60. FOLLOW THE DRINKING GOURD – traditional/Richie Havens

And no, it’s not just on my way to Wetherspoons that I find myself singing this one.

I bet I’m not the only one that had never heard of Richie Havens until I saw him in the ‘Woodstock’ film – first act on the recording, in my memory at least ; bet, too, I’m not the only one whose teenage imagination was fascinated by the sight and sound – not just the increasingly sweaty frenetic energy  , or by the tie-dye gloriousness, or by the proud dentally challenged  boldness of the delivery, and those weird thumb-barred open chords, and the seemingly endless improvisational extension of the Freedom song, but oh, that unique gravelly voice. And the context, of course – even though this was only on film – couldn’t help but gild that magic !

And maybe it’s because of that, that Mr Havens stayed locked out of sight in a mental Woodstock ‘box’ for me, for years; till a friend who came to bunk in my home for a few months brought his LP collection which included a (double, was it?) album of Richie Havens ‘Live’. Even today I can’t think of many better live albums – a smattering of Beatles and Dylan covers, Billie Holliday’s ‘God bless the Child’, a great ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’, the best cover ever of Fred Neil’s ‘Dolphins’ song. I was more than grateful for the introduction: I made sure I got it all recorded onto cassette, then in later years to CD, and now MP3-ed onto my ipod.

But it’s none of those songs which is my focus here. Apart from that Live album, if I’m honest, other Havens albums I’ve encountered have left me sadly underwhelmed – clearly he was made for performance more than studio… but then I chanced upon this track. Once again,it was on one of those street-vendor cassette-rack stalls in abroad-land, and the cassette was, I think, from a US –made TV series ‘Songs of the Civil War’ – and I probably went for it for other artists included – Sweet Honey from the Rock did a couple of numbers, the McGarrigles doing some Stephen Foster songs, was there a bit of Emmylou too? But this was the standout for me. American musicologists – or perhaps even your average American high school student for all I know -will probably be well acquainted with this song, but I’d never heard it till then.

In short, if I understand the notes I’ve read, the song is a sort of set of coded instructions to African Americans making a break from slavery in the south – the ‘drinking gourd’ being the (US) ‘Big Dipper’,  or the more prosaic (UK) ‘plough’ – guiding the escapees northwards. It’s more complicated than that, and its provenance and add-ons are debated by scholars – but you can Wikipedia yourselves up on all that at your leisure.

For now just enjoy it and the way that Richie H captures just the right note of urgency and ‘freedom’ (again – he’ll always be the ‘freedom’ man, after Woodstock). ‘For the old man is waiting to carry you to freedom…’ I’ve heard rawer versions, subsequently, and I’ve heard The Weavers: and even though you can’t help but love Pete Seeger et al and their fearlessness in those folkie years, there’s something just a touch too clean about the earnest liberal whiteness of their otherwise commendable version. At least when I compare it to Mr Havens, Mr sweaty tie-dye, thumb-barre open chords (chords which in this recording sing out with a wonderful zingy crispness.)

 

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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.

45. PEOPLE GET READY -Curtis Mayfield

No anecdotal attachment here, as such. It feels like this great modern gospel song has always been around. In fact when I was younger,  I might have thought of it as a version of some other train/salvation metaphor songs – didn’t the Seekers or the Settlers or the Rennies sing one about ‘the Gospel train’? (Wasn’t that also in ‘Youth Praise’, the British 60s hymnal for church youth groups?) I note that the original ‘Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ single/album of this title was actually released in 1965! But it’s been dormant for me, this song, only gaining a kind of prominence as, over the last 15 years, I’ve heard a succession of cover versions underlining what a classic of a song it is – James Taylor, Eva Cassidy, Patty Griffin – but what, particularly, has occasioned this essay is hearing the mighty Seal singing it on his album of classic soul songs, which I picked up in a charity shop last week. Wow.

Going back to the original, it’s sweet, but surprisingly tight and low-key, with some neat choreography in the structured performance – the first halves of lines sung by a solo voice and then completed in the second half either by a different voice or by the whole group. Then there’s a key change before verse 3 – ah that tricky verse three (more in a moment) – and the first verse is repeated at the end. It’s a piece of smooth, controlled soul. If that’s not an oxymoron.

Hearing it being played in the car again last week, and having heard me warbling it round the house made my youngest daughter ask ‘Is this your favourite song at the moment, Dad?’ ‘I suppose it is,’ I said. These great cover versions over the last few years have made me want to add it to my repertoire, but I think I lack the necessaries to bring it to life – a good voice, maybe. My gifts such as they are – quirky song-composition-twiddling or whatever – are not enough to do this justice. You need a Voice, I think. On the only occasion I had a go at this in Folk Club, it all felt a bit flat. And then there’s the question of that trickiness in verse 3.

Before singing it publicly, I realized I had some theological problems with verse 3: ‘There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner/Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own..’ Hmmm, I thought: aren’t sinners precisely for whom there IS some carriage room? Or am I watering down Mr Mayfield’s justifiably urgent warning, because of a kind of liberal universalism? And maybe there’s the implicit understanding that said sinner is ‘hopeless’ because in his unrepentant malice willfully  misses the train?  Either way, I ended up singing ‘There’s STILL some room for the hopeless sinner..’ And the final two lines of the verse – ‘Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner/Cos there’s no hiding place against the kingdom’s throne’… Well, that was just about OK, I suppose. But what too about the end of verse 2 which seems to differ in different versions – ‘There’s hope for all among those loved the most.’ Uncomfortable (Calvinistic?) ideas of God’s favouritism, as the lucky Elect chug on in their luxury choo-choo? However, Eva Cassidy sings ‘There’s hope for all among the loved and lost’ which I think is what I plumped for in my solo performance.

Why such scruples, you might be asking?  I suppose it seems such a neat bit of gospel, I want the metaphor to hold together in a way that has some integrity by my funny standards. Is a train journey a good image for salvation? It has some validity I think, especially the idea of the ‘free ride’ (‘you don’t need a ticket’), the sense of sheer grace that enables the ride (‘no baggage..’) , the sense of train rides as having destination etc. Alright -easy to stretch what is essentially a fun piece of imagery if we over-analyse, I know!

I don’t think I’ve heard a bad rendition of this song (except mine at folk club), and the opening exhortation generally makes something skip within me as a kind of response. I heartily commend – especially – the Seal recording. Could you get more soulful soul? And so, get on board, little children, get on board.

25. WONDROUS LOVE – North American Folk Hymn (Jean Richie…and many more..)

Not only did we have this hymn sung at our wedding, but I fully intend that it shall be sung at my funeral.

I say ‘had it sung’ because it was not a congregational song; rather, a wonderful team of friends had assembled themselves into an excellent choir for the occasion (having rehearsed for weeks under the superb direction of Hazel Law), performing two set piece items –a more challenging Betty Pulkingham anthem written for her own son’s wedding –‘For You Shall Go Out in Joy’ –with wonderful harmonies, echoes and changes of tempo; and this song sung more simply in unison, but equally powerful.  The legend has it that after the singing of these songs,  I was so entranced and thrilled that I stood up as if to leave, thinking the service over, almost forgetting the bride next to me and the vows I had come to make.  I wish I could say that the legend had no truth.

I absolutely love this song.  So much so, that it is practically the only song I have bothered to learn to play properly and completely on the piano (if we forget Joni Mitchell’s ‘For Free’ and half of ‘Rainy Night House’) painfully working my way through right and left hand parts from my dog eared copy of ‘Sound Of Living Waters’.  The family are probably sick of me playing it on the piano but, bless them, they’re far too nice to tell me so.

I suspect that if I were north American I would have grown up with this song being a far more familiar old chestnut; it is, after all, a north American folk hymn – possibly, I read somewhere, from one of the ‘Great Awakenings’(though probably too employing an early English folk tune).  As it is, I did not hear it until I was into my twenties and it will be no surprise to friends that it was the Fisherfolk who introduced me to it in their beautiful album of hymns ‘Lo He Comes’.  They treated it as a simple choral piece, unison, nothing fancy, and actually the album gives us only two verses – a kind of teasing taster.

Given that the song is always bigger than the sum of its parts, it’s hard to clearly identify why I love it so much, but I think I can put my finger on some of the ‘parts’ that add to its appeal. Well first I’d have to say the content, wouldn’t I, dealing with themes I’ve built my life upon.  Four verses (at least in the version that I’ve become familiar with) declaring a sense of wonder at divine grace in Christ; an acknowledgement of the depth from which I’ve been lifted; the resultant desire to worship;  and a grateful sense of hope and joyous continuation beyond death.  Secondly, the repetitions –ah, tricky, dangerous things.  Repetitions can give a song tedium, frivolousness and even suggest heavy handedness; but here the repetitions feel just right –beautiful key phrases picked out, of or expanding into, longer statements, the repetitions gaining  a meditative strength for these sometimes short phrases, sometimes longer lines, all suggesting simplicity but also a kind of focus.

Thirdly,I have come to see how much the tune means to me, too.  I learned recently that the song is written in the Dorian mode, and this made sense, reminding me of (the only time I ‘learnt’ – in some measure – about modes) when I learned, from a book, how to play the Appalachian dulcimer with its distinctive sound  reliant on drone notes. The Dorian mode tuning was less common, I seem to recall (I tried the tuning and wrote only one song in this tuning – ‘Touch Me’ which I can probably neither sing nor play now, but am quite proud of) and, for reasons I don’t really understand, I find the mode  a truly haunting one. Ironically though, dulcimer queen Jean Richie sings it here acapella.

And though I still love the measured, choral versions, I can see now why its folk origins and format lend themselves perhaps even more naturally to looser renditions in acoustic folk and particularly American bluegrass – listen to this lovely version by Blue Highway, which is a recent discovery for me – I think they miss some of the full range of melodic nuances, but the force of it, the haunting dorian mode, the ‘white spiritual’ of the lyric is all here, especially in that lovely overlapping finale, so stick with it till the end.

I don’t regret it as a wedding choice – My soul was in awe at wondrous love (‘what wondrous love is this…?!’) then as I am now; an even better choice for a funeral , though, you might indeed think (‘And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on…’). On that occasion, if you’re there, it’ll be congregational. Learn it, sing along.

15. I BELIEVE IN YOU – Bob Dylan

As I have anticipated the first Dylan song I’d be writing about, never once did I consider this one.  For the record –I thought maybe ‘Gates of Eden’, one of the first that I learned to play; ‘When the Ship comes in’, the one I played most in folk clubs, or songs I have just formed a close affection for –‘Lay down your Weary Tune’ and even the much slighter ‘One more cup of coffee’…     But on the ol’ ipod shuffle, yesterday, Judy Collins’s version (what, her again?) of this song came on, and I remembered Dylan’s original, and I knew that I wanted to write about it.

When Victor and I flew back into Heathrow Airport after three weeks of travels on Greyhound buses in the States, we must have had some spare moments in between connections to mooch around in the Airport’s newspaper  and magazine kiosks.  Shameful to confess, on this occasion media and music news caught my attention  more than the news of world events and political issues.  Joni Mitchell was on the cover of Rolling Stone, with the infamous curly perm – and –was this hinted at on the covers of NME?  Melody Maker?  Or was it just alluded to in the Joni Mitchell interview?  -Dylan had found God, and was talking openly, and writing, playing and singing, about his newfound Christian faith!

Vic, a most fervent Dylan fan, said we shouldn’t be surprised –Dylan had been a chaser after truth all his life. And yes, it was the case: he’d been unwilling to settle for easy answers, clichés and platitudes, but had maintained integrity even when, unpopularly, he had refused the pigeon holing of trendy genres (consider ‘Our Back Pages’ – a comment perhaps on the oversimplifications of ‘protest’ singers) “So it was just a matter of time,” Victor suggested, “till he arrived at Truth.” (something like this. hope I haven’t misrepresented the younger you/us, Vic.  But that’s who and where we were then).

The first ‘Christian’ album (the first of three, basically) was an unequivocal underlining of this new commitment –‘Slow Train Coming’-  and perhaps surprisingly met with much critical approval despite (or because of?) its authentic gospel tones.  Our camp, our church community of twentysomethings and even younger, were quietly thrilled.  It graced all our turntables; Colin even taught ‘Man Gave Names To All The Animals’ to the Sunday school.

It was a time when –with that wonderful youthful energy and idealism which needs no apology or regret –we wanted to express ourselves in every possible artistic medium and genre; so, as a church, we had several evenings of ‘offering our gifts to each other’, expressing praise and blessing in song, poetry, drama, music, story and dance.  I can’t remember whose idea it was, but on one of these occasions a few of us prepared, rehearsed and performed an interpretive dance to ‘I Believe In You’.  This is hard to believe now!  Hard to imagine what range and variety of movements sustained us through its full five minutes of recorded song!

But I do vaguely recall the joy, the excitement of doing it, and of course that the experience of performing and interpreting the song in a different medium made one inhabit the song in a different way, listening and living through each phrase.  While it starts off on an almost defensive note, a sort of almost sorry whine from a misunderstood  believer –‘they don’t want me around…  Because I believe in you…’ it moves to something that is very much like real praise,all this very close in tone and content to many an honest, raw Davidic psalm: the affirmations of ‘I believe in you even on the morning after/…  When white turns to black/…  Even though I be outnumbered…’And so, also psalm-like, the content moves not just from complaint to faith affirmation/praise, but also then to the imperatives of prayer/plea –‘Don’t let me drift too far…’, ‘Don’t let me change my heart…’

And each one of those stages, each one of those lines and phrases of self pity, solid commitment and plea is echoed with total conviction by the nuances of Dylan’s extraordinary voice – agonized in places, plaintive in others (and against which Ms Collins’s rendition sounds…sorry, Judy…somewhat bland) – and to each of these stages, we danced, we moved, we tried to inhabit it with our hands, feet, gestures, expression and our own faith.

It’s not surprising, then, that others have wanted to cover this song.  Whatever your stance on spirituality, the song has an obvious authenticity of feeling, and integrity, and it is beautifully structured too.  It lives on –beyond what we now call Dylan’s ‘Christian period’.  My heart lifts to remember it today, my faith – gladly -still making that same arc of psalmic responses..