51. LIGHT YEARS AWAY – Debby McClatchy



I bought a banjo!  I think I’ve always wanted one, however uncool they may be.  Perhaps it’s the Appalachian peasant in me; partly, perhaps, it’s a kind of tribute to one of my musical heroes, Pete Seeger, I don’t know.  But since buying it, one of the first songs I wanted to learn to play is ‘Light Years Away’ as sung by Debby McClatchy.

On an earlier posting, one that addressed two traditional songs, ‘I wish, I wish’ and ‘Serving Girls Holiday’, I tell the story of my earliest acquaintances with folk clubs, very much toes being dipped into water, but never plunging, never developing into anything interactive or engaged.  Now comes the second part of my folk clubs story –where this time, something did ‘take’ and develop.  On our return from living abroad, in 1995, we were perhaps ripe for a few new experiences –the crazy world of amateur dramatics for one, for two: beginning to attend a weekly Folk Club.  This was Llantrisant Folk Club (still very much alive and flourishing, though I am far less frequently a visitor), it took place on a Wednesday night, upstairs in a pub, and generally I didn’t get there until quite late, because I had been teaching Spanish at an evening class in Merthyr (yet another new venture), from seven till nine.  I went along simply to enjoy the music, with no idea of playing my own songs, necessarily (and yet, eventually, this did develop into a whole new audience for my songs, and indeed new songs no doubt encouraged by the existence of that audience!).

On the first night I attended, Debby McClatchy was the guest performer, accompanying herself on her banjo and –because of the novelty, who knows?  -I was quite entranced, but at no time moreso than when she introduced and sang this song ‘Light Years Away’.  She explained that it had been written by two members of the Red Clay Ramblers for the off Broadway production of Sam Shepard’s play ‘A Lie Of The Mind’ where they also performed it on stage.  Now, sure, that might have warmed me to it immediately – very possibly,  because he’s brilliant, isn’t he, S.S.  – but I felt an indefinable beauty about the song.  It also provided the title for Debbie’s new cassette, which I bought that night and played repeatedly for the next few weeks.

In those early months of folk club attendance, there were many new and exciting discoveries –let’s see… the a cappella group Artisan, for instance, with those exquisitely crafted Brian Bedford songs; there was the haunting voice of Tanya Opland; James Keelaghan visited, and what a treat that was; then there was a little band called Gypsy Reel who also – blow me down!  -covered the song ‘Light Years Away’ on their ‘Shake That Spirit Free’ album, and this time the darker, fruitier tones of Camille Parker gave this song a different quality, perhaps less tremulous, catching more assertiveness in the aching yearnings of the lyric.  Two great versions…

But I come back to Debby McClatchy’s recording as my original and defining listen, and I like the ambiguities it first presented me with.  This is a kind of love song, without doubt, to ‘Evangeline’ (not a character in Shepard’s play, so presumably this, like all the others which the Red Clay Ramblers wrote for the play is a standalone song, not dictated by dramatic events); but it’s also a song of longings that will seemingly be unfulfilled, and that tone of pining loss comes through right from the beginning in all those haunting conditionals –‘if I could wake to find you near me…’, ‘if I could call and you could hear me…’, ‘if you could take my hand…’.  We get it in the repeated ‘out of the blue’…  with its suggestion not just of something unlikely, but – the elegiac hint –of something dreamlike conjured from beyond earthly existence?  We get it in the interplay between light and dark in thoughts of the beloved (‘my sunshine, light of my day…’; and yet ‘a star in the darkness…’) coming together in the song’s key phrase and title –‘light years away’ suggests that she is indeed a shining light but in endless dark space, way beyond the practicalities of warmth and reach.  We get it underlined more explicitly in the song’s neat little two line bridge – ‘Stealing away in the night, pale and cold/Lost in the light of the Moon..’

And I like a bit of melancholy, me.  So I’m trying to plunk-a-plunk my way towards it, and so far only achieving the vaguest approximation of Debby McClatchy’s accompaniment…  I have a feeling that she may have tuned the banjo to something a little more unconventional to get the minor feel for this song; so if anyone has any clues as to anything connected with the tuning, the chord shapes and the fingering patterns for this great Tommy Thompson/Stretch Herrick song, send them along and make my day! (No doubt I could work it out from careful application to the youtube clip posted above – still, short cuts and second opinions much appreciated!)



Christians who want wide, rich, real worship expressions ignore the Psalter to their own great detriment – for within it are songs and prayers, rants and exultations, moans, lamentations, sighs of wonder and bafflement to cover most if not all human emotions. Like the News of the World’s old byline ‘All human life is there’; which is to say that the psalms help us somehow to encompass it all, and offer up in songs-of-a-kind all manner of reactions –adoring, angry and ambiguous, and the rest. This is relevant; bear with me.

Anyone who’s been part of an exciting community of believers (and this probably holds true for kinds of fellowships, fraternities and societies) will have known times of burgeoning and creativity, where solidarity is sweet, new experiences come thick and fast, and there’s a spring-like sense  of learning and newness, flow and fruition…and songs of joy and praise come easy and seem natural as breath. If they stick at it, they’ll also know times of quiet fallowness and consolidation; but then there’ll also be times of reduction, of ‘paring back’, times of challenge and disagreements, where once-simple comradeships seem complex and less secure, where disenchantments are expressed, old zeals diminished and where people change course, succumb to tragedy, or simply leave. There needs to be song-prayers for these occasions too, and perhaps that’s something which this pair of songs – never far away from my current playlists – continues to remind me.

