiration of building a family together in an idyllic setting, before eventually settling to enjoy the living space in post-childrearing comfortable old age.  I have to ‘hold lightly’ to these lyrics, or I will get very cranky about how hard it is now in the UK for young couples to gather the money for a deposit, especially while still paying off a student loan, to get the simple ‘foot on the mortgage ladder’, let alone get the capital to build a house on a hill!!!

Still, the romance of dreams and songs.  Hammerstein’s lyric is simple and economical –three verses (one: building and living, two: family and extensions, three: on their own again) and a playful little ‘middle eight’ –‘our veranda/will command a/view of Meadows green/the sort of view/that seems to want to be seen…’ In the third verse, Peggy Lee apparently didn’t want to sing ‘Darby and Joan’ (who used to be Jack and Jill) –perhaps she didn’t understand it –so she sings ‘baby and Joe’ (?) Doesn’t matter; still sounds nice.

Let’s be honest, what’s most gorgeous about this is the sound, just the sound – from the first intriguing, haunting sweep of strings, and the single trumpet that enters, quickly augmented by other woodwind instruments taking up the introductory phrases and overlapping before Ms Lee slides in with one sultry, simple word ..’Someday..’ So many beautiful ingredients to this song –as well as the silky allure of the voice, and the sensitive orchestration, there’s a kind of wonderful leisureliness to the phrasing and the pace of the whole song, so that, yes, Mr. Green, it bears many a repeated listen.

Funny thing, I can’t take too much Peggy Lee all at once.  We’ve got ‘Fever’ on our jukebox, of course, but that’s something else –a clever little minor classic, a paeon to sexual chemistry –but a whole album of Peggy Lee?  Hmmm, maybe like overdosing on cream.

A final word on the lyrics: perhaps too they tap into another part of the aspirations of  romantic dreamers –to be acknowledged as a recognized unit (an ‘item’ as we say these days) with its own established identity –‘And we’ll be pleased to be called/what we have always been called/the folks who live on the hill…’ And…  given our geographical location, and our relative marital longevity, I suppose this could be said to be what Susan and I have become.

23. SOMETHING’S COMING – Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (from ‘West Side Story’)

“Allan, I can’t sleep –tell me the story of West Side Story,” I can remember saying to my poor beleaguered brother in the days when we shared a bedroom.

If the early sixties was the age of the single (45 rpm) record, the late sixties was the age of the album, the 33 rpm LP, especially as Allan left school, got a job and started earning.  The first LP he bought was Gerry and the Pacemakers ‘How Do You Like It?’ (cleverly combining the titles of two of their hits –geddit?) but then his purchases broadened, and one of those purchases was the soundtrack of ‘West Side Story’ because he had seen the film and enjoyed it.

At that age both Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim were just names to me, of course –and would not ‘flesh out’ into reputation for another decade – both of them; but the LP was magical.  There wasn’t a bum track on it, and I was fascinated about how it all fitted together.  So, imagine my poor sleep deprived brother as I’m asking “so who sings ‘Somewhere’?  What point does that come into the story’?  And who is Officer Krupke? Why does the girl who’s feeling pretty feel so pretty? Who’s telling her ‘a boy like that/could kill your brother’?  Why do they like to be in America?  Where were they before?

I probably memorised all the lyrics, as you do.  But I can remember a particular fondness for ‘Something’s Coming’ – any teenager should be able to buy into that – hey, something special just around the corner – the world full of possibilities.  I can remember (embarrassing) solitary walks on the hill behind our street, and singing this out like a little X factor wannabe diva – five decades too early?

It’s a masterful little construction –changing pace between the staccato, breathy ‘Could be…  Who knows…’ until you come to the breathless, swift run of ‘I got a feeling there’s a miracle due gonna come true coming to meeeeeee…..’ Those sentiments tap into a genuine youthful excitement.  And those youthful excitements, I can’t stop believing, are genuine God-given signposts to the pregnant potency of life itself. And OK, only when the majority of your presumed threescore-and-ten stretches out before you can you really indulge in that heady optimism…but I see no reason why us ol timers shouldn’t also be able to know the occasional shivers of attentiveness and expectancy  ‘only just out of reach…down a block…on a beach….maybe tonight…’

I did eventually see the film! It’s got its flaws, it’s got its charms, it’s got some stunning choreography set pieces (‘America!’). I’m glad I knew the music first, though – Bernstein and Sondheim, my hat is tipped to your combined brilliance.

