71. A TOUCHING PLACE – John Bell & Graham Maule

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

69. MISS OTIS REGRETS – Ella Fitzgerald

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

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

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

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

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

68. WATERS OF MARCH – Antonio Carlos Jobim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

66. THE LATE SHOW & HOW LONG? – Jackson Browne

 

 

I’m putting these two songs together –perhaps over-ambitiously? –and I’m not sure if I can convey what I want, but somehow I want to suggest that the gap between these two songs is a story in itself, from the introspective angst which characterises (and caricatures) too much of the early 1970s singer songwriter material, to something more outward looking, observational, politically and socially engaged [Note: this is one of the reasons why Dylan was outside of his time – the chronology of his own development is quite different.]

When Jackson Browne’s ‘Late For The Sky’ album was released, I was just ripe for its musings and expressions, particularly for the emotings and the confident pseudo psychological declaratives of the final song ‘The Late Show’…’ Seems like people only ask you how you’re doing/ ‘Cause that’s easier than letting on how little they could care..’ This kind of rawness, this naked facing up to the need-for-meaningful-love at the core of our beings , was exactly where I was at, there in the early 1970s.  And even while I’m writing this, I’m recognizing a chicken-and-egg conundrum: did the Californian songsmith’s navel gazing emoting actually engender my perspective, or simply correspond?  Remember that I was late adolescent burgeoning into early adulthood: first romance (Margaret); equally in love (or was this the fault of DH Lawrence?) with the idea of friendships.  So the song resonated and resonated.  And either way, I recognise this as both the internal and external mood of the time.  I remember singing a snatch of the song at home one evening –could possibly have been the lines already quoted –and my mother saying ‘Oh?  Do you think that’s true?’ Or something equally unexpected.  It led to a brief, interesting but slightly awkward conversation where I affirmed my commitment to be real, to talk about real feelings.  I think I might even have said that my experience of God’s love meant that I felt ‘reconciled to the world, and the universe, and myself’.  Something of that nature. (!!)

The song continued in that vein, arguing (it did argue, I think) for emotional honesty – ‘to see things clear, is hard enough I know…/Without dressing them in dreams and laughter/I guess it’s just too painful otherwise..’ and encouraging us to probe beyond surfaces and to recognise the rawest of human emotional needs – ‘you could be with somebody who is lonely too/ He might be trying to get across to you..’

The disturbing thing is that some of my own songs may still be ploughing this same particular furrow. Yikes.  Take my song ‘Discover Me’ which urges the same kind of awareness (‘perhaps it’s like the one about Not waving here but Drowning’).  But despite that, listening back and thinking back, I recognise, as JB himself must have, that there are limits to this heavy emotional dissection.  It simply calls for a ‘breaking out’ to less-internal preoccupations; and it is a refreshment, relief and reinvigoration when this is reflected in the song-output.

I’m choosing ‘How Long?’ From the ‘World In Motion’ album as the other contrasting bookend.  I found the album in a shopping mall in Asuncion in 1991, though I think it may have been released quite a few years by then.  This wasn’t by any means the beginning of Browne’s more outwardly looking songs –even back in the mid 1980s, when Sue, Kev and I had gone to see him in Hammersmith Odeon, he was promoting his ‘Lives In The Balance’ album full of eloquent criticism of America’s foreign policy, and of awareness of its effects globally. That very title track in itself was a most arresting wake-up call.

The World In Motion album follows in the same vein –but the ‘How Long?’ track really got to me –because it seemed more than just mere polemic; it also employed the controlled emotive focus which song is so good at, of course (* see below) –to help promote and clarify that same anti militaristic perspective.  And so it alternates political statement (‘How long will they tell us these weapons are keeping us free?/It’s a lie..’) with more blatant emotive appeal (‘how long/can you hear someone crying..?).  *And OK, what needs to be debated of course, is whether all this is just political naivety; it could even be argued that the subtle complexities of political and militaristic pragmatism cannot adequately be addressed within the vehicle of song, which perhaps by  very nature tends towards simplifications and polarisations.  Today, I’m particularly aware that ‘emotive’ arguments can be easily abused – hearing Donald Trump crassly justifying his own recent air strike on a Syrian military target, with a suspiciously sudden newfound concern for the ‘poor little innocent Syrian babies and beautiful children’ who had not seemed on the radar of his compassion any time previously.  I’m not comfortable thinking that Browne and Trump might be using the same kind of manipulative technique , and I almost wish I hadn’t started this bit. Still, of the two, I know who the more articulate one is, and who I trust more.

Be that as it may, I still find this a powerful song –one of those rare ones that did make me cry; and it’s a song I have used in school assemblies – I constructed my first ever power point presentation with this song –and, with its sense of purpose and ‘protest’, I suppose it’s the kind of song I wish I had written more of, and perhaps had paid more heed to, and had celebrated more.

See what I mean?  In these two songs, a whole history….

65. BORDER SONG – Elton John

I think one often returns from time-out breaks with a sort of heightened awareness –and perhaps particularly so when they involve some cultural contrast, and in my experience this is especially true when the breaks have had some spiritual focus –and ones antennae towards matters of spiritual reference becomes acutely sensitive – perhaps amusingly so…

At least, such was the case in the spring of 1970 when I returned home from an Easter jaunt with the church youth group, who had been taken by our pastor Rev. Albert Turner (recently deceased – God bless him) to camp in the Bois De Boulogne and see the sights of Paris (following, now I come to think of it, a short Christian youth conference somewhere in Belgium, the first opportunity incidentally to practice my excruciatingly clumsy bits of O level French).  Show us the sights he did, and looking back it seems slightly unorthodox that for one of our evening visits he took us  -all young adolescent boys, if I remember rightly –to stroll along Pigalle’s avenue of strip joints and girlie shows. ‘Something of the world’s attractions’ he said, implying that anyone blithely following a perceived call to a Christian lifestyle might as well know what they were up against!  Ironically other visits and evening walks –less sticky and embarrassing –were equally alluring: the beauty of the Champs Elysees, the Left Bank, the art…

We must have returned home midweek, because I have a feeling that I was still fresh and raw from the headiness of foreign travel and from the intoxicating camaraderie of young people together, and the rarefied atmosphere of constant ‘Christian fellowship’ and refreshment, when we came to sit down and watch our regular ‘Top Of The Pops’ date, as a family, that Thursday evening.

I had probably only been away about 10 days at the most, but I suddenly felt that everything had changed – a song called ‘Spirit In The Sky’ by Norman Greenbaum had rocketed to the top of the charts –and this obviously a song about God!   Other singles too (I forget which) seemed less about teen romance and more about less earthbound concerns. …Spiritual awareness was everywhere!  And now, look –this young fresh faced pianist-singer Elton John was also singing a song of unequivocal gospel tones and content!  Had a revival taken place in my absence?  It was spring, after all, and an opportunity for awakenings in more than one way!

Okay, very funny now, that I should think of Elton’s song as evidence of a sweep of Christian fervour, or something akin.  What on earth was I basing it on? ‘Holy Moses’, no doubt (though today Taupin’s ‘Holy Moses’ seems little more than a substitute for a more frustrated expletive!) and possibly the impassioned call for tolerance in the last verse, which in its clunky literalism sounds more like The Office’s David Brent than anything else! (‘tell the man over there/what’s his colour?/I don’t care/he’s my brother/let us live in peace…’).  I subsequently learnt that young Reg added this verse himself, while Bernie Taupin’s lyrics in the rest of the song remain much more ambiguous and enigmatic –and somehow more enduring because of it.  Take the ‘bridge’ for instance –‘I’m going back to the border where my affairs/my affairs ain’t abused/I can’t take any more bad water/it’s poison from my head down to my shoes.’..  And borders are of course essentially dangerous, risky, uncertain, ambiguous tightropes between neighbouring or opposing states.  Perhaps that’s why they appeal to poet-singers –think of Richard Thompson’s ‘when I get to the border’ and Joni Mitchell’s wonderful ‘Borderline’ etc.

So yes, it was pretty silly wasn’t it, to see the song as potent with spirituality.  But the funny thing is, for me the feel of the song is still gospelish, and although my Elton-history is a relatively short one, I gladly come back to this one (it’s on the jukebox) and experience from it a familiar frisson.

 

 

 

 

64. FOR MR. THOMAS – Robin Williamson

I’ve been listening to RW’s lovely ‘Songs of Love and Parting’ again, now I’ve got it on CD at last. My confession is this: I didn’t really get into the Incredible String Band when I should have.  I liked the pictures I saw of them on album covers and in music magazines, I found interviews and reviews interesting, the whole gypsyish-ragamuffin Celtic-folk-alternative/slightly stoned-looking image was of course beguiling; and I particularly liked the fact that one of the girls was called Licorice.  But the music, for whatever reason, passed me by.

And even when I did begin to appreciate something of their sound and their charm, I’m ashamed to say it was through the doorway of the cutesy novelty track ‘the Hedgehog Song’ which Bob Harris played on his radio show one night.  This did send me back to looking for and at the albums – found some cheapo second-hand ones in a hippy shop in Pontypridd, where in a haze of nag champa the owner told me he’d listened to lots of ‘the Incredibles’ when he’d made his trips across land to Katmandhu. Honest, it’s what he said. Listening to the albums, though, I found that with each bunch of tracks it was with some relief when I came upon one with a ‘proper tune’.  What a shallow plebeian am I.  I really got to love ‘Seasons They Change’, though, but that’s another story.

Anyway, one night my good friend Julia and I found out that Robin Williamson was performing in Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre and we went along.  Without doubt, it was one of the best concert experiences of my life –I was quite blown away by this harp playing, guitar playing, word spinning storyteller, and particularly by this song. *

The funny thing is that the frissons of excitement I got from hearing this song for the first time –with its heady and relentless barrage of words and images addressed to Dylan Thomas –corresponded very closely with the chills of delight I got when I first read ‘Under Milk Wood’.  And my memory of that is fairly sharp –I was 15 or 16, I think –still in school anyway –and I got a copy of this famous play for voices from our local library.  For some reason I decided I would read the book by torchlight under the blankets of my bed.  No logical reasons for this: I was no longer sharing a bedroom with my big brother by this time, and my parents had no problems whatsoever in allowing me to keep the lights on till whenever.  I must have just thought it would add something to the atmospheric thrill of the experience.  And in a strange way, it was fitting.

I don’t think for all my teenage reading that I had encountered anything where words tumbled over each other with such rich relentless profusion, and yet at the same time seemed to be savoured for the precise, delicious value of their sounds and connotations.  And now here’s a funny story.  When I applied for a place in Swansea University, I was invited for interview (do they still do that sort of thing?).  On the day, following some kind of written ‘test’ of my lit crit skills, I sat before a panel of some kind.  They glared down at my application form. “Oh, you’re quite a reader,” one of them said, “Tolstoy?  Evelyn Waugh?  Kafka?” (I had written to impress, largely bluff based on a couple of pages here and there) “and you like Dylan Thomas, apparently.  What is it that you like about him?” Awkward and inarticulate as I was then I managed, “well…  he’s…  a master of words, isn’t he”. “Ah, and what if we were to say to you,” said one of the boffins eagerly leaning forward, “that words mastered him, rather than him mastering them?  How would you respond to that?” My awkward inarticulacy stumbled up a further notch – “well…  I suppose…  I.. wouldn’t really agree,” I said.  My cross examining tutor smiled. “Well, you can write anyway, so that’s good,” he said  (kindly? benignly ? patronizingly?) looking down at what I’d written earlier that day.  Even today, I’m not sure what the answer to that question should have been.

Back to this song.  There is a frenetic stream of images from the word go in this song – I’m probably clueless about any precise meaning many of them have; yet the energy of that stream perfectly echoes something of Thomas’s own mystically poetic verbal extravagances; and the words have something of the wildness and ferocity and recklessness which he sees and admires in Thomas. And just like the best of Thomas’s poetry, the magic is as much in the sound as in the content.  The beautiful rawness of Williamson’s Scottishness adds edge to this –even that first line (excuse the clumsy attempt to phoneticise) ‘fram faded newsprint used tae wrap a fush..’ , every alliterative fricative sounded, every ‘r’ a crisply struck rhotic . It draws you in straight off.  [I didn’t know until today that no less a figure than Van Morrison had covered this song – adding to the mix of Celtic connections; and yes of course you can see why he chose to.] Williamson’s guitar style in the song is spare but with some deft hammering and picking, the tune simple, repetitive and cumulatively powerful.

I’m not sure I could analyse the lyric if I tried, but if we are selective we can get some flavour of the qualities Williamson perceives in Thomas, and which to some extent he emulates.  He clearly identifies with him – ‘while I sit drinking namelessly in a nameless bar/ 5000 miles and 30 years away..’ He highlights that whiff of freedom he recognizes within Thomas’s work as distinct perhaps from the repressiveness of traditional literary academia – ‘let smirking scholars writhe in their favoured bondage/ to hold you plaintiff to the charge of art..’.  He sees in Thomas an anarchic free spiritedness which perhaps defies any attempts to crystallise and capture him as an image or a persona, even that of a ‘wild Welsh Rimbaud’?..Rather ‘you’d laugh to see the monochromes they make of you..’ (I like that.) His sense of identification seems to gather pace towards the end of the song, into ‘Let us (together)..’ expressions – ‘let us ramble through the midnight fair…’ Ending in a violently forceful image seemingly invoking connections with a earthy sense of rooted history, with a vigorous Celtic heritage, perhaps  -‘(Let us) hack wide the bellies of the swollen mountains/and rip molten heroes forth to their furious tears…’ Just like Thomas’s famous villanelle ‘Do Not Go Gentle..’, these images have an urgency and energy that affirm the very beauty and preciousness of life itself.  Since this song, 35 years plus old now, Williamson has produced a whole album more or less inspired by Dylan Thomas’s work ‘The Seed At Zero’ with an interpretation and appreciation of a broader spectrum of Thomas’s qualities, though nothing quite touches the intuitively gutsy authenticity of this response.

[* By the way, we shouldn’t have been surprised to find Robin Williamson performing in Cardiff –he’s been living there for quite a while now, apparently.  My former boss, when we were discussing inviting guests to come to  school to inspire students, mentioned the one of his neighbours was something of a poet/performer. ‘you might have heard of him’ he said…  We didn’t invite him, eventually.  Best keep these icons at a distance]

63. WHEN THE MUSIC FADES (‘THE HEART OF WORSHIP’) – Matt Redman

 

I feel like I have given ‘mainstream contemporary Christian music’ bad press and short shrift thus far in this series of postings; and I’m feeling something of the need to redress a balance.

And when I initially wrote this piece (oh, two years ago now I think) I was particularly indebted to Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for including a Matt Redman song (not this one, actually) amongst his eight Desert Island Discs when he ‘appeared’ on that programme over Christmas 2014.  It was if I recall a lovely, gracious interview, as ever.  It made me reconsider my prejudices; and another thing it made me realise, and despite what I have said elsewhere, what I need to affirm is this: probably every generation has its cohort of pioneering hymn writers/psalmists/Jesus-troubadours who manage either to resist that glamorization and the inevitable contortions of identity that come with the commercial machinery of mass promotion and mass production; or to transcend it in some way; or perhaps just to ignore it and create  valuable psalmody in spite of it.

Now, I wouldn’t really say that I have my finger on the pulse of the current sources of great contemporary Christian music. In the greenness of my prime there was the Wesleyan prolificness (prolificity?) of Graham Kendrick, the sensitive and accomplished Adrian Snell… Possibly today it’s bands like Rend Collective whose passionate, homespun, semi-makeshift style of joyous worship breathes authenticity.  20 years ago I found the same excitement in Delirious who –even in concert in Greenbelt a dozen years ago seemed to have managed to sustain their sense of heartfelt worship. (I wouldn’t know if the lucrative results of their excellence have eroded something of that: I surely hope not); and then in amidst the whole ‘stables’ of worship music – Hillsong, Vineyard etc –  there’s the Soul Survivor team with Beth Croft etc; there’s the wonderful solid crafting of Stuart Townend’s songs- these seem to have held on to some kind of worshipful integrity – and there must be loads more I’ve forgotten, or am ignorant of.  In that list (somewhere there) of songsmiths of spiritual integrity, number such as Tim Hughes and…. Matt Redman, composer of this wonderful song.

Because this song is something special, isn’t it.  Its unique because as well as being a valid worship song which engages mind and heart in its lyric and its musical construction – like so many of the psalms almost socratically working through to something that demands resolution in true submission and praise -, its special in that it kind of questions and challenges the very genre of which it is a part – “worship” (or perhaps I mean ‘the worship industry’) “I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it” he writes, and in doing so, wonderfully refocuses himself and anyone engaged in the listening/singing to the whole raison d’être – “it’s all about you, Jesus”.  For this reason, the song has a distinctive prophetic resonance: it was a song that needed to be written for those of my own Christian generation who have –let’s face it – because of the excitement of the creative process, or even the excitement of musical collaboration, or the alluringly emotive power of the poetic/musical engagement, been tempted to see song as an end in itself. “I’ll bring you more than a song/for a song in itself is not what you have required..” We are indebted to Mr. Redman for bringing us back in this song to the ‘heart of worship’ –which is of course not worship itself, but the object of our worship, our beloved, our redeemer and saviour. Him to whom we sing!

Does all of this have a wider relevance, even, to this very blog (which was conceived initially as a book of autobiographical reflections), to this whole process of reflecting and re-evaluating the place of songs in my life?  Hmmm… in some ways I think so: I hope that that is indeed what’s happening here, too – seeing and appreciating a song for what it is, sure, but also beyond it to its wider context of experiences and resonances that have shaped, continue to shape, our little lives, and how we see things.

 

62. NEVER LET HER SLIP AWAY – Andrew Gold

 

Here is a lightweight piece of pop that makes me smile.  In some ways, it’s just the perfect pop single, airy nothings in a romantic vein with a sweet neat hook of melodic progression and –clincher-a gorgeous, chugging, shuffling percussive beat driving the whole thing.

I heard it first on the radio in January 1989 –I know this because I was staying in a guesthouse in Bournemouth, where I had gone for an intensive TEFL course –increasing our work options to include teaching abroad.  It was a strange and unusual four weeks (five weeks?  Six weeks?) With little spare time as such; though, in my single bed somehow I still managed to read ‘Swallows And Amazons’ (never read it before) and Doris Lessing’s ‘The Fifth Child’.  Did I have a little transistor radio?  I imagine there must have been one, because I remember lying in bed one morning and hearing the song.

No epiphanies or anything.  I knew it wasn’t  great art –but that beat, that sound, those hooks got to me and I hummed and sang fragments of it for the rest of the day.  And even now if I ever hear it by chance (a relatively rare thing) the same thing happens. Cha-chung der-der-der-der-da, cha-chung der-der-der-der-da etc ‘I feel like a kid with a teenage crush…’

I could project backwards and suggest that it had caught my attention because there was perhaps some distinct lyrical significance for me   especially the opening lines ‘ I talked to my baby on the telephone long distance..’ i.e. there was a splendid wife back in our home in Factory Road, who had let me do this, despite the fact that she was caring for a two month old baby, as well as another child of eighteen months.  Hopefully I did realise that this was an extraordinary woman whom I should ‘never let slip away’ ?  Shamefully, though I was grateful and missing her – don’t get me wrong – my realization of this was probably at a less than  conscious level.  The fact that, 28 years later, she hasn’t ‘slipped away’ is more to do with her resilience and godly faithfulness than my ‘letting’ or ‘not letting’.  But –for the record –I’m very grateful. ‘She’s good for me.. and I know it [has made!] me happy.. to never let her slip away..’

[Ha – for the record – yeh, for this one too]