Both these songs come from the Woodland Park Community, another expression of the Community of Celebration stemming from the historic renewal that took place at Houston’s Church of the Redeemer in the 1960s. While the U.K.-based Fisherfolk (the C of C’s touring/recording musical ministry teams) produced the great majority of recordings, the Colorado community’s ‘Fisherfolk’ produced three albums in the early 1980s. The first, ‘This is the Day’ reflects more of that early stage of community I mentioned – with songs of great joy, commitment and adoration. It’s a beautiful album. These two songs – both by Margo Farra – more later – come from the second and third albums, ‘The Sun’s Gonna Shine’(1982)  and ‘Willing to Row’(1983). And although these albums are no less commendable and full of vibrant praise, their joy is undoubtedly tinged with more shadowy qualities – resignation, fortitude, consolations….that suggest, perhaps, a community of worship having to confront and embrace difficulties that make their sacrifice of praise all the more steely-real.

And so to the first of these songs, ‘The Sun’s Gonna Shine’ which gives the album its title too. It ends the album, with Margo herself (I think?) taking the lead on her own self-penned lyrics. While it is indeed a song of hope and confirmation (the chorus: ‘The Sun’s gonna shine/ Just wait and see/ Spring’s gonna come/ I can feel it in me, can’t you?’), there’s an undeniable melancholy about it, underscored by the hypnotically repetitive melody lines, and explicit in its context – ‘Watching you go is the hardest thing I’ve ever done…’. There’s an elegiac quality to this (appropriate then that it was sung in Margo’s funeral some years later),  but more probably it’s about someone leaving community, breaking strong familial links forged over years of common spiritual struggle and friendship. The details in it make it sound an intensely personal song, yet for me it’s personal in the same way as David’s rawest psalms, which become ‘universal’ as cries and prayers we can all tap into. Like many a psalm, too, it traces a line through the sorrow and incomprehension to a kind of faith-intuition and acceptance (‘To find your life, you’ve got to lose your life, so you say/ Well that’s hard to believe, but in your life/ I see it working that way…’) and a further step, to the faith-declaration of the chorus, where other voices join, harmonizing, to swell out to something substantial.

Margo’s contribution to album three was also the closing track, and there’s something of a similar feel to it, and once again, a similar honest psalm-like quality to its plaint – ‘Staying in each other’s sorrow/ Bearing one another’s pain/ Sometimes I wonder/ If we’ll ever, ever laugh again..’ which hints at some of the sadnesses and challenges  the community was confronting in faithfully following their call. Once again, for most of the song the melodic range is repetitive, though in a haunting rather than a numbing way – and this time the lead vocal is given to Diane Davis Andrew whose sensitivity and precision give the sound a beautiful stark crispness. Lyrically here, even moreso than in ‘The sun’s gonna shine’, we have that psalmic note of yearning and enquiry – ‘Will we ever laugh..?’ –at one point ‘Sir, we’re here to ask you, will we ever…?’ The corresponding strain of faith, the answering response, comes in two ways: in a counter-song (taken up by the male vocalists) towards the end of the song, with the Lord’s promises and invitation to rest, peace, sustenance, healing… (‘Place your hurting hearts…in my love/ and let me warm them with my truth..’) and secondly in the more declarative hopeful tone of the last verse – sung now in unison, while Diane’s voice soars a joyous descant – Singing in the sorrow/ dancing in one another’s pain..’ and there’s something wonderful and slightly enigmatic about the final lines – ‘Because we asked the question/ our lives will never be the same..’ Not sure I fully comprehend it, but it sounds to me like an unapologetic endorsement of the way of life the community has chosen – despite sorrowful  difficulty, to live authentically with real-ness, asking questions of God (and of each other) and open to answers in ways that are literally life-changing.

I might not have recognized the beauty and worth of these two songs if they had not appeared at a time when my own awareness of church/community struggles and difficulties made them seem eminently applicable. Like I said at the start, we need songs for these stages in our communal experiences, and these fitted the bill. In a not dissimilar vein, I wrote some songs of my own at this time – ‘Calvary Love’, ‘We have a Saviour’, songs of a consolatory/encouraging tone. Perhaps Margo’s songs (and some of King David’s) helped me to find a voice.

Margo  Farra – perhaps someone should write the story of how the Farra tribe and spouses got touched by God in the destiny-shaping sweep of Spirit-renewal  at Houston… I never met Margo Farra in any of my visits to the Community of Celebration or various ‘Celebration Days’ in Dorset. But everything I’ve read and heard of her attests that not only was she well acquainted with grief – from childhood, through marriage difficulties, to her early death from cancer – but that she was an effervescent, creative character, with enormous vivacity alongside great pastoral sensitivity and warmth.  I wish I’d known her, but all I’ve known of her is these two songs, and I am more than grateful to her for them, for they have extended for me the Psalter, encouraging and enabling me to offer even the most painful experiences up in melodic prayer.

[Since completing this I’ve discovered a youtube clip containing Wiley Beveridge’s beautiful tribute to Margo, his song ‘ I will RememberYou’

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Js7xvpj8MT4  ]