76. HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING? – Quaker hymn

Or only possibly a Quaker hymn –some unsure provenance here, but I like that idea.  And let me say too that any song which Pete Seeger chose to weave into his repertoire is fine by me.

Graham and I were ‘jamming’ around the piano the other night, as we sometimes do, flicking through the pages of some hymn book or another, and came across this which I think was sort of familiar to us both somewhere in the background of our brains, but we’d not noticed it in a book before.  Yes, definitely the background, because even though I knew I had heard this song in different versions through different singers, and could generally sing along to it, it hadn’t really featured as something I should use regularly or commit to memory.  Rather late in the day, I want to redress this and drag it right into the light!  It’s a great song!

The particular flavour of this song is an irrepressible note of celebration transcending the sorrows and difficulties of the world.  It’s there, like a bold affirmation of unquenchable joy, right in the first couple of lines – ‘My life flows on in endless song/ Above earth’s lamentations’.. In its earliest versions, appearing in 19th century American hymn books, the motivation and underlying strength for this strain of joy is unequivocally Christian – ‘What though my joys and comfort die?/ The Lord my Saviour liveth’ and ‘since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth…’ and ‘the peace of Christ makes fresh my heart..’.  But here’s the thing: something of the driving impetus of this song –a victory of light over dark, the discerned strand of hope and newness at the very heart of creation’s rhythms –perhaps has a universal resonance.  And I have a feeling that this is a song which my humanist friends can also join in with, and will want to, if tweaked a little to remove overt theistic references.  Well, this brings us to Pete Seeger’s version.

Interestingly, what he has done I think is to add a whole new tone or a different dimension to the very question ‘How can I keep from singing?’ In his version the question is not the celebratory proclamation of Christ’s ultimate victory over sin, sorrow and death; it is not even just that expression of an unstoppable joie de vivre which even ‘tumult and strife’ and ‘gathering darkness’ can’t overcome.  He seems to have added another verse to the song, or at least he has found and incorporated a verse written by someone with the same sense of political conscience and activism as himself. ‘When tyrants tremble, sick with fear/ And hear their death-knell ringing..’ In the context of most of Seeger’s active musical career, this time the question is a shout of victory over oppressive regimes which must meet with inevitable overthrow.  There’s more: ‘When friends rejoice both far and near…/ In prison cell and dungeon vile, / Our thoughts to them go winging/ When friends by shame are undefiled,/ How can I keep from singing?’ Now the song’s focal question sounds like a compulsion, fulfilling a responsibility of solidarity with those suffering the injustices of persecution and imprisonment –prisoners of conscience, protesters (‘undefiled’ because they have nothing to feel ashamed of) making a stand for compassion and human rights.  It’s a song he might well have used as a fearless victory-proclamation during the civil rights protests, for instance.

If indeed the song did start life as an early Quaker hymn, its more modern incarnations will also strike a chord with today’s Quakers.  Not that I know many, but I got talking to one at (strangely enough) a Peggy Seeger concert a couple of years back.  We shared good solid common ground on the music, on the joy of life, on a sense of social justice, and on (much) talk of peace – but he was less comfortable with Jesus-references, or with God-talk generally, and gave me to understand that most Quakers he knew would probably be of a similar persuasion.  I couldn’t help feeling that it was a long way from George Fox.  Not judging, just saying.

So anyway, we can all join in this fabulous song in one form or another, if we want to.  I am rather taken by this clip on youTube of the folk group from the Notre Dame Catholic University somewhere in Australia.  Friends even more cynical than me might say they all look a bit too fresh faced and young to be taken seriously, but I love what they do with this song – and I note that they too have chosen the more ‘inclusive’ ‘Since Love is lord of heaven and earth’ , and they have made the four lines in which that appears into the song’s repeated ‘chorus’ –which works really well.  So ‘more inclusive’ it might be, but the tone of their performance can’t help but give the song the sense of a clear and vigorous Christian affirmation!

If I hadn’t had already filled the bill with previously chosen ‘requests’ this would be a humdinger of a song to add to the funeral anthems, wouldn’t it?  Meanwhile, let’s give it a good run for its money, while we’re still around.


66. THE LATE SHOW & HOW LONG? – Jackson Browne



I’m putting these two songs together –perhaps over-ambitiously? –and I’m not sure if I can convey what I want, but somehow I want to suggest that the gap between these two songs is a story in itself, from the introspective angst which characterises (and caricatures) too much of the early 1970s singer songwriter material, to something more outward looking, observational, politically and socially engaged [Note: this is one of the reasons why Dylan was outside of his time – the chronology of his own development is quite different.]

When Jackson Browne’s ‘Late For The Sky’ album was released, I was just ripe for its musings and expressions, particularly for the emotings and the confident pseudo psychological declaratives of the final song ‘The Late Show’…’ Seems like people only ask you how you’re doing/ ‘Cause that’s easier than letting on how little they could care..’ This kind of rawness, this naked facing up to the need-for-meaningful-love at the core of our beings , was exactly where I was at, there in the early 1970s.  And even while I’m writing this, I’m recognizing a chicken-and-egg conundrum: did the Californian songsmith’s navel gazing emoting actually engender my perspective, or simply correspond?  Remember that I was late adolescent burgeoning into early adulthood: first romance (Margaret); equally in love (or was this the fault of DH Lawrence?) with the idea of friendships.  So the song resonated and resonated.  And either way, I recognise this as both the internal and external mood of the time.  I remember singing a snatch of the song at home one evening –could possibly have been the lines already quoted –and my mother saying ‘Oh?  Do you think that’s true?’ Or something equally unexpected.  It led to a brief, interesting but slightly awkward conversation where I affirmed my commitment to be real, to talk about real feelings.  I think I might even have said that my experience of God’s love meant that I felt ‘reconciled to the world, and the universe, and myself’.  Something of that nature. (!!)

The song continued in that vein, arguing (it did argue, I think) for emotional honesty – ‘to see things clear, is hard enough I know…/Without dressing them in dreams and laughter/I guess it’s just too painful otherwise..’ and encouraging us to probe beyond surfaces and to recognise the rawest of human emotional needs – ‘you could be with somebody who is lonely too/ He might be trying to get across to you..’

The disturbing thing is that some of my own songs may still be ploughing this same particular furrow. Yikes.  Take my song ‘Discover Me’ which urges the same kind of awareness (‘perhaps it’s like the one about Not waving here but Drowning’).  But despite that, listening back and thinking back, I recognise, as JB himself must have, that there are limits to this heavy emotional dissection.  It simply calls for a ‘breaking out’ to less-internal preoccupations; and it is a refreshment, relief and reinvigoