44. SANCTUARY – Red Horse, & THE VALLEY – Jane Siberry

We had a sermon, a few months back ,on Psalm 23: the priest said that it was one of those pieces of sacred literature which somehow resonates strongly and roots itself firmly into the memories –surfacing and surviving even in the senile, in stroke victims etc.  (Like Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ in Gillian Clarke’s poem about reading this in a care home).  You know what I mean.  And I believe it –even in a largely post-biblically-aware civilisation, there are these residue echoing strands…

I’m not sure what Eliza Gilkyson intended from her lovely song ‘Sanctuary’: was she indeed trying to write a psalm 23 for the 21st century?  Was it a love song for a significant other couched in the assumed elegance of semi-biblical echoes?  Was it simply an acknowledgement of her awareness of an overseeing/accompanying ‘presence’ in her life?  I don’t know –but it is a most enriching song –  its pace and its melody cradling measured tones of peace that entirely marry to the lyric.

It starts with that straight biblical ‘lift’ of course –‘…  The valley of the shadow…’ but from there on, the ‘deathly shadows’ of modern experience are expressed in fresher, more original ways –‘in the crowded rooms of a mind unclear…’, ‘through fear’s dark thunder…’, ‘through the doubter’s gloom and the cynic’s sneer…’, ‘…  The sea of desires that drag me under…’ My favourite is one I’m not sure I fully understand – ‘though I’ve been traded in like a souvenir…’!  And, like the iconic psalm it sort of emulates, this is a prayer for every one.  ‘Though my trust is gone and my faith not near…’ – for strugglers, for believers, for doubters – the affirmation we all long for –‘Thou art with me.’ And yes, please note, family, another to add to the list: I want this recording played at my funeral.

One particular memory I have of it is when, a couple of summers ago, I tried to walk sections of the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway.  Trying to follow the maps, I found myself (between Hengoed and Maesycwmmer, for the record) stuck in the middle of a huge brambled-up area, hoping to find a path, but increasingly snagged up and hardly able to move.  In all of this, for at least 40 minutes I think, before emerging much scratched and bloodied, my iPod played ‘Sanctuary’ into my earbuds, and it was a most appropriate and energising prayer.

On the ‘Red Horse’ recording, it’s sung by Lucy Kaplansky, and with the other two songwriters on this sharing-our-songs project –John Gorka and the song’s composer Eliza Gilkyson, singing backup and harmonising.  As with ‘Cry Cry Cry’ (Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Shindell) another great album and project similar to Red Horse, I don’t know whether these collaborations are driven by creative or commercial impulses – but  I can’t help but  love the end results of the co-operative, composite venture – these remarkable  recordings.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRKQWzm14-E

Looking again of the lyric of Jane Siberry’s ‘The Valley’, I’m not exactly sure why I’ve always automatically associated it with Psalm 23 – and yet I have the kind of gut feeling that she was aiming for something of the feel of it (?), in certain places anyway – ‘the valley is dark…  You walk through the shadows…  You trust the light…  The shepherd…’ Rhythmically, and and as regards tempo and tenor, it’s very close to Gilkyson’s ‘Sanctuary’.  When I first heard it, it was on that amazing Christmas (live) double album ‘Child’ –and while there are distinctly quirky choices on there,  I felt this song had a genuine spirituality and solemnity to it.  Since then, I’ve heard it in her original early album recording (on ‘Bound to the Beauty’) and also as a stunningly good cover on KD Lang ‘s wonderful album of songs from Canadian songwriters.  In each case my original impression is confirmed. More about Jane Siberry very soon. Though I’ve written more about ‘Sanctuary’, I hope this one doesn’t get overlooked:  listen to this recording.

In this song, the affirming refrain is ‘You will walk in good company’ –and although I’m not entirely sure what Siberry intended from that either, in my head it has the same psalm 23-type sense of ‘Thou art with me’.  I love it when songs lead me back to God, whether they intended it or not.

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9. POWER – John Hall

It might be something to do with spending so much time in the garden, willing all the little plants in our ‘wildflower garden’ to take root, to start blooming, watching them perk up after a nice spring shower and (even more) the subsequent bursts of warm spring sunshine; but whatever it is, I find myself bursting spontaneously into ‘Give me the warm power of the sun; give me the restless flow of the waterfall…’ *

I usually stop before I get to ‘…  But won’t you take all your atomic poison power away…!’ Maybe not out of principle, probably more because I can’t remember all the words that precede it.  But maybe also – a bit –because that cry somehow seems…I don’t know…perhaps a little naive and unformed now; attitudes towards (some forms of?) nuclear energy have perhaps shifted since the early seventies, haven’t they?  And those promoting nuclear reactors have tried hard to make a case for the ‘cleanness’ of the source – compared for instance to the burning of fossil fuels. Still, since Fukushima 2011…might we be swinging back to John Hall’s sentiments?  Let’s stick to the song.

The song, I think, more or less ends the ‘No Nukes’ film about a series of concerts organized by the Musicians United for Safe Energy (M.U.S.E.) –a film with which I was so enamoured – late seventies?   early eighties?  -that I saw it at least twice in a cinema setting –Cardiff’s chapter arts centre probably; and have subsequently obtained the DVD.  The film showed iconic 1970s singer songwriters earnestly engaged in an enterprise of conviction.  There was a kind of evangelical fervor to their involvement –James Taylor, Carly Simon (still a married couple at that time), Bonnie Raitt,  Jackson Browne and Graham Nash –these last always a safe bet for liberal, democratic stances.

In the course of the film you see them perform, yes, but also in impromptu rehearsals –preparing, for instance, a joint rendition of Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-changin’.  And we also witness John and Joanna Hall’s ‘Power’ song coming together, in snatches, in a suitably organic way, till it finally surfaces complete – chorus and verses and all, in the final open-air concert which concludes the film.

And it is stirring, of course –seeing that measure of lively ‘belief’ and ‘purpose’ in their take-it-in-turns delivery of the song, and the message gusto in their harmonised chorus.  There is a kind of ‘creationist’ faith (as in ‘creation theology’) there, that’s undeniably attractive: let’s use the natural things, man.

*And now I think of it, I’m not sure I sing it right: surely it’s the restless power of the wind, and the steady flow of the waterfall?  That makes a little more sense.