79. VENI CREATOR SPIRITUS – Mahler (8th Symphony)

…  But please don’t let that choice lead you to expect any kind of erudite musical analysis .  What you’ll get here is just some faltering attempts to chart my introduction to and enthusiasm for this ‘song’, this song-and-a-half (!), this extraordinary spirit lifting piece of work.

I was first introduced to Mahler when some teaching colleagues of mine at my first school (so we’re talking 40 years ago) invited me for coffee one evening.  They had recently moved in together and seemed to have very little in the way of luxuries but they had a record player on the floor of the living room, and a bunch of LPs, and the guy was eager to play some of them for me. ‘Listen to this’ he said with some excitement, putting on Mahler’s first symphony, and moving the needle to the third movement. ‘Listen to the way he plays with ‘Three Blind Mice’!’ I listened politely, was amused and intrigued and something more by what Mahler was doing with this simple canon of a tune – three blind mice or Frere Jacques or Bruder Martin or whatever you want to call it.  He had made of it a very neat, slightly spooky funeral march and it gave me a little frisson.  Yep, Mahler, one to watch, I thought.  But although I bought a copy of that first symphony, it’s fair to say I more or less forgot about Gustav for the next two decades.

So we picked up our acquaintance again about a decade and a half ago in some local municipal library where, browsing through the CDs, I noticed the complete symphonies of Mahler, a nice little box set that I could book out of the library for a minimal fee for three weeks.  It was the days of the mini disc player! (in fact, if I’m honest, I can’t quite disassociate Mahler from that now defunct, outdated little silver machine, which for at least a year or so I carried everywhere..) What I did was to transfer all ten symphonies onto two mini-discs, yes, feeling a little proud of myself for condensing so much music into so small a space. (Ha) And I became, as you do, a little obsessed.  When I was out and about, or when I was marking papers, it was either symphonies 1 to 5 in my ears, or symphonies 6 to 10.  And perhaps I ought to be a bit ashamed to say that although I loved and lived in the music, they all kind of blended into each other, and I didn’t really take the time to distinguish one masterpiece from another.

But….  a few years further on… that is less the case.  In particular this here eighth symphony has established a particular place in my listening and in my heart, especially, as you might not be too surprised to hear, the first section, based as it is upon a ninth century Pentecost hymn ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’.

A 9th Century Latin text, certainly (some scholar called Rhabanus Maurus, apparently) though I suspect that this kind of invocation song has been a bread-and-better chant amongst Christian Communities from their earliest foundations ; since Pentecost, perhaps, a communal reminder and an affirmation of our dependence on God’s own spirit to infuse, strengthen and enable us.  I’ve long known Edward Caswell’s 19th century hymn ‘Come Holy Ghost, creator blest’ without realizing that this too was a translation of the same ninth century Pentecost text; another similar version ‘Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire’ is probably of the same origin.  Isaac Watts in the early 18th century wrote his own invocation hymn – ‘Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove’.  The wonderful Taize repertoire includes the powerful chant ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’ where soloists sing more extended invocatory prayers over the general repetition of that one phrase.  And many contemporary Christian songs echo the same call. It’s our heart cry.

And in Mahler’s eighth symphony, after one brief organ chord, the cry ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ breaks upon us in full throated chorus – in fact this symphony, often nicknamed with slight hyperbole ‘Symphony of a thousand’ boasts three choirs (two mixed choirs and a boys choir) as well as eight (count ‘em, eight!) soloists.   It packs quite a punch, and the phrase is repeated, broken up and overlapping for the next couple of minutes, before the soloists come in separately and the rest of the Latin text is taken up and developed.  Let me be honest and say that in the whole 25 minutes of this section of the symphony ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ are the only words that I can distinguish; for most of the time I am just carried along by the twists and turns, the changes in key and tempo, the shifts from one choir to another, sensing the more reflective passages, till we surge back towards the end of that time to the words of that initial invocation.  I find it utterly exhilarating.  I’ve read enough to know that Mahler himself felt that it was one of the most special and most optimistic pieces that he had ever created.  I believe he felt it to be ‘an expression of confidence in the eternal human spirit’. I can see that – but isn’t it kind of ironic too that it’s in crying out to be touched and invigorated by the  Original-Creative Divine spirit, that the unique wonder and creativity of the human spirit also comes into focus?

