I had been thinking for a while that this series of essays would not be complete if I did not acknowledge the part that Betty Pulkingham’s compositions had played in my life. And I am prompted to do it finally since that great lady passed on to Glory earlier this year. To my mind, Betty Jane Pulkingham has been a significant figure in the history of Christian hymnody, her output spanning the second half of the 20th century into the beginning of the 21st.
I have written several posts in this blog focused on songs which represented, and traced their lineage back to, the extraordinary renewal of faith, spiritual vitality and worship which took place beginning in the early sixties in Houston, Texas, centred around the Episcopalian ‘Church Of The Redeemer’ and the community lifestyle which developed from that renewal, characterised by a dynamic focus on loving, serving relationships and a remarkable sense of freshness and creativity. Learning of that renewal, reading of it, meeting people involved in it, getting brief tastes of the communities that evolved from it, hearing and experiencing some of the musical ‘output’ from it, has been – even if it seems to be ‘at a remove’- a life-changing experience.
Betty Pulkingham’s place in all that, and most especially in the development of ‘worship life’ which has benefitted so many Christians throughout the church, was seminal. Her husband Graham was of course the priest and pastor who was the figurehead of the renewal that took place in the church, helping to nurture a vibrant community along biblical guidelines, fostering an atmosphere of committed Christian devotion, attentiveness and expectation among the many who began to gather into extended family households to share lives of godly service and caring. True and heartfelt worship was key to that common life and Betty was key in that calling.
Given her scholarly classical training and her highly accomplished musicianship, she could so easily have given herself to the pursuit of traditional ‘ classical church music’ excellence, trained an impressive Episcopalian choir to do a series of fancy anthems, and we might never have heard of her. Her scope became at the same time more humble and yet broader and more far-reaching, her legacy far more extraordinary! Oh she wrote some hymns, songs, what you will, and I have chosen a couple here… well, more about them in a moment. She could even compose intricate, multi-part anthems for trained choirs (we have a few wonderful examples in the recorded output), but she learnt early on, under God’s gracious tutelage, I’m sure she would have said, that music also needed to come from the simplicity of ordinary people, and from the heart, and so despite her musicianship, a surprising number of her compositions are indeed simple, unadorned expressions of praise. Perhaps this is why I have chosen the first of these two songs, taken from the very first album which the church/community released, primarily from the music group which helped to run their coffeehouse ministry, ‘The Way In’. The song ‘Bless Thou The Lord’ is a modest, almost artless, setting of some of the verses from Psalm 103 in a folk idiom, using the opening verse as a refrain. (The song’s verses, incidentally, are sung on the recording by Pat Allen, more about whom in blog essay no.37). The jaunty rhythm, the plinky-plunk banjo accompaniment, are a long way from a choral evensong hymn, yet there is quiet authentic praise in it, I feel.
So, she composed, yes, but what she composed is just one part of her legacy. Her encouragement to a whole community of eager and creative worshippers gathered at the Church of the Redeemer, then the Community of Celebration, is another. While she trained and led worshipping groups and choirs to achieve sensitivity and tightness in their harmonies and balances, it is interesting to see –from the records – that she was in no way just promoting her own songs, but a whole host of talented songwriters emerges under her encouragement, to produce –often in collaborations –a body of work which, when it was disseminated through vinyl discs and song books, helped to invigorate many a church choir, music group, and individual worshipper!
Her choral settings for Eucharistic liturgy form a major part of her legacy. Even this week, in our church we used the ‘Jesus Lamb of God’ chant in our worship, from Betty’s ‘King of Glory’ setting (to be found on the ‘Celebrate the Feast’ recording). The first of these we ever heard was the Melchizedek Mass setting, to be found on the ‘God’s People Give Thanks’ LP. And it seemed then, mid-1970s, like a little piece of heaven. [Actually – anecdote alert: heard this recording on an unlabelled cassette tape handed to me by a friend of my then girlfriend. She claimed she’d recorded it herself on a hand-held recorder, from a church she’d visited in the States. She later proved to be spectacularly mendacious, this girl. But I kept the tape, and later discovered the album]. Another great setting is the ‘El Shaddai’ setting on the ‘Let Our Praise to You Be as Incense’ LP, one of my favourite Fisherfolk albums. Later still (1990?) on the ‘Freedom is Coming’ recording we hear the ambitious ‘Freedom Mass’ setting which used adaptations of black South African songs and rhythms..! Apart from their warm singability, the evident sensitive correspondence between text and melody, these (the first three) settings are remarkable for encouraging accompaniment between traditional church organ AND ‘folk instruments ’(in particular the strummed acoustic guitar) together – instead or their more common frosty competitiveness! They all have something of an anointing, these mass settings, and are deserving of a longevity in their effective church use.
When a sizeable group of people from the Houston church, including Graham and Betty, settled in the UK for a decade or so, the Community of Celebration was named and established; and Betty also set about making these songs (and many others – including old chestnuts from a variety of traditions – that had proved useful in worship) accessible to the church more widely. Initially with Jeanne Harper, wife of Canon Michael Harper, and with the blessings of Hodder and Stoughton publishers, she set about compiling a songbook which quickly became a staple in the Uk church – ‘Sounds of Living Water’ (still a go-to, for me), followed up a few years later by ‘Fresh Sounds’ and later still, with Mimi Farra as co-compiler this time ‘Cry Hosanna’. These three treasures do not gather dust on my shelves, and for these alone I am more than grateful to Betty Jane. In the US, other Celebration hymnals have been published, I believe.
In compositions (as in her eucharist settings) she often brought new life into the old and perhaps-too-familiar. Just like with my good friend Graham Oakes, her new tunes to old hymns helped us to rediscover the potency and beauty of their lyrical content – ‘Hail to the Lord’s Anointed’ and ‘Lo He Comes’ come to mind, especially. Her folksy driving adaptation of the familiar ‘Christ the Lord is Risen today’ is given an added sense of liveliness in her transformation of it as ‘Hallelujah Today!’ But she especially had a prayerfully deft touch in her adaptation of psalms (as in the earlier Psalm 103 song we mentioned). Later in her ‘career’ she put together a whole book of psalm settings (‘Celebrate the Church Year with Psalms and Canticles’) which once again breathed new life into our beloved psaltery, and this time the settings were for congregations who wished to chant/sing the ‘complete’ psalms, instead of singing selective and adapted song-versions. I have vivid memories of the summer when I acquired the cassette tape which accompanied this book, the Fisherfolk with customary clarity and brightness presenting a representative selection of these psalm settings: it was 1989, the cassette lived all summer in my car cassette player – I can recall driving the kids to the beach singing along at the top of my voice to several of the psalms (poor kids). I’ve chosen ‘Psalm 23’ here, because I love the way that Betty has chosen to use the gospel verse from John chapter 10 (where Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’) as the refrain in between the familiar much loved psalm verses. It brings a new breadth to the psalm, linking it with our Saviour’s tender shepherding of us.
Since I am paying homage to her more generally, here, and not just commenting on a couple of songs, let me also recommend her own prose writings, if you can get them. The first book she wrote was ‘Mustard Seeds’ (called something else in the US?), a wonderful series of personal anecdotes of her own (and inevitably the family’s and community’s) faith-fuelled journey, and how she perceived the Lord’s surprises and grace-encounters along the way. The second, ‘Sing To God a Simple Song’ explores more reflectively the lessons she has learnt (and was willing to share) about using music in church contexts. Her third and final book was her autobiography ‘This Is My Story, This Is My Song’ which was just a delight to read. Oh, and when we’re thinking of songbooks, she produced a book of a choral anthem pieces (including the wonderful ‘For Ye Shall Go Out With Joy’ sung at our wedding by a choir of loving friends) AND a book of descants, which every serious choirleader should try to track down.
I only ever met her once –she and her husband were away on my two visits to the Cumbrae community –and this was at a Fisherfolk day (or was it called a Celebration Day?) held, if I remember rightly, in a school hall somewhere in Brighton or Bournemouth (?). It was in my pre-driving days so I caught the train (with you, Caris, if you’re reading). Betty Pulkingham was the key speaker of the day’s events and not surprisingly I hung onto her every word. These are the things I remember: one, her endearingly southern twang; two, her reminder that worship was creating an environment in which God would ‘just feel at home’; three, she quoted from Evelyn Underhill. I had never heard the name before, so you could say Betty Pulkingham introduced me to Ms Underhill, whose works I love, and for that alone I am supremely grateful.
There’s more, I’m sure. I haven’t even mentioned the children’s songs she wrote, several of which feature on the 1972 album ‘Hey Kids, do you love Jesus’. Ok maybe the style and delivery date it somewhat, but the songs retain a value. I’m adding ‘Rain Song’ (from that album) to the youtube clip to accompany this piece – it’s a song that has a beautiful childlike delicacy, and yet still says something important about the refreshing and empowering work of God’s Spirit. Also we get to hear Betty’s own voice here!… Like I said, there must be so much more that could be said: those who’ve lived with her, worked with her, worshipped, played and sung with her, lived through house moves and community changes with her, laughed and cried through celebrations and crises, with have more to remember and share , and no doubt have been doing so in recent months. As for me, from my remote distance as lurking ‘enthusiast/admirer/student’, I can only say how my little life has been touched by her music. And as I consider her recent passing, I’m pleased to think that the songs she’s singing now, of course, are richer and fuller than ever.