22. EASTER SONG – The Second Chapter of Acts

By the end of 1960s, those of us who, by whatever circumstance, had found themselves drawn by the mysterious cords of divine grace to swear some kind of allegiance to Jesus, were ready –more than ready –for a ‘new song’ to sing to our Beloved.

While – in some respects –we had come to value the hymnody heritage (Wesleyan rousers obviously appealing more to the youthful spirit), a parallel strand reflecting jaunty creativity (?) was perhaps missing.  We had existed for a couple of decades, it seemed, on ‘Youth Praise’ or ‘Singspiration’ –largely compilations of ‘choruses’ (the most accessible/repetitive elements of longer verse-and-refrain hymns) put together, at least in the case of Youth Praise, by well meaning clerics wanting to keep youngsters in a state of lively faith.

Two movements, at least, stirred up things in the 1960s –the ‘Jesus Revolution’ in America, short lived but well publicized, making it possible to be a Jesus-follower and also counter-cultural; and the ‘charismatic renewal’ which touched mainly historical/liturgical churches with an openness to more spontaneous, less rigidly cerebral worship expressions.  So, there were new musical worship expressions resulting from this sweep of freshness; some of the earliest I remember being aware of were the simple ‘Scripture In Song’ pieces coming from, I believe, Australian charismatics.  From the USA, the new output used the form, shape and sound of contemporary pop and folk.  Things trickled into Britain.

In the early 1970s, Buzz magazine was essential reading for young British Christians of a sort of evangelical persuasion.  Sometime between 73-75, in one of their monthly issues, they included the free gift of a sampler record (a thin, floppy piece of plastic).  There were perhaps four or five songs on it?  One was certainly ‘Love Song’ from the band and the album of the same name.  One might have been the artist Honeytree?  (maybe not).  One might even have been the Water into Wine Band.  But one track was certainly ‘Easter Song’ from a band with the unlikely title of The Second Chapter Of Acts, and their name tells you straight away their context: a young band excited by Pentecostal outpourings of Holy Spirit reality.

It’s a cliché, but I’ll say it anyway: the song was an absolute breath of fresh air.  There was such a vivacity and a vitality in it which perfectly suited it as a celebratory anthem of resurrection victory and joy.  From the first ‘Hear the bells ringing…’ it sustained a pace of breathless excitement –and the harmonies were sweet, tight, effortless in their swooping and blending.

The group acquired shape and personality in subsequent days as we learnt more about them –a brother and two sisters team, driven it would seem by elder sister Annie, married to music producer Buck Herring.  Siblings Nelly and Matthew Ward were, one imagined, encouraged along in a vibrant faith and into musical ministry, by their big sister. Subsequent albums never quite had the magical effect of this first, especially as we moved into the prevailing 80s’ style of ‘the thinner the content the glossier the overproduction’.But some things remained constant: Matthew Ward’s extraordinary ‘soulful’ voice, for one; for another, Annie’s enduring creative integrity.

We saw them, in the mid 1980s, performing in Bristol.  ‘You won’t enjoy it,’ someone had told us (‘you can’t go back to that cheesy naivete’ is what he meant).  But despite all odds and despite the hairstyles,we did enjoy it.   I recall Annie leading us in an acapella rendition of the hymn ‘Holy holy holy’ – and the band’s driving, joyous worship was tried and tested:okay, a little world weary maybe, but in its context, a significant beacon. And this particular anthem has earned its place as something of a standard, perhaps. So, come on..’Hear the bells ringing, they’re singing…’

21. DEPORTEE by Woody Guthrie and FISHING by Richard Shindell

It must be the current migrant crisis in Europe that has brought these two songs back into my mind over the last few days. Though yes of course I know that it’s not exactly the same: there is a difference between USA’s handling of ‘illegal’ Central American immigrants, and Western European’s response to the families fleeing (particularly) Syria in recent months, seeking asylum, refuge, hopeful new beginnings. Perhaps the connection between that situation and these songs is the way these songs identify the distrust and dehumanisation of suffering individuals, and that even convenient labels employed in media reportage can start to erode necessary compassion.

While not totally overriding the complexity of the issue, Guthrie’s song hints boldly at his country’s institutional doublemindedness about Central Americans aching for more secure and prosperous lives north of the Mexican border  – i.e. tolerated when they are economically useful eg to bring in huge fruit harvests at minimal expense; shunted back speedily when that seasonal usefulness is over. The particular shunting flight which occasioned this song never made it – hence the subtitle ‘Plane Wreck over Los Gatos’. The key line which reflects (what he sees as) this callous dehumanizing process of the kind of media coverage discouraging imaginative empathy is the final line, slightly changing each time, of the chorus .. ‘The radio says they are just deportees’. Similarly in the last few weeks I note that people have used social media to challenge British newscoverage-speak and politician-speak  resorting to the kind of politically technical terminology – when referring to the tragedies of even the youngest individuals from these migration stories- likely to distance us from true fellow feeling . ‘The word you’re searching for, Mr Cameron’(or whoever, I can’t quite recall now), said one posting,’is simply children!’.

Both these songs are more than mere polemic: they invite us to enter the human situations of those making these perilous journeys: in Guthrie’s case we enter into a sense of loss not just for those who are bereaved by the tragedy (‘Gooodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita..’), but also that their very treatment seems to have deprived them of dignity and identity  – ‘You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane/ All they will call you will be..deportees’. Shindell’s song is a masterfully imaginative composition, a largely one-sided dialogue featuring a Latin American ‘illegal’ being interviewed by an immigration officer, with a series of racial slurs (‘I bet you Indians can really reel them in..’), threats (‘We know just where [your next of kin] is hiding’), taunting half-promises, quickfire interrogation questions, brutal confrontations (‘good citizen or poor campesino?’) as pressure is applied to give information about more illegals. The extended metaphor throughout is of fishing – the officer, particularly, trying to ‘catch’ the worker out by guile and coercion – both the metaphor and the manner add to the dehumanization that is taking place.

Apparently (Shindell says in concert introductions to this song) he originally wrote it as this monologue, without the worker’s riposte in the final verse: this man is the literal fisherman who has been forced to flee his land of origin. I’m glad he gets a voice in this coda.There is a beautiful contrasting dignity in his response, in his unwillingness to play cynical pay-off games, in his resignation at returning to a land where, despite its presumable danger and poverty, he has a profession, and – in the final image of the fish – there is a paradoxical freedom and ‘wealth’ – ‘They’re waiting there for me/ Running deep’.

Shindell is a terrific troubadour, and my brief sketch of the lyric gives no real reflection of the power of this as a whole, sung song. Joan Baez covers this song well, but for grit and passion, hear the original. Guthrie’s song has been covered many many times (and you won’t be surprised by now if I say that Judy Collins’s version was the first I heard – her cover is both controlled and moving) but – interestingly – Shindell too has recorded it on his lovely covers album ‘South of Delia’. I’m not real sure I’ve heard a bad version – it’s such a solidly good verse and chorus standard of a song.

The best of art, the best of songs, should lead us to enter into and appreciate others’ humanity; these two songs certainly do that. And whatever political and economic solutions and compromises have to be forged between nations and (within nations) by local authorities and communities in the coming months, these don’t negate the necessity for compassion, and anything that encourages compassionate responses is worth listening to intelligently.

20. MOUNTAIN GREENERY by Mel Torme

‘Funny thing’ I said to the woman behind the Oxfam counter, as I handed over this CD and the 60p to pay for it, ‘I just don’t remember Mel Torme as being this attractive!’ She smiled politely. ‘Would you like a bag…?’  The song under discussion comes from a completely different disc –though this Moon-themed one is worth the 60p just for ‘Moonlight in Vermont’; but this little incident from last week at Hay both tickled me, and has become my way in to remembering my first Torme disc, ‘Live at the Crescendo’, a December 1954 recording (5 months after my first birthday).