I have yet to, but would love to, see this symphony being performed live.  Up until now I have made do with youtube clips.  I recently watched Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.  Such is the intensity of the piece that within minutes, Bernstein’s hair takes off and acquires a life of its own as he stabs the air with his baton in a seeming frenzy of ecstasy.  I know I don’t need it exactly, but I’m searching for clips that have simultaneous Latin and English translation subtitles ( as yet no luck) wondering if understanding the lyric will give an even further dimension of joy and enlightenment to my appreciation of this ‘song’.  You never know.



78. TRANSCENDENTAL REUNION – Mary Chapin Carpenter


‘What is it with you and girls-with-guitars?’ a room mate asked me when I was in college.  Well, whatever it was, it doesn’t seem to have gone away.

We were talking, weren’t we, in number 77, about ‘Country girls’, and how Emmylou and her contemporaries helped to change something of the public perception of what formerly we might have been quite dismissive of, ol’ Country and Western.  Perhaps I’ve still got a slight aversion to the unremitting twanginess of the genre, and , forgive me, without really knowing much about her, I probably slotted Mary Chapin Carpenter into that category, even though I was also kind of aware that she had a bit about her – things like ‘He thinks he’ll keep her’ suggested a feisty feminist challenge to the genre’s stereotypes; and I had even heard some great collaborative work that she had done with Shawn Colvin.

So I don’t know why I should have been taken by surprise by her appearance on one of the series of the ‘Transatlantic Sessions’, and perhaps wondered how well she’d fit in to the earnest folkiness and the decidedly august musicianship characteristic of the series.  I watched her perform this song accompanied by Aoife O’ Donovan.  At first its simplicity seemed a bit embarrassing – I waited for the melody and the guitar accompaniment to develop with some subtleties and complexities into a song with more substantial architectural construction.  But it didn’t: the simple melody was, instead, consistent and determined, the guitar chords likewise, in a way that I began to find oddly hypnotic and stylishly, bravely appropriate to the piece of work that she had created.

If I’m honest, and if it had only been that one occasion when I had seen and heard that song, I might still have had a few niggling reservations  about its potential for monotony, but let’s give thanks to youtube, that has allowed me to watch that clip again and again (and yes of course, I listen to it too on my ipod etc) because the more that I listen to it the more I am impressed by the courageousness of its composition.  That mesmerising dreaminess of its style seems more than ever entirely apposite to the ideas it explores and the perceptions it conveys.

Carpenter is not of course the first girl-with-a-guitar to think about the way that air travel can convey interesting fresh outlooks  on life.  I remember us flying over the Pyrenees with Nicola our friend, on the way to Seville.  She told me about the song ‘From A Distance’ (popularised then, but not written by, Nancy Griffith ) and something of the lyric – looking down on the world’s beauty and somehow (OK, rather facilely, I know, because it’s that kind of song) seeing the world’s problems in perspective. (I heard this song later, and despite it all, have come to rather like it).  Then I can think of Joni Mitchell’s great song ‘Amelia’ filled with aviatory images ending in the last verse with ‘747s over geometric farms..’ Oh, and here’s a boy-with-a-guitar – think of the last verse of Jackson Browne’s great song ‘How Long?’ -‘If you saw it from a satellite/ With its green and its blue and white..’ Also,  Dar Williams has a great song called ‘Empty Plane’ which has a surreal dreaminess in its depiction of the airport experience, not a million miles away from the kind of feelings MCC has evoked in her song.

