71. A TOUCHING PLACE – John Bell & Graham Maule

 

 

What a gift John Bell is to the church in the 21st century.  As a contributor to BBC Radio’s ‘Thought for the Day’ he speaks an infinite deal of very listenable common sense and godly compassion.  As a speaker representing the Iona community and the Wild Goose Resource Group, he is both engaging and inspiring.  Yet in extremely low key, human ways.

In my early years as a Christian, I remember that we were often counselled about the dangers of ‘being too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use’ (Ha! Really?  I’m not sure even now if this can ever be a genuine concern, since most of the really heavenly minded people that I’ve met tend also to be those most focused on making a difference in real, practical terms too.)  Still, if there’s any validity to this malaise, it’s an accusation that can certainly never be levelled at John Bell, whose Godly down-to-earth-ness is tangible, and whose most worshipful songs never lose touch of the needs and sorrows of humanity.  Which makes this song eminently representative of both his style and his concerns.  Heaven touching earth etc.

If you’ve been in a John Bell singing workshop, you know what a privilege that is.  I suppose I first saw him in that role in Greenbelt festivals, where not only is he often a keynote speaker, but in the past has often been known to help lead Wild Goose Sing A Long sessions in one of the meeting tents.  These are always incredibly well attended, and you can sense the palpable delight of people learning to sing these beautiful new chants and songs, in unison, in men-and-women ‘echoes’, and gloriously also in four part harmonies.  I was privileged enough to go to a whole day workshop he led in a church in Cardiff-oh, probably 20 years ago now –I’d just started teaching in the Catholic comprehensive school where I ended my fulltime teaching career –and was delighted to find, when I got there, others from my teaching staff with an equal interest in developing and exploring worship songs.John Bell clearly crossed ‘sectarian boundaries’!  It was a great day.

I can’t remember if we sang this one, but it seems to have been on my radar and in my mental repertoire for quite some time, along with his other classic ‘The Summons’.  Many of the pieces that I love from John Bell’s prolific output are the short, simple chants that allow us to meditate in more focused ways on simple God-realities– he demonstrated that we didn’t have to rely on the Taize output for this kind of song! ‘A  Touching Place’, though, is one of the longer,  more ‘fully formed’ songs and (this again a very Wild Goose approach) employs a traditional Scottish melody –Dream Angus.  For me it’s not just a beautiful song but it’s beautifully crafted too.  We start off establishing a Christ-centric perspective of the world “Christ’s is the world in which we move;/Christ’s are the folk we’re summoned to love;/Christ’s is the voice which calls us to care,/and Christ is the one who meets us here.” While the chorus underlines Christ as actively compassionate in that world through/with ‘his friends’ : “to those who cry in pain or disgrace/Christ makes with his friends a touching place’

What a fresh, interesting phrase. John Bell  (and Graham Maule, presumably! Sorry Graham that I know less about you!) not only avoids the clichés of traditional hymnody, but he finds language, phrases that make us think and rediscover spiritual truths –because yes ‘touch’ is very much at the heart of of Jesus’ ministry, if we think of the gospel narratives of his interactions with people.  There’s been quite a bit of footage of Princess Diana on TV over the last couple of weeks (20th anniversary of her death) and I had forgotten what a revolutionary thing it was when she broke with royal protocol to visit Aids victims, people afflicted with leprosy and other diseases –turning up gloveless!  Touching them and allowing them to touch her.  I’m not beatifying Diana here, just saying that kind of spirit was a reminder of the Christ spirit which this song addresses.

The remaining three verses of the song start with the same imperative ‘feel for..’ addressed  I suppose to the singing congregations themselves, but also implying (if we think of feel as sort of a synonym for touch) that these are the people Christ’s hands are reaching out to draw into that tangible embrace.  And the verses catalogue some of the hurts of ordinary humanity ‘feel for the strange or bereaved or never employed’;  .. ‘feel for the women whom men have defiled’; ‘feel for the lives by life confused/riddled with doubt, in loving abused’etc…And there is the realistic recognition that this is not always easy for us- ‘Feel for the people we most avoid..’ After the painful reminders of these verses, it is a joy to return to the affirmations of the chorus.

Many of these little blog essays, while claiming to have been about songs, have often ended up focusing on particular recordings by the composer or this or that artist.  This time, though, we are very much about the song, not the recording.  The song as a living breathing usable thing, of affirmation, celebration, reminder and challenge.  Having said that, recordings do exist of course, from the stable of  the Wild Goose Resources.  And what is always lovely and commendable is, on their own recordings [and I couldn’t find a youtube clip, sorry]the sheer unabashed Scottishness of the singing –so refreshing in this X factor age when –even in some Christian music –the temptation seems to be to distort ones vowels to something more (at least) ‘mid-atlantic’!  And this may seem a simple thing, but in a small way I think it adds to the very authentic humanness of this kind of holiness. Lovely song: let’s keep using it.

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.

49. ALL IN THE APRIL EVENING – Katherine Hinkson & Hugh Robertson

Well, here’s a little song which has hung around, in a hazy fragmented state, in the back of my brain for half a century.  And every year, around this time, at Easter, and afterwards… and also when I’m seeing ‘sheep with their little lambs’ dawdling across the mountain lanes in front of my car, it surfaces –that is, the snatches of it that I remember surface.

It all goes back to a school eisteddfod; and I was probably in form one or form two.  In those days school eisteddfods were serious affairs (even ironically for us valleys grammar schools with no jot of welsh on the curriculum at all!), often lasting not just through the whole of saint David’s day but often continuing the next day as well; and we dutifully and enthusiastically dressed up in our house colours (did my mother really buy me a yellow roll-neck pullover so that I could support Glyndwr house?  This is perhaps a memory best buried…) cheering our teams.  And ‘worthy’ items of culture were generally chosen as performance pieces: so we would listen to the six or seven entrants/finalists all playing, say, Für Elise, one after the other –hoping of course that one of them would hit a wrong note so that we could at least distinguish the performances.  And in this particular year that I’m thinking of, ‘All in an April evening’ was chosen as the item for the upper school’s girls’ solo singing performance competition.

You might think that having to sit through half a dozen performances from an earnest group of girls (most of them, if I recall rightly, a diligent crowd from Bedwas who entered absolutely everything) might have wearied the listener?  Not this listener.  The effect was, I suppose, equivalent to putting an unfamiliar song on iPod repeat today.  It seeped, seeped deep into my soul and –well, it’s stayed there a long time, hasn’t it…  without any particular conscious nurturing!

Living in the valleys, as I still do, the images of ‘sheep with their little lambs passing us by on the road’ and references to the ‘weak human cry’ of the lambs were familiar enough…  It was perhaps the connection with the ‘Lamb Of God’ that was a little new and surprising, and the poignant melody somehow made the connection more intriguing.  I’m not going to pretend that my listening to that song contained anything as sophisticated as analysis –but something must have stuck in me.  I wasn’t at that time a Jesus-follower (though I imagine that the stirrings of conviction and grace were there –just like ‘April  airs were abroad’) but within a couple of years I had indeed joined that great company and accepted the grace, forgiveness, life and hope which I was beginning to see vividly in that ‘Lamb…’

Yes, half a century on then –those ‘April airs’ are still ‘abroad’ –those beautiful/pesky sheep and lambs are still strolling and jumping on the high roads above the valleys, or occasionally loitering into our garden…  And I am indebted to Catherine Hinkson wherever she was, and to Hugh Robertson, the music man (Wikipedia tells me that he also wrote the music to ‘Mhairi’s wedding’!) and to the music teacher who chose it for the eisteddfod, and those earnest participants, because sometimes – not always of course, but sometimes –‘ I [think] on the Lamb of God/going meekly to die..’ for such as me.

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.