So..that recording sends me to a brief window in my life where I lived technically alone –  I suppose, without checking it out, that must be the two or three years after the various house-sharings and prior to my marriage i.e. the early 1980s.What was I listening to back then the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s?  -nothing ‘contemporary’, I think.  For much of the time I was attempting to educate myself into enjoying Beethoven; and so to Kelly’s Record Exchange (upstairs in Cardiff indoor market) I went many a Saturday with dispensable contemporary folk (bye bye Carly Simon et al) and I came home with rather tattered-sleeved secondhand discs of the symphonies, the Emperor Concerto and piano sonatas.  But of course, I also listened to Joni, Bob and the Fisherfolk.

A couple of times a year at that stage in my life, and particularly in the pre-Christmas run-up, I’d take a trip to London for some mild browsing and shopping, and always called in to the used record stores around Charing Cross Road and Soho Market.  There was one particular shop I loved, where the vinyl was just crammed in –not always with any perceptible notion of order –and their basement stock contained classics, easy listening, jazz, swing/crooners and humour.  I found myself often drawn to picking out quirky things with which I was only modestly familiar.  On one visit I brought home a Flanders and Swann LP (with its sleeve in a very sorry condition) –I played it to death and loved it.  On another occasion a Noel Coward compilation, on another the double album of Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter songs –even today this is among my most prized series of recordings –have it now in CD of course.  On yet another occasion, I came home with this live Mel Torme LP.  What did I know of him?  Why did I choose it?  Did I notice perhaps that it contained the ‘Christmas Song’ (‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire…’) and did I notice on the liner notes that he was in fact its composer?  Did I feel it might be a nice seasonal sound to take back home to my funny telly-less little terraced home?

If that was what I’d imagined, I wasn’t wrong.  I have warming, perhaps slightly romanticised, memories of me nearing Christmas, enjoying my homely solitude, the fire banked up with coal, spreading on the floor all the Tear Fund/Traidcraft items which I had bought as gifts (working out what would fit whom), listening to this album on repeat, no doubt singing along.  There couldn’t possibly be a voice that more comfortingly combines silk and huskiness, and the live performance takes us not only through Christmas Song, and another of his own compositions ‘County Fair’, but a couple of Rogers and Hart songs – the lovely ‘Blue Moon’ and this one under discussion; the Gershwins’ great ‘Love is Here to Stay’, a couple of Cole Porters, and several others, all with a genuine, winning charm.

‘Mountain Greenery’ was track one on side 2, I seem to recall –and I’d probably known the song from childhood days – Forces’ Favourites on the radio, perhaps –but to discover it again was very nice indeed.  It’s a Rogers and Hart song, such a neat, playful construction both melodically (that fun climbdown on ‘greenery’ and the climb back up on ‘scenery’) and, particularly, lyrically, with jokey and inventive rhymes throughout –‘your lover let…/coverlet’; ‘planned which is…’/’sandwiches’ etc.  Some great couplets: ‘How we love sequestering/Where no pests are pestering’, and ‘Beans could get no keener re/ception in a beanery’- clearly one madcap lyricist was Lorenz Hart! And I should mention the very inviting song-introduction which encourages us alluringly to a real recklessness –‘spring is here so blow your job/Throw your job away’ and ‘now’s the time to trust/to your wanderlust.’ So there’s much to delight in, while you’re sitting on the floor wrapping presents.  And of course,it’s the old pastoral, Romantic idyll, the lure of the rustic retreat, the sweet scent of freedom and travel, the promise of places of perpetual peace and freshness.. shared of course romantically, this time with a small r, though the playful wit gives it a tongue-in-cheek urbane archness.(A bit like Marlowe’s ‘Come live with me and be my love..’, now I come to think of it!)

Admittedly, it’s also very much a song of its time, and not beyond mild sexism – inviting the beloved out into the country so that he could sit and watch her cooking beans –if I hear it correctly!  I’ve heard Ella doing this song too on her own Rogers and Hart song book collection- it’s nice, but this version for me, by Mr Torme, is still the quintessential.