Lyrically, although she starts with an observation about ‘the lights below me..’,  it’s less about the flight (‘and the curve of the world passed..’) than about the arrival, the slightly unreal experience of the Airport itself.  At first despite the song’s leisurely , floaty kind of pace, the airport images are concrete and organisational and decidedly  untranscendental – ‘stamped ..waved through..mouth of the cannon(!) …  Then the baggage carousel , and her prayers that everything’s OK, and her initial ‘envy’ at some of the emotional displays at the reunions of loved ones.  But then MCC begins to make the ‘Hall of Arrivals..where the great river empties’ seem more otherworldly, a transitional  space between actual places; and it’s within this slightly spiritualised zone that she encounters illuminating perceptions.   Ironically this new sense of detachment perhaps also allows her to feel an empathetic sense of unity with the others around her – ‘all borders vanish here’ seems something of a key line. And despite the fact that there is ‘no one to meet me’ her heightened distance-enhanced awareness allows her to appreciate the richness of humanity and its interactions all around her.  She feels ‘all but surrounded/by the tears and embracing/by the joy unbounded..’  And where this line of visionary perspective takes her is to a perception of ourselves as transient, not fixed but always moving…  but not aimlesslessly or in some nihilistic vacuum –  moving on in positive, hopeful directions.  This is a song infused with a sense of hope about the human journey. ‘we are…. travellers… gypsies’ but in MCC’s eyes not without wisdom of some kind.  ‘We are… philosophers gathering…finding our way…to the next destination…from night into day..’

I go back occasionally to that youtube clip from the ‘Transatlantic Sessions’.  I love the way that Aoife O’Donovan is clearly enjoying her opportunity for gentle harmonies and particularly joining in on the ‘Hey hey  hey’s and  ‘Ah ha ha’s.  And I join in too, rather pleased to share a little in those few minutes of dreamlike ‘transcendental’ perspective, as a fellow traveller, gypsy, philosopher (hmm)……and in imaginative sympathy with the song, looking down on the world and seeing (oh, despite it all, Syria, Trump, ISIS, famine and corruption, sex slaves, North Korea, capitalism, consumerism), by the grace of the Great Spirit I believe to be both Love and Creator, ‘lights twinkling below me..’ or ‘glowing’ as they become in the song’s final lines…

77. BOULDER TO BIRMINGHAM – Emmylou Harris


A lot of autobiographical stuff here, I’m afraid.  Feel free to skip (quite) a few paragraphs, to get to the song!…

I can carbon date my love for this song to that time, mid seventies, after graduation; I still lived with my parents; I worked for the DHSS in a big office on Newport Road in Cardiff.  It was a funny old time.  I often stayed in the city after work and caught the train home late.  There were things to see –I mentioned in an earlier essay about discovering opera (see no 13 ‘Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades’) But there were concerts, too, in Cardiff’s Capitol theatre – saw the Beach Boys there one night, and Donovan in his ‘intergalactic laxative’ phase.  Enough said.  And there was a funny couple of months when I hung around town because I was visiting a Trichologist. Yes.  Blame my mother for this one: my premature hair loss was of great concern to her, and when I declined her suggestion to ‘rub half an onion over my scalp and bury the other half’ (??), she then cut out for me an advert from the South Wales Echo for a clinic on Cardiff’s Queen Street, which for a modest fee would cure the problem of premature baldness. On her encouragement, I went along (and hey, it worked a treat, clearly!) I won’t go into the detail of treatments here but part of it involved a fairly noxious-smelling potion.  For everyone’s sake, I felt that wandering around town for a few hours would give my head’s smell a chance to wear off.

The relevance of all the self indulgent reminiscing, you may ask?  OK, I’m getting there.  One of the places I ended up ‘hanging around’ was a newly opened fairly trendy hamburger restaurant –can’t remember its name now –which played some really interesting music, which I suppose now that we might identify as ‘Americana’.  There was stuff like the Eagles, I think, country-tinged stuff I might not have paid attention to much up until then.  But I think this is where I first heard Emmylou Harris’s voice.  The Beatles’s covers blew me away – ‘For No One’, ‘Here, there and everywhere’…  But wow, that voice.

Then suddenly, of course,  she was everywhere.  The music mags – NME, Melody Maker  -showed pics of this cowboy-boot woman and raved about her music. Did I perhaps hear her as a fabulous backing voice on Dylan’s ‘Desire’ before I heard her solo performances?  I can’t remember.  But I remember an appearance on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ and suddenly too,  Country seemed to have shed something of its redneck right wing conservative image and become sort of cool.

No doubt it  helped too that the lady was pleasing to the eye, in a simpler and more fashionable way than most ‘country gals’: she in no way presented herself as a Tammy or a Lorretta (etc) – there was no primped-up hairdo, no mawkish sentimentality or TV show-smiles either in her introductions or in her performances.  And ah, that voice, that voice…  which of course has been much commented upon since those days.  While, yes,  it has a distinctive listenability, its uniqueness also relies undoubtedly upon a peculiar ‘catch’ in her register which adds, as some have said, a note of ‘ache’ or ‘heartbreak’, and therefore is ideally suited to tender songs of love, longing, and loss. Which brings us almost to the song!

But before then, back to memoirs.  Towards the end of my two year stretch in the civil service I was encouraged to seek promotion.  I went along to an interview in Bristol (a bit of a waste of time, since I had already planned to leave the job in a couple of months’ time).  My memory of the interview is that, having just read a book about the beginnings of the charity ‘Shelter’, I talked at length about the problem of homelessness in the UK.  Probably nothing to do with the question they asked me.

I came out of the interview and wandered around Bristol in an oddly euphoric mood.  In a record shop, I purchased Emmylou Harris’s ‘Pieces of the Sky’ album, because it seemed the right thing to do.  Back home that evening, I played it and played it.  There’s not a bad track on the album; even Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat of many colours’ seemed to be redeemed from something twee into something noble…  But THIS song, ‘ Boulder to Birmingham’,this self penned songs of hers (OK, alongside some other bloke) brought prickles down the spine, tears to the eyes.

I had no idea about the inspiration for the song.  I didn’t know then that it was about the grief of losing Gram Parsons; but you get it from the weariness of the opening declaration  ‘ ‘I don’t want to hear a love song..’; you get it almost impressionistically, even through those images ‘this airplane…  the wilderness…  the canyon…  on fire’ you get a sense of someone struggling to give expression to a fierce kind of sadness (‘The last time I felt like this…’).  It’s there in the repetitions at the end of the two verses – ‘watched it burn…  watched it burn’ then ‘coming down to wash me clean…wash me clean’ – somehow a kind of need for catharsis.  It’s there most poignantly in that enigmatic chorus with its oddly ‘spiritual’ allusions – ‘my soul…bosom of Abraham…. saving grace’ and the longing in the conditional ‘if I thought I could see..  your face’.

Well I’ve said that was the most poignant, but perhaps that’s not true – on a conscious level I feel I hardly listened to the lyrics, certainly not initially in the analytical way that previous paragraph suggests! Because, really,  most telling of all was the voice that handles the lyric and that pretty exquisitely sympathetic melody.  It still feels like a classic, doesn’t it?

Emmylou has aged gracefully, opted for silver locks instead of dark dye; and kept on singing.  With a kind of modest sensitivity she seems to have become a ‘duetter’ for many other performers, and when she does, always enhances the sound.  You might remember her, for instance, in the first of the wonderful   ‘Transatlantic Sessions’ duetting with Mary Black on Sandy Denny’s ‘By the Time it gets Dark’. OK, just joining in on the refrains, but there’s that kind of understated shiver of silver which her accompaniment adds to others’ performances.  I’ve never seen her live, and I don’t know if she still performs ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ but it’s enough that we have that enduring recording on her first solo album.  Amen.

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.

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.


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!