53. ALL GOOD GIFTS/ON THE WILLOWS -from ‘Godspell’ (Stephen Schwartz)


I thought I heard, recently, that there was going to be a new national tour of this classic old 70s musical –perhaps I dreamt it, or if I did hear it, I might have now missed it –still, just the rumour got me a bit excited!  Though of course, nothing can possibly match the first time…

And the first time I saw ‘Godspell’ (a Tuesday night in the New Theatre, Cardiff –I’m guessing 1976) I was so blown away by it that I went back nearly every other night that same week, (I even sneaked in during the interval in the Saturday matinee where my wife to be – who coulda thunk back then – was watching it with her one-day-to-be-bridesmaid), to see it again and again. Mr Obsessive, even then.  Even today, i’m not exactly sure what Stephen Schwarz had intended as the effect of his musical (apart from money in the bank, obviously), but the impact upon me was pretty momentous –despite what it might be easy to see as crass, irreverent, flippant, gimmicky-hippie interpretations of gospel narrative, ironically I found that, with searing freshness it brought to life not only the narratives and teachings of Matthew’s gospel, but even, in some weird way, the person of Christ himself.  I can remember writing a (very bad, cringingly prosaic) poem about this, called ‘The Man’, the idea being that the musical had somehow helped to flesh out his reality for me in a new and unexpected way.

The other impacting effect of the musical is akin to hearing  gospel narrative all in one sitting –as I experienced most powerfully in one Edinburgh festival seeing Alec McCowan performing/reciting ‘The Gospel According To Saint Mark’ –it’s the shock, the unusual experience of seeing the arc of Jesus’ ministry from its beginning, the calling of the disciples, through to the end – betrayal, crucifixion (and of course, mysteriously, gloriously, what follows!)

These two songs are kind of book ends in that respect.  ‘All Good Gifts’ is sung, initially, by one of the disciples in the excitement of the early days of following the master, and intersects passages from the sermon on the mount.  It is, of course, that old chestnut of favourite harvest hymns, ‘We Plough The Fields And Scatter…’ – originally 18th century German, and translated into English in the 19th century (and mercifully cut down from its original 17 verses) –and given here a great new stirring melody.  As soon as I could, I taught it to our congregation for our own harvest celebrations!  In the context of the musical, the disciples are still bubbly, anticipatory and confident.  In the third verse they join in glorious harmony while the soloist improvises soulful responses of gratitude –“I really wanna thank you Lord…” etc.

Within an hour or so of dramatic action, and in theatrical terms in the second half of the production, the mood has slipped to a more realistic awareness of conflict, threat, impending suffering.  ‘On the Willows’ seems a strange insertion –an old testament psalm of exile in a minor key, sung ‘out of action’ by (at least every time that I have seen it) the musicians themselves rather than the actors, while on stage, there is a stylised re-enactment of the Last Supper with, most affectingly, Jesus embracing each disciple with some unique gesture reminiscent of their own story or actions from earlier in the narrative.

The mournful psalm captures just the right tone for the occasion –‘but how can we sing/Sing the Lord’s song/In a foreign land?…’ It’s Psalm 137,isn’t it, and it’s inspired lots of interpretations and versions -there’s the ’round’ that Don Maclean used to do; there’s a Leonard Cohen song based on it; my old house-mate Tim wrote a great song based on it, I think. (yes, Tim?) And..should we mention Boney M? But this version is lovely – all acousticky like an early Paul Simon song, all minor chords and sweet sad harmonies.The song symbolises the end of more naive idealistic rejoicings; or at least it signals significant grief-times, sobering times when those kind of songs must give way to more plaintive dirges.  Perhaps a repetitious cycle of experience most communities of believers must necessarily encounter, if they are also to know ‘reviving’ experiences and rediscoveries of resurrection joy and hope.

The movie version was…worth avoiding, but theatrical performances of it still give me a buzz, and yes I still find the music , admittedly  ‘of its time’ but despite that, compelling- for me, these two songs especially; I am glad to have become acquainted with it.  It’s now – for good or bad – a part of my internal musical fabric.  [smiley face signifying acknowledgement of pretentious phrase]

28. WHO WILL BUY – from ‘Oliver’ by Lionel Bart

The more that I think about it, the more I delve into these songs that have been pals and markers for my days, the more I feel that I’ve had quite a blest upbringing, ‘musically’.

One perfect example is this.  When I was about just seven or eight, my sister Judith was working in London, as a teacher in Upminster, then Surbiton.  On several occasions she invited us to stay with her and –now I appreciate what a sacrifice and expense this must have been –on those occasions she would book tickets for West End shows.  Now, I may well be blurring together memories of separate visits, but in my mind, it seems probable to me that in one single week she took us not only to a West End cinema to see The Parent Trap (thus beginning my lifelong fascination with Hayley Mills), but also to two theatre visits: ‘The Sound Of Music’, a smash new hit musical transferred from Broadway; and the equally new British hit musical theatre version of Dickens’s Oliver Twist! With historical hindsight I now see this to have been indeed the original production – Ron Moody, Georgia Brown and all.

Perhaps I was at a very impressionable age; perhaps I might already have heard some of the songs on the radio (‘As Long As He Needs Me’ very possibly); perhaps I’m imagining it, but, I recall finding that every song in ‘Oliver’ seemed instantly engaging and memorable: from the opening workhouse boys chorus of ‘Food Glorious Food’ onwards, I was transfixed.  If I hadn’t already committed most of the songs to memory, on the following Christmas, as a gift for our parents, Judy bought the LP of the original London cast’s recording of the musical’s songs, and then, with repeated listens, they were sealed for ever inside me…

Part of Bart’s genius was that the songs of the production cover the whole range of moods – seemingly something for every feeling.  My particular favourites included ‘Where Is Love?’ which I would sing when I wanted to feel mawkishly sentimental or self pitying, or when I was savouring some delicious slice of childhood solitude.  For more boisterously happy occasions, I might have chirped up with ‘Consider Yourself’ or the aforementioned celebration of food; but the real feel good song for me, and the one that won out most of the time was ‘Who will buy?’

Most people will remember its theatrical context I’m sure (especially since, when a film was made of the musical some years later, they made something of a choreographical meal of this very song…), with all those early morning mongers, costers and barrowboys hitting the streets to ply their wares and their produce –their individual cries and voices alternating and interweaving to create a musical collage (‘ripe, strawberries ripe…’… ‘any milk today, mistress?’…  etc.).  Into and over this, young Oliver, entranced with his touch of Brownlow luxury, a good sleep and a bright morning, sings ‘Who will buy this wonderful morning..?’

Now, we could get quite analytical here and find several layers in the lyric worthy of discussion: you might say for instance that the song romanticises the drudgery of work and commerce –after all these singing salespersons got up at the crack of dawn to push their barrows, peddle their knife grinding skills; and how much fun being weighed down with a yoke of milk pails?-all from the viewpoint of the lucky leisured classes’ high balconies.  Or we could discuss the ‘buying’ concept, and the commoditization of nature and beauty; but we be missing the point – more probing ecological songs will consider this (eg Artisan’s ‘What am I bid?’) – this one doesn’t.

No, this is simply a song about wanting to capture and savour a beautiful experience and because we know it’s ephemeral, particularly that sense of joy, beauty, freshness of a new day – and okay, especially one that’s free of responsibilities.  And I suppose there’s a particular kind of joy attached to city morningscapes as opposed to country side ones (Think of Wordsworth’s ‘Westminster Bridge’ for instance)– that sense of the miraculous mix of humanity, its endless range of colours, activities and interests coexisting and even somehow harmonising.  That’s the feel of the song, of course, somewhat simplified, but the nine year old still inside me still loves it.

And perhaps those of us who scribble a bit have all tried to write something about wanting to stop time, crystallise a moment etc.  I can think of a couple of my own songs echoing that sentiment, even one called ‘Hold On To the Morning’!  But for that sheer crazy sense of morning time wonder, all filtered through a child’s innocence, this fondly remembered musical set piece takes the biscuit.