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.

 

56. LORD, YOU HAVE BLESSED US and TRUST IN THE LORD – Mimi Armstrong Farra/The Keyhole/Fisherfolk

It’s funny what tunes and ditties get lodged in the brain, to burrow away then surface forever after with regularity, playing themselves like a mantra.  My father, for instance, in the last years of his life whittled down the repertoire of his whistling more or less to just two tunes –one was Lara’s theme from Doctor Zhivago, the other an unidentified piece whose origin even he couldn’t remember.  I’m getting like my dad, no doubt, in this respect –except that I probably have a wider repertoire of nagging mantras in the jumbled recesses of my brain.  One such is certainly the first of these little songs from Mimi Farra, ‘Lord You Have Blessed Us’.

Nearly half a century ago, I began to discover fresh new worship music emanating from North America, firstly from an vibrant Catholic charismatic community called the Word Of God in Ann Arbor  Michigan (a bunch of fabulous albums containing songs that have endured…) and then from the Keyhole –a coffee house folk group, coming as I was soon to learn, from a wider life of ministry centred around Houston’s Church Of The Redeemer,  I was drawn in and drawn on to discover more, finding myself nourished, challenged, encouraged by this music.

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We are talking the beginnings of the Fisherfolk, of course, and it is clear that Mimi Armstrong played a key part in the early days of what was to be an extraordinary music ministry, in helping to develop something unique in the worship life of that burgeoning community.  You only have to look at the famous TV documentary on that church, ‘Following the Spirit’ aired nationally in the U.S. in 1970 (?), which one imagines gave the church suddenly a whole new public profile.  It’s a little over reverent, perhaps, by modern standards, but despite its grainy black and white artlessness, it’s still something inspirational.  And Mimi features strongly –a little interview with her in the church’s bookstore, footage of her seemingly fronting the Keyhole in their coffeehouse setting, as well as leading some simple songs (self penned songs which turn up on albums like ‘Glory’) in an informal lunch time eucharist.

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It seemed to me that where the equally exciting new compositions of the church’s music leader (Rev. Pulkingham’s  wife Betty) had a more classical kind of crafting to them, Mimi though no less musically accomplished, perhaps, seemed to favour simpler, slightly more repetitive, intuitive expressions.  I soaked up everything from this source, as has no doubt become apparent to anyone who has read much of this blog, and learned to value, and to use, the wealth of creativity that I began to perceive to be pouring from a veritable spring of authentic loving worship.  I sent for all the vinyl albums, including one that seems to have settled into a kind of obscurity –‘Room In The In’, featuring a Christmas folk mass which Mimi had composed presumably for use in the Way In coffeehouse?  Side two of the album featured others of Mimi’s own meditative compositions.  It’s a while since I heard the whole album, but I seem to recall that for most of it at least the accompaniment was one simple acoustic guitar.  The Christmas folk mass needs rediscovering, I think, each little bit of liturgical interpretation an unadorned gem in its own right.  But let me turn my attention to this quiet mantra: so brief I might as well quote it all – ‘Lord you have blessed us with your love/Lord you have given us such a longing/ to find, to know, to share with your saints/ the love, the life, the very presence of you’.  It’s that simple, and its second verse reiteration turns more into a prayer ‘Lord as you bless us with your love/ may we remember that great longing/ to find, to know, to share with the world/ the love, the life, the very presence of you’. It’s a prayer that comes from the very heart and ethos of the worshipping community that Mimi Farra was part of, to be an incarnational Christ-presence in a broken world; and appropriately on the album, in the mass, it is conceived as the post-eucharistic ‘thanksgiving’ song so that the ‘you have blessed us’ has specific as well as general reference.

Mimi Farra and husband Bill are still part of the Community Of Celebration, more pared down in number, but I imagine no less committed in the prayerful intentions which that song represents.  Since the days of ‘Following The Spirit’, the relocation to the UK, the re-relocation to the States, a host of changes within the community, Mimi’s creative output appeared to the casual (obsessive) observer perhaps a little more muted as a remarkably impressive team of other songsmiths emerged, producing a range of worship material, psalm-like meditations and thoughtful lyrical/musical reflections from the same source.  Fewer songs from her, then, but still classic ones: ‘We Cry Hosanna Lord ’ is still the seminal palm Sunday hymn, for me.

And in my two visits to the community’s home in Scotland in the seventies, when I attended daily evening worship in the Cathedral Of The Isles, I got to see Mimi leading worship with her guitar, and there was something solidly impressive about the ease and commitment with which she did this, modestly but confidently drawing others in without any ostentatious badgering (which ‘worship leading’ can sadly become.)  I was pleased to see, too, the community revisiting, in some of their recordings there, a few of her earlier gems including the song which opens side 2 of ‘Room at the In’ – ‘Trust in the Lord’. This is an setting of verses from Proverbs , using chapter 3 verse 5 as its refrain.  [I wish I could say that the setting has helped me follow the injunction consistently (!) but at least having it in my head has been a reminder..!]The same  gorgeous simplicity, and musically one notes  that Mimi makes good use of the ‘E sus’ for the  subtlest of chordal variation (She does the same in her lovely ‘Song of Simeon’). There’s a really nice story about the Fisherfolk’s re-recording of this song (for the ‘Sing the Word’ album) to be found in Betty Pulkingham’s ‘Mustard Seeds’ book – about the calming of a gale, and the unexpected addition of birdsong that accompanied the recording; somehow all in keeping with the unaffected beauty of the song.

In the substantial canon of Mimi Armstrong Farra’s work, these two songs might seem insignificant –   – well, that’s a neat ‘mustard seed ‘ link too – but  like I started saying, the mind and the heart have their own reasons when it comes to the kind of songs they choose to squirrel away for the life’s use. And these have proven enduringly useful, so… I honour the composer for her faithfulness in firstly ‘listening’ to the still small voice and, to having shared, musically, so significantly.

37. I’D LIKE TO SIT YOU DOWN – The Fisherfolk

Well, yes, Fisherfolk, but also in a special way Patricia Allen of the Fisherfolk. There are two possible approaches here: I could start by writing about Pat Allen, but this feels like holy ground, and I need to tread carefully and thoughtfully.

So let’s start anecdotally, with my first – miraculous? life-changing? – flesh and blood encounters with the Community of Celebration. It was the summer holiday in between leaving my two year job with the civil service and starting PGCE Teachers’ Training, 1976, and I decided to travel around Scotland for three weeks on a ‘Freedom of Scotland’ Rail Card. There were several exciting, beautiful, funny and interesting parts to this journey – but, arriving at Edinburgh, I encountered for the first time the amazing Festival, and decided I could spare the city a few days , at least! Even then (!) the variety and breadth of Festival and Fringe events were overwhelming – my first Chekhov – RSC’s ‘The Three Sisters’ (with Ian McKellan, I recall!) , part of the ‘official festival’, blew me away. In amongst all the posters on the Golden Mile, I chanced upon one (or more?) for ‘The Fisherfolk’ – featuring in a variety of events  – a cafe/bar concert of songs; a Eucharistic celebration featuring one of Betty Pulkingham’s Eucharistic settings; and…a brand new musical entitled ‘Ah! There’s the Celebration!’

So indeed and of course, I soaked up whatever of these events I could – discovering in the process that, news to me, the Community of Celebration had relocated to Scotland, a little island called Cumbrae, just off the West Coast. The musical, held in a church  just off ‘the Mile’, featured some great songs built around the concept of a ‘family’( ie a community of Christian believers) refusing to conform to life-as-a-game-of-monopoly, subverting it by resisting opportunities to act acquisitively or competitively, instead offering sharing and kindness. Memorably the Games-master ‘Dev’ (played by David Gustafson) shouts in frustration ‘Jesus Christ! Read them the rules!’ at which point Mikel Kennedy – present throughout the action , with his guitar, as Jesus-on-a-stepladder, begins to recite some of the Sermon on the Mount. If I’ve made it sound crass or comical, it wasn’t. It was, in fact, powerful stuff. Pat Allen (and Martha Barker)’s song ‘I’d Like to Sit You Down’ beautifully exemplifies this non-competitive subversively compassionate behaviour. It’s both a reflection of Christ’s compassion for the world and a manifesto for the servant heart of a Christlike church – ‘Your feet are so weary/ From walking through problems much too big for you/ I’d like to sit you down/ Gently wrap a towel around/ And bathe your feet with my tears..’This song, like so many of Pat Allen’s, is a unique hybrid – part Broadway musical song in structure, part holy anthem. Nothing derivative or formulaic or stereotypical about this kind of Christian song; and I was deeply moved. Later in my journey I  chased up the Community to their home, centred around the Cathedral of the Isles on the Island of Cumbrae, got to meet Bill Farra, spent a night there, and was hooked for life. The following year I spent a whole week there.

Pat Allen, Pat Allen… Even on a purely vocal level there was something special there. While she seems to have been around quite close to the start of the music ministry (check out the late sixties’ ‘Keyhole’ albums, from the Houston coffeehouse ministry) her voice seems to have been used fairly sparingly – one of the earliest I recall is Betty Pullkingham’s ‘Bless thou the Lord’ psalm setting, where Pat sings the verses; then there’s her chillingly incisive rendition of the traditional ‘Mary had a Baby’ on a rather more choral album. It was a voice that uniquely melded both purity and warmth.

Her compositions, though, as I’ve said, were unusually theatrical – the still haunting composition ‘They have no Wine’ was probably our first taste of this, on the ‘On Tiptoe’ album. Then ‘The Carpenter’s Song’ (also featured in that same Fringe Musical in 1976) – a boldly human love song to the God-man Jesus. But she also had a deft touch with psalms – her setting/interpretation of ‘The Snare is Broken’ and her achingly beautiful setting of Daniel Berrigan’s rewriting of Psalm 131 – ‘May I to my Lord Hasten..’. All gorgeous.

If I ‘met’ her on my two visits to the community at Cumbrae, I never got a chance to chat. I do recall, however, a luminously peaceful smile; I also recall her giving someone a friendly back massage during one of the community meetings.. In the regular newsletters I began to receive from the Community in the late seventies, early eighties, it became clear that Pat was obeying a perceived call to a more solitary, contemplative life – within the community (I believe some kind of hut was discovered and employed within Cathedral grounds, where Pat could entertain visitors who came for prayer,  counsel, spiritual direction.) Sometime later I read she’d felt a call to live in Israel. Later still that she’d joined a Catholic Order of sisters there, and, just a couple of years ago, that she’d died there.

The existing Community of Celebration (with help, I suspect, from those many who’d left, been dispersed to other fruitful lives, but who cared, and wanted to honour how Pat has touched their lives) had the good sense to release a posthumous collection of her songs, and truth be told, I treasure this CD above most in my voluminous collection. And alongside the many new-to-me treasures unearthed, and amongst the old songs, this one, (co-written I believe with Martha Keyes-Barker) shines brightly as a statement of her own giving heart; and as a clear, quirkily unique colourful testimony to the Father’s goodness, the sacrificial grace of the Son, the mysterious and life-giving energy of the Spirit.

30. SWEET JESUS – The Keyhole/The Fisherfolk

Stumbling, as one might, across Isaiah 12:3 again recently, reminded me of this wonderful song.  And now I’m rediscovering it, and being refreshed by it all over again.

Its provenance, I think, is an interesting one, and I am going to indulge in a little informed guesswork, to work through its tangled origins.  I’m actually not sure if I first heard the song on the vinyl album by The Keyhole (the Church of the Redeemer’s coffeehouse worship and ministry team), a group incidentally that seemed like a ‘second generation’ Keyhole, since the core of their original team had already relocated to the UK to become the base of The Community Of Celebration and of its touring music and creative ministry team to be quickly dubbed ‘the Fisher folk’; or was it in fact from that very same ministry team that I first heard it, when Colin drove us to the Woodcroft Christian centre in Chepstow?  [ More about this in my blog on ‘I am a Rock’ from July’s postings] Diane Davis took the lead vocal in this small team and the bright clarity of their delivery highlighted, in a startlingly fresh way, the song’s poetic appreciation of the Spirit’s potentially dynamic effect on our lives.

I note that the song’s composers are David Lynch and Grace Krag.  For anyone fascinated, as I am, in the history and development of ‘intentional’/experimental Christian Communities, I heartily recommend reading the extensive account of a community called The Symphony Of Souls, and later The Trees, recounted with helpful detail and eloquent selection, in a blog (though its dozen or so sections comprise something easily book length) by one of its founding members Katheryn (Shishonee) Reutenik, under the title of ‘the Seven Story Bus: the story of the Trees Community’ http://www.thetreescommunity.blogspot.co.uk/  It is one of the most fascinating accounts of the development of a spiritual community which I have ever read and more than repays the patience of sticking with it.

This small, hippie-ish, counter cultural community, with its own rhythms of worship litanies and liturgies, and diverse experimental music styles – with an emphasis on a range of instruments that would now signal ‘world music’ – found themselves, at one stage of their windblown itineraries ‘parked up’ for a while at Houston’s Church Of The Redeemer,  going of course through its own emerging radical and life changing renewal.  As is the way of these things, there seems no doubt that there was both friction and blessing in the mix, mutuality of influence between the communities, and mutuality of effect.  ‘Symphony of Souls’ songs show up in early Redeemer/Keyhole/Fisher folk recordings –‘The Bell Song’ (most notably), ‘O Jesus How I Love You’, ‘He Was Wrapped In Flesh’, on a Christmas album, and, I’m guessing, this song.

Certainly David Lynch was a member of the Symphony Of Souls.  Katheryn’s narrative names this as a song which their team performed .  She also comments about Grace Krag considering and praying about the possibility of joining their community –though clearly she didn’t: she turns up as a flautist on recordings of the Woodland Park Fisherfolk in the early eighties.  It would seem that she stuck with the Redeemer/Celebration model.

So maybe this song was a collaborative outcome from the mingling of the two communities?  Perhaps Grace wrote a poem which David put to music, adding the Isaiah verse as a chorus? [Since starting this,my ‘researching sources’ have confirmed my guesses are not far off the mark. Grace’s lyric is in fact part of a poem she wrote originally as a student assignment; another Symphony of Souls member David Karasek suggested inserting the Isaiah verse as a refrain; the whole was presented on a birthday card to David Lynch who almost immediately  ‘heard’ a tune for it.] However extraordinary the collaboration, the result is whatever the spiritual version of ‘magical’ is.  The five verses focus on Biblical images and keywords for the Holy Spirit –fire, power, love, breath, water – handled with a light but freshly poetic touch, and with a personal perspective – i.e.  Lord, this is what your spirit does, not just generally, but in me … And the images are not twee or overly-gentle, if you know what I mean.  While the fourth verse highlights the Spirit as wind/breath ..’gently breathes, bringing peace, freeing me… the opening verses are much more shockingly dynamic – ‘Your fire purely sears a clean hollow within me..’ and ‘ Your spirit…breaks through me…/ Constrains my fragile will…’ Grace says her tutor compared her poem to Donne and suddenly, yes, now I see the distinct  parallels to Donne’s sonnet  ‘Batter my heart, three-personed God’!

The use of the Isaiah verse as refrain is inspired, masterfully appropriate – launched from the springboard of each verse, it presents something at the same time a response (‘Therefore, with joy..’) and a promise (‘..shall ye draw water…’) and an affirmation of mysterious depths to the sources of the Spirit’s power/love/life (‘..out of the wells of salvation’); the melodic contrast which the refrain  offers sounding like a peal of confident bells.

The original Lynch/Krag composition contains a prefaced vocative/invocation ‘sweet Jesus’, given slow, rich harmony  on the album to which it gives its name. While on the surface it may seem a dispensable and incidental bit of preparatory throat-clearing, I believe there’s sound theological justification for it – acknowledging Christ as the ‘giver’ and conduit for the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of those who follow and love – ‘Your spirit within me…’. Interestingly, when, a decade or so later, another recording team from the Fisherfolk stable (largely a British one from the community’s interaction with the Post Green Community in Dorset)made a fresh stab at the song, they dropped the invocation, changed the title to ‘Wells of Salvation’ and –though surely not necessarily because of that- produced something which, while valid in its own way, doesn’t for me match the exhilarating zing of the original.

I’m loving the song all over again. And I’m feeling that even at 62 there’s more re-re-rediscovering of the mysterious third person of the Trinity to be experienced – (which is probably the pattern more or less of two milennia of church history!) . Grace and David’s song makes the connection between the Isaiah verse, and John 7:38 (Jesus’ extraordinary public pronouncement on the last day of a significant temple feast); and the subterranean connection between those verses still excites. I more than suspect the well’s still full, and deeper than we can imagine!

22. EASTER SONG – The Second Chapter of Acts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18. AS THE RUIN FALLS – Phil Keaggy

I stumbled back onto this, a few days ago, after a gap of 30 years or more, and it stirred up a lot of thoughts.  (Also, I was rather surprised about how well I remembered it, and could sort of sing along, despite its fairly intricate construction.)

Here are some of the thoughts it brings to mind.  I’ve already and elsewhere touched upon the winds of change in the 1960s: renovations, reawakenings and renewals in the global Christian church, and the inevitable innovations it brought to forms and expressions of music both in ‘worship’ and in reflective/performance/message-conveying formats.  For bad or good, this spawned a new industry in the 60s and 70s –the ‘Christian music industry’.  Mostly bad, it began to seem, since capital-minded corporations suddenly discovered a new niche market to exploit, and surely that couldn’t be good?  Initially excited by what was being produced –and I’m talking mainly ‘performance’  output here – I soon sort of lost track of what the industry was all about, and sadly felt that in many ways the industry itself had, too.

While the interest lasted, we were listening to, and awaiting the next albums of (in the UK) artists like Graham Kendrick, Malcolm and Alwyn, Garth Hewitt, Len McGee; and (in the U.S.) Chuck Girard, Phil Keaggy, Randy Stonehill, Keith Green, Michael Omartian, Annie Herring et al.  It’s easy now to dismiss it as a bit of a sad business.  To underline my dismissal of if, I’m remembering too a concert I attended in Cardiff about…eight years ago, with Pierce Pettis and Julie Lee (see my blog posting on ‘You Did That For Me’), two artists I discovered at Greenbelt Festival.  It was a very poorly attended gig, so there was plenty of opportunity to chat with them.  While both were fervent believers, they had also both resisted being drawn into the world of the U.S.Christian music industry.  The murky world, they implied.  The wonderful Julie Miller, also, had started her recording career in that world, but had managed to escape it to eventually disseminate her great songs more widely.  It was Richard Hines (fellow teacher at Colegio San Andres) who taught me that we do best to resist creating sub cultures –Christian poetry, Christian art, Christian diets, Christian music industry etc.  –and instead, try being ‘salt’ in the world.(Hmm. Discuss)

So, as I’ve said, it’s been easy to dismiss those early seventies Christian albums.  But this is what hearing Phil Keaggy again reminded me: that there was much within that industry that had both quality and integrity.  Just think, for instance, about the earnest and honest anthems of Keith Green; think too of the exquisite vocals of Matthew Ward –while several of his songs suffered from cliché, there is a handful in his canon that stand any stringent test of time –his ‘psalms’, ‘Love’, ‘Summer Snow’, ‘Noah’ (isn’t that a Keaggy song too?).On this side of the pond, real craftsmanship in such as Adrian Snell…

And Phil Keaggy himself: so, let’s get back to this song.  Keaggy was/is a consummate guitarist, and the exquisite guitar-work on this track attests to that too.  But most interesting too is the ambition of actually attempting a musical version of this sonnet by CS Lewis!  Its fluid syntax, its enjambements, its condensed and complex images do not lend themselves easily to musical adaptation!  But this is as brave and close to brilliant an attempt as you can get, and the 40 years since its composition only confirms that for me.

While there may be several levels of explicit and implicit meaning in the sonnet, at the very least it’s about an awareness that much of what we are and do is motivated by self gratification.  CS Lewis clearly highlights (and Keaggy underlines) that this often leads us into mere delusions of knowledge, our ‘flashy rhetoric about loving you’ keeping us from the true experience of the real thing – ‘I talk of love – a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek…’ Like many good at-the-core Christ-infused creations, there is the hint of the end-of-self and the divine redemptive mercy and grace that rescues us from that state.  We get this in the final lines and Keaggy captures the note of hope in the final couplet (‘For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains/You give me are more precious than all other gains’) with a minor to major change mirroring the gratitude of the rescued.

Speaking as someone who has dabbled with “collaborations with CS” myself (!! –songs for my ‘Pilgrim’s Regress’ dramatic adaptation, pale little efforts by comparison!)I recognize what an impressive achievement this lovely song is .  I’m very glad to have stumbled back across it, after far too long.

17. JESUS, I LOVE YOU – The Church of the Redeemer/ Fisherfolk

The other night, unable to sleep while lying in a constricting sleeping bag on an uncomfortable airbed on the floor of a church hall (doing a rare stint supporting the local night shelter) I put this song on repeat on my iPod, until the battery gave out and I still wasn’t asleep.  But at least .. I remembered… and I remembered what this song meant to me.  And –incidentally – the wakefulness allowed it to minister to me.

Winter 74, spring 75, my then girlfriend Tina passed me a cassette tape of worship music which had been passed on to her by her close college friend.  Apparently, this friend had made an amateur recording of a service she had attended at a dynamic church in Houston, Texas, while she had been travelling in the States.  Sadly, this friend was later discovered to be a spectacularly mendacious attention seeker.  And sometime later, I realized that this recording was in fact a commercially available recording which the Church Of The Redeemer choir(and musicians?) had recorded and released under the title ‘God’s People Give Thanks’.

None of this minimizes the effect of this little cassette.  In amongst stirring traditional hymns like ‘Crown Him With Many Crowns’ and ‘Glory be to Jesus’ there were unusual items – a boys’ choir singing an unusual setting of ‘Micah’s message’ to some subtle rhythmic percussion; a gorgeous  acappella Jewish-type tune, ‘Glorious in Majesty’; some jaunty Alleluia songs with tambourines (which later I came to appreciate as joyous Mimi Armstrong–Farra praise expressions); a wonderful ‘8 fold alleluia’ of utter simplicity, but growing in worshipful intensity.  And in a not too dissimilar vein, there was this.

Five chime bells signal the melody of the first line, and from there on the song is unaccompanied.  What was thrillingly fresh about it, I think, was that on the one hand there were these exquisite choral harmonies, but on the other, the song itself could not have been simpler.  And what simpler expression of adoration could there be than the entirely unadorned sentiment ‘Jesus, I love you’?

I was later to see that this is a mark of Kathleen Thomerson’s style, or perhaps rather, a mark of the way God had clearly taken hold of this talented composer-organist.  All her songs are marked with that same freshness and simplicity of authentic expression.  Take for example the other song of hers included in this recorded Eucharistic service – and now much more widely known and used – ‘I want to walk as a child of the light’.  This has the same disarmingly direct kind of lyric.  Later on, I was also to discover and appreciate other songs of hers – ‘I love the name of Jesus’ and ‘The Shepherd Of My Soul’.

Something else about the lyric of this song –one gets the sense that she didn’t necessarily go for neat poetical crafting – e.g. it didn’t always rhyme (‘now we have seen/the love of God/he has poured out/the spirit of truth…’) because it simply says what she wants it to say, and that seemed then – and seems to me even now –wholly part of its ‘anointed’ status.

Listening to it over and over in my unsleeping state that night, I realized that in my love and appreciation of this song I may well have mentally sidelined a major part of its lyrical thrust –the fourth line of the chorus: ‘Take my life.’ In the first verse too – ‘Life is your gift/I give my heart…’ and this beautiful song helps to lead us there –simple adoration, yes, but surrender and self-giving too.

16. THE DONOR – Judee Sill

Any Britisher of my generation who remembers the late Judee Sill will also then probably remember the first of her two appearances on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ where, off-script, she made a direct plea to the viewing audience to buy her debut album so that she would not have to open for any ‘snotty heavy rock bands’ anymore…  then proceeded to play and sing the tender, deftly crafted and intriguing put-down song that is ‘Jesus was a Crossmaker’.  The next day I went to Pete’s Record Shop in Bargoed to buy the aforementioned album.  “You’d be surprised how many people have come in as a result of her appeal,” he said, or something like.

While critics praised the way that mystical, religious imagery metaphorically charted her love life and inner conflicts, to me, my ears and eyes youthfully starry with Jesus  – many of the songs sounded simply and authentically Christian in their language –‘the Lamb ran away with the crown’ comes to mind- but perhaps I too easily saw Jesus where there were just strange mixed-up pictures from the biblical teaching in the correctional institutions to which her teenage addiction/prostitution horror stories had consigned her.  Still, here was a strange, talented girl, whose (reportedly) messed up background had nevertheless led her to a place where the iconic symbols and images of Christian theology, and of Christ himself, had somehow captivated her to a point where they informed and inhabited her creative responses to life.  So yes I liked it; I liked her songs.

When I went off to university, Judee Sill took her place in the lineup of the many singer songwriters (several ‘girls with guitars’ among them) that was never far from my vision, though her limited output –just that one great album –perhaps meant that she was not in the forefront, either.  Until I came upon her second album – ‘Heartfood’.  I snapped it up, and was delighted to find that her spiritual language, her obliqueness, her unusual perspectives were just as alluring and potent.  There were even songs that felt like ‘straight’ Christian anthems e.g.  ‘When the bridegroom comes’.  And then there was the 7 minute extraordinary treasure which is ‘The Donor’…

If ever there was a song whose meaning was conveyed impressionistically rather than through lucid lyrical content, then it was this one. First that long introduction itself seems eloquent: a sequence of ponderous piano notes quickly becomes built upon with what sounds like xylophone accompaniment, and then with a repeated chant of wordless musical phrase (like Hey Jude but at the beginning not the end!), growing in intensity and tiers of sound; from this wordlessness ‘kyries’ begin to emerge with increasing distinctness. At a climactic point, when the kyries have reached unequivocal clarity, the voice begins the song ‘proper’, to a starker piano accompaniment. There’s a profound, elemental feel to the song; and inevitably and instinctively I assumed that it was about the Great Donor, Jesus, with the great ‘donation’ of himself implicitly referenced in typically indirect, esoteric Sill-style.  I think that it was the first time I had ever come across the phrase ‘Kyrie Eleison’ (hard to believe now, but bear in mind my spiritually sheltered background of Welsh nonconformity); and its use as a refrain in this song is haunting, plaintive, the layering of voices accentuating the utterly appropriate aching dolorousness of the prayer.

There was no lyric sheet with this second album, and it’s only now, 40 odd years later, that I come to look at them…and find them, like water, hard to hold, without any obvious linear coherence.  Take the opening –‘I’ll chase ‘em to the bottom/Till I’ve finally caught ‘em/Dreams fall deep…’ Like I said, sort of, the meaning is more in the sound than the lyric –but what you can say about the lyric is that everything leads to the Kyrie.  The hints and implications seem to be that inner impulses (the voices ‘Moaning and a-rhyming/…Ringin’ and a-whining’) and the profundities of human experience (‘Songs from so deep/while I’m sleeping’) and the sadnesses of life (‘Sorrow’s like an arrow…  Reaching to the marrow’) all lead us to this prayer –Lord, have mercy.  ‘So sad, and so true…’ – and Judee, bless her, on what level of consciousness I don’t know, helped to highlight the bedrock necessity of that prayer. Well, for me, at least.

12. CREATION DREAM and AFTER THE RAIN – Bruce Cockburn

And so to Bruce, finally.  It had to come.  My Bruce-history needs to be told.  But first, these songs.

I get them mixed up, if truth be told.  Although lyrically quite different, in sound and feel and emotional associations, they have a common vibe.  For reasons I’ll try to explain soon, Bruce became a major part of my listening life when we lived in Paraguay; and one day in the ‘English’ staff room, Kate –our newly arrived, zany, effervescent Australian ex-vet young teacher –wanted to listen in to what I was listening to on my Walkman.  When she grabbed an earplug to listen in, it was one of these two songs.  ‘But this is one of my happy songs!’ she squealed with surprised delight.  ‘I love this song!’ I realised what she meant (whichever one of these two songs she was referring to!) because both have a pounding, insistent ‘drive’ to them, melodies perhaps unremarkable in some ways, but subtly apt vehicles for their somewhat mysterious, always entrancing, lyrical content; and yes, they are really ‘happy’ songs!

It’s a bit religious of me to say so, but I almost feel that there’s something ‘anointed’ about the album which contains these tracks – ‘Dancing In The Dragon’s Jaws’.  Perhaps it was his immersion in the works of mystical Inkling Charles Williams, prior to writing and recording some of these songs? Like all the great albums, this one has its own character, a very ‘unified’ feel to it.  The opening track, ‘Creation Dream’ sets the tone perfectly, and its two verses seem to imagine the first, original act of creation –‘centred on silence/counting on nothing/I saw you standing on the sea…’; and the Creator is imagined as joyful, exhilarated in the act of bringing life into being: ‘you were dancing/I saw you dancing/throwing your arms towards the sky…/stars were shooting everywhere…’ Catch the song in the right mood (e.g.  With your Walkman on, walking down the warm evening callés of Asunción towards a cervecita…) and it’s breathtaking.

‘After The Rain’ is more mysterious, but it has the same dream quality, and the same life-affirming vitality.  Its highlights are these speculative assertions: ‘maybe to those who love is given sight/to pierce the wall of seeming night/and know it pure beyond all imagining’; and even more so, the thrilling falsetto-leap that takes place on ‘hydrogen’ in this: ‘maybe to those who love it’s given to hear/music too high for the human ear/and clear as hydrogen to go sailing…’ Goosebumps, from both the sound, and the content!

So, the story of me and Bruce. I always say that I sort of ‘adopted’ him; I chose to like him and listen to him even before I had heard him.  Before the nineties, his name was a fringe-name I may have noticed peripherally in articles about Greenbelt Festival, or about minor Canadian songwriters, or singers with some kind of Christian focus.  In Paraguay, when some kind organization had gifted us with free subscriptions to a magazine of choice, I read an article about him in ‘The Other Side’ (a now discontinued U.S. ‘alternative’ Christian periodical, a bit like ‘Sojourners’); felt a kinship…  And shortly afterwards, as if it was meant to be (!), discovered in a downtown record store a whole heap of music cassettes from north American companies (Columbia, particularly, I think) at prices muy barato – amongst them several Bruce Cockburn albums.  A couple of weeks later, in a different store, a few more!  Suddenly it seemed like I had most of Cockburn’s back catalogue for –In The Falling Dark, Humans, Joy Will Find A Way, Sunwheel Dance, Night Vision, High Winds White Sky, Inner City Front, The Trouble With Normal, Stealing Fire, Dancing In The Dragon’s Jaws (and I easily added missing ones later) –so I had an incredible and sudden immersion into his music, as it filled my ears there in those subtropical years, in the walks to and from work, in the late night strolls to cafes and plazas, soaking up the lovely Latino otherness.  I was inordinately proud of the Bruce I had adopted –in some ways not the most dynamic of singing voices; and a few of the songs even seemed a little awkward or contrived in construction.  But they were songs of challenge, searching, reflection, faith and compassion and I loved them all as if he were my own.

Back in Blighty, my interest in his work became inevitably less intense, but ‘fell into place’ as one significant element of my song-life.  Perhaps I will need to write a Part Two, and explore this for with another song…

11. YOU DID THAT FOR ME – Pierce Pettis

I’ve deliberately tried not to make these essays a ‘Desert Island Discs’ book, But I do believe that if Kirsty Young were interviewing me today, this track may well be one of the eight I take with me on my famous BBC Radio marooned experience.

Pierce Pettis did this song in the set he performed the first time I heard him, in, I think, the Christian Aid tent in Greenbelt Festival, late nineties or early noughties. Also in the set was another stunner – ‘Alabama 1959’, possibly the best song about ‘benign racism’ ever written. When he introduced ‘You Did that..’ I seem to recall that he said he hadn’t recorded it himself since Sara Groves had recorded it and done such a great job. (After hearing the song and the rest of the set, I went and bought the Sara Groves album – ‘All Right Now’ and – yes, he wasn’t wrong.)

It’s quite simply a great contemporary song about – pardon my language – the ‘substitutionary atonement’ – and the ‘gracious releases and exchanges’ from which we benefit because of that once for all Lamb of God sacrifice. Silly and inadequate, of course, to talk in such legalese jargon about the history-pivotal event, the supreme act of self-giving love…! The song gets it: fleshes out the theology, makes it human, and in a gutsy, unsentimental way sings out and celebrates appropriate gratitude and wonder at how we experience the benefits of this gift.

I’ve never learnt to play it – but I have used the song whenever I could or whenever it felt appropriate: at a Church retreat I ran; in an ‘All-Age Service’; at staff Monday-morning prayers in my old workplace… And here’s my favourite Pierce Pettis story coming up.

First, I need to say that following that Greenbelt, I pursued whatever Pettis recordings I could find on ebay – and I have them all now except for that tricky first album, ‘Memories’, only available on (deleted) vinyl as far as I know. Rare indeed. This song finally did get recorded by Pettis a few years after that initial hearing – on his ‘Some Kind of Love’ album. His ageing voice gets growlier, Nashvillier. It’s great.

Anyway, I also watched out for any UK tours and performances – and, though there have been none in recent years, in the year following that Greenbelt, I was privileged to see him twice. The second of those occasions was in the strangest of places – a pub in Tregaron, West Wales. I drove there straight from work. Juliet Turner was his support act – another great performer and also someone I’d first encountered at Greenbelt. I managed to have a five minute chat with PP, asking him why he opened each album with a Mark Heard song. “ Because they’re such great songs” he said. Fair enough; and true enough.

But the first of these two performances was even more memorable – a weeknight gig at a small basement venue just at the end of Queen Street, Cardiff. This time the lovely Julie Lee was the support act – but actually ended up doing the whole evening, since PP had developed laryngitis and couldn’t sing publicly! The other curious thing was that the audience numbered…seven, I think, and there was lots of hanging around and lots of chance to chat. I told Pierce it was a shame he wouldn’t be performing since I was going to request ‘You Did That for Me’.

Graciously he said ‘well, maybe I could give you a quiet croaky personal performance..’ We found something like a toilet/changing room ‘backstage’ and indeed, true to his word, croaking his way painfully through it, he did that for me. Magical moment. Blessing/jewel of a song.