81. THE SONG OF THE WANDERING AENGUS/ THE LAKE ISLE OF INISFREE – Hamilton Camp/ W B Yeats

Not until my second year at university did I discover the poetry of WB Yeats. And what a fabulous treat it turned out to be, getting to know his work! Some of the poems felt more searching and stimulating than anything I’d read – I’m thinking of things like the Byzantium poems and ‘The Second Coming’ – which revealed more layers and perceptions on each successive read: far too complex to be interpreted in song, I thought (though many years later Joni Mitchell had a pretty good stab in her ‘Slouching Into Bethlehem’). The earlier, more lyrical and pastoral pieces were another matter though. I was learning to put more than just two or three chords together on the guitar, and also at that age (oh that it were ever so!) melodies just seemed to be there, ready to be snatched from the air! And so it seemed natural to try and make some of these poems singable!

Scene change: college holidays: home town. At this same time I had a girlfriend whose parents had a piano in their front room. I had no piano training of course, but I knew I could plonk out a melody one-fingered with my right hand, while making simple chord shapes with my left. Poor Margaret must have endured many an hour of me ‘finding’ tunes to poems. Actually, tackling WB Yeats required slightly more courage; I/we ‘practised’ first on a copy of the complete poems of W. H. Davies (I can still recall my cringingly jaunty melody for ‘What is this life if all of care/We have no time to stand and stare..’).

During this period my parents’ house also finally regained a piano (the family of a college friend were getting rid of theirs. I jumped at the chance!). I say ‘re-gained’ since in my very early years, until I was about five, perhaps, we had possessed a piano – my elder sisters had both been sent for piano lessons, my elder brother not for some reason, and by the time I was old enough to sit at the piano stool… one-day I woke to find that that wonderful and mysterious instrument had been chopped up by my father for firewood! I seem to recall vague talk of woodworm. I won’t say I was resentful but in some measure I felt its absence right up until that replacement was procured, when I was 19, and on which I could practise and play around during college holidays.

So, with those two pianos, and the guitar, and more time than I seem to have these days, and certainly more melodies available to pluck from the air, having desecrated enough of W H Davies’s poems, I cracked on more confidently with Yeats – ‘When you are Old and Grey’ was one of the first to get the treatment – ‘The Pity Of Love’, ‘Down By The Salley Gardens’ followed, and a few others. They weren’t good, but at least it taught me that any valid musical adaptations of these beautiful poems would have to be very special indeed.

Enter Hamilton Camp. Or to be quite precise I suppose I would have to say enter Judy Collins, again, since she has appeared in these little essays an embarrassing number of times. The thing is, she was at that time such a brilliant song selector, discoverer and interpreter. Her second album –much more easily available today than it was then –showed that she was beginning to feature ‘composed’ songs not just old traditional ballads; it not only featured Hamilton Camp’s setting of Yeats’ ‘Song Of The Wandering Aengus’ but made it the title track of the album – calling it ‘Golden Apples of the Sun’, and perhaps deliberately dropping the reference to Celtic mythological characters and folklore. But that suited me fine –it seemed and it seems now a more universal little pastoral fantasy about love and longing, loss and search. And Camp’s tune is a suitably subtle, haunting one.

Some years further on, several albums further on, Judy Collins picked up on another of Hamilton Camp’s settings – this time ‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree’ on her ‘Living’ album. The same respectful delicacy of melodic interpretation, a tune which couldn’t handle the words any more subtly and sensitively than it does. Again, something as romantic as moonlight, another idyll whose natural images say much about the human longing for connections with the earth, but also (more internally) for peace – even when we are ‘standing in the roadway/Or in the pavements grey..’

Love this one so much that it has become my ‘go to’ song when I sit down at the piano, howling out to a few lugubrious minor chords ‘And I will have some peace there/ For peace comes dropping slow…’ But it’s not everyone’s cup of tea! I sang the song unaccompanied once, as an ‘opening number’ for a little set of songs in a disastrous concert when I was opening for Frank Hennessy.(or perhaps it was ‘Let’s snog’ that the audience didn’t find too tasteful.) I wasn’t invited to repeat the experience. Ho hum.

So I take my hat off to Mr. Hamilton Camp, who has done so exquisitely what I failed to manage in all those compositional efforts of my student years! Strangely enough, it’s only recently –through the wonderful power of Deezer – thanks Deezer – that I’ve got to hear the originals and to discover the man himself, an old sixties’ Greenwich Village Guthrie-ite folkie if there ever was one. Oh and while we’re at it, let’s also hear it for his too often unsung lyricist –Mr. William Butler Yeats. Go, guys.

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80. ST. PATRICK’S BREASTPLATE – ancient Celtic hymn

Here’s one I’ve carried around in my head for a long time; and knew I’d have to write about, but how to start? I think I need to tell you about my first trip to York.

It was the late 1970s. For youngish twentysomethings with aspirations of lives characterised by meaningful Christian service, and by deeper, fresher and more creative worship, there was much to be excited about. Whether it was jumping on bandwagons, or simply recognizing communities, churches and movements that were proving visionary and innovative, it was hard not to chase up sources of inspirational teaching and vibrant worship resources. Saint Michael-le-Belfrey in York was one of those places where ‘it was happening’. Not only had their rector, Canon David Watson become a renowned conference speaker on many aspects of New Testament lifestyle-rediscovery taking place alongside the broader ‘charismatic renewal’ in the church, but the church’s worship-life and ministry were also beginning to make names for themselves, perhaps along the lines of The Fisherfolk /Community of Celebration output, which, one imagined, had helped to inform their own communal vision, as it had for so many up and down the country.

Fairly fancy free in those days, at least during holiday times, I decided to go and visit the church to get the flavour of it, and even -who knows-return with sparks of something which might prove useful for my own little fellowship. I caught trains (my pre-car days, I think) and booked into a youth hostel for the Saturday night. Mooched around the charity shops and bookshops of York on the Saturday afternoon, (bought some CS Lewis first editions sold decades later on ebay!), checked out the glorious Minster, discovered St Michael’s own coffee-and-book shop across the square from the church, and picked up the music group’s debut LP ‘With Thanksgiving’. Some cracking songs on that, a few of which I was to sample on the following morning.

That following morning was the main reason I’d come, of course. I got there bright and early, and was glad that I did, not just because there was a modest struggle for a good seat, but because Andrew Maries, director of worship at Saint Michael-le-Belfrey, used the 30 minutes prior to the start of the service to lead the congregation through a few of the more unfamiliar songs, so that when we encountered them in the service itself, we could join in with unembarrassed abandon. One such practice was the children’s song – Robert Stoodley’s ‘Everybody Song’ (from the aforementioned LP). And then there was this long, strange hymn I had never heard before. ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ he called it. Maries must have been a brilliant teacher that morning because we got into it; we couple of hundred or whatever gathered before the service, were led to surprising confidence in the twists and turns and trills of that alien song. So much so that although I remember very few of the words, the tune has never left my head since that time.

Hard to say exactly what thrilled me and arrested me so completely about that song – no one simple factor, I’m sure. I know more about the song now than I did then of course; I know for instance that this hymn was a tidied up, metrical version of the long Celtic prayer/hymn/series of invocations attributed to fifth century St Patrick, but probably written ‘in the spirit of Patrick’ (as scholars seem to agree) in the eighth century. The Victorian hymn-lyricist, Mrs. Alexander, based her version on several prose translations of the original. I know too that the man who set this metrical hymn to music (Stanford) chose two Irish tunes as the bases of his melody. Those tunes certainly helped to arrest me! I say tunes, because of course, the penultimate verse of the hymn changes completely into this (as it seemed to me then) poignantly simple, invocatory chant (‘Christ be with me, Christ within me,/ Christ behind me, Christ before me…’). This too was intriguing!

But the language of the song seemed so different from most hymnody I knew -less flowery and sentimental than Victorian hymns, less didactic than many of the Wesleyan hymns, less simplistic than many of the modern hymns. I felt caught off guard, even, by the kind of robust earthiness and physicality of some of the imagery – even the very idea of ‘binding [spiritual truths] to myself..’ seemed quite startling and new.

Today we are all pretty familiar with the idea of ‘Celtic spirituality’ – and perhaps it’s a little bit sad, even, that its ‘in-fashion trendiness’ in at least the UK Christian church (including slightly unreal prettied-up versions of it being marketed) has perhaps distracted from some of the valid reasons why Christian writers and teachers began to find in aspects of ancient Christian Celtic texts and symbols elements which could help to refocus and reinvigorate contemporary worship. Including, for instance, more holistic praise-responses incorporating an awareness of the natural world. So we get this in the song too – ‘I bind unto myself today/ The virtues of the starlit heaven/ The glorious sun’s life giving ray..’ Encompassing nature in all its moods –‘the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks/ the stable earth, the deep salt sea/around the old eternal rocks’. This too was arresting!

Scholars will no doubt propose several hypotheses about why the idea of ‘trinity’ grabbed the Celtic imagination so unshakeably (some magical, mystical power to the number 3 etc) but the song sort of reinforces that theological concept with new vigour, too. Another reason. I could go on. I could comment on every verse but, as ever, that would give a slightly unrealistic reflection of its initial impact on me which was of course not close and analytical. [Others have written in both commentative and reflective ways about this song. See footnote*]. Other imagery in the hymn boldly referenced the scary hostilities and evils of a dark world, though, that needed us to pray prayers like the ones for protection and shelter included in the song , and to invoke and declare stuff like this about ‘binding to ourselves’ these God-bolstered vigorous and virile realities!

So I returned to our little valleys congregation, with a few books, a half-poem about York Minster, a new LP, some stories about the church (‘There’s no easy answer to involving kids in the service’ I said, remembering how chaotic the presence of children had been in St Michael’s as much as anywhere else; oh and extolling the excellent teaching of young Rev. Graham Cray). Why I didn’t share this song which had been a memorable discovery from my trip, I’m not entirely sure. It wasn’t a guitar song, that’s certain, so I couldn’t have ‘shared’ it easily. Did a selfish part of me want to hold it secretly in my own head for my own private prayers and invocations? I don’t know. But I’ve certainly buried it firmly within myself.

I do know that I regret not having sung it enough over the years – not just in my head or on my own, but out loud with others, I mean, in congregations of the faithful, and preferably with some loud lusty pipe organ as accompaniment!

[I mentioned that at least two modern Christian books reflect on the hymn – David Adam’s ‘The Cry of the Deer’ and John Davies’s ‘A Song for Every Morning’]

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]