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.

7. I AM A ROCK by Diane Davis Andrew and the Fisherfolk

I could write a whole book, of course, just about my relationship with Fisherfolk songs, my enchantment with which defined possibly a whole period in my life, probably my whole approach to worship and my own predilections in contemporary worship songs; and probably still informs who I am today.

Fisherfolk: the touring/performing/recording arm of the Community of Celebration, which in turn emanated from the renewal of community/worship in Houston’s Church of the Redeemer in the 1960s. I was fascinated from the word go –from Michael Harper’s book about the church (‘A New Way of Living’), and my first LPs obtained through Fountain Trust –from their ‘Keyhole’ coffeehouse ministry. Diane Davis would have been one of those singers.

No space here to discuss the far reaching extent of my interest (some might say obsession). Let’s focus on this song. It appears on an album which –unlikely, now –is a recording of an Anglican eucharist service using a liturgical setting composed by Betty Pulkingham, ‘Celebrate the feast.’ This song turns up as one of three or four in the ‘free’ section which presumably accompanies the actual communion time.

When I think of the song now, I think of listening to it while I was living in Aunty Jan’s house (when Graham and Gail went to live in my house, in the early months of their marriage), in the front room, with a record player. That fluidity in our living arrangements and the sense of shared life and community they represent are entirely apposite of course to what I/we were soaking up from the Community of Celebration; or what we were replicating from our own experience of the Spirit’s wind sweeping through us.

For the first of many listens, I got a frisson of excitement each time I heard this song. There was the bell like clarity of Diane’s voice, of course; there was Max Dyer’s always sensitive cello accompaniment; but there were so many other elements blending together too: there was for instance a dangerously bold prophetic voice to the lyric –presuming to speak out the Lord’s words to his people rather than the(more usual) people’s cry to God –in supplication or praise.

Some of the verses were more conventionally acceptable symbols – ‘I am the bread of life/my blood is the wine…’; ‘come to my marriage feast/I’ll remove your tattered garments of sin…’ but the opening verse, repeated with rich harmony and descant at the end, seemed entirely fresher, more original… And of course there were the obvious resonances with Paul Simon’s song of the same name, a more angst ridden celebration of romantic isolation.

But this wasn’t about isolation, this was a stirring voice promising solidity, and together the verses offer a healing invitation to experience divine grace, and life, from the source and foundation of all goodness and love.

A post script of sorts: the first touring performance of the Fisherfolk I ever saw (after this disc?) comprised Diane Davis, Jon Wilkes, Maggie Durren, and Louise Jolly, a pared down travelling team, but still effective. Strangely, (as well as the much reduced but still vitally existent Community of Celebration in Pittsburg), Diane Davis and her husband Bob Andrew are perhaps the most active even today in keeping alive the heritage of blessing gleaned from the multifaceted ministry and creativity streaming outwards from that historic source, compiling as they do the ‘Celebrate the whole of it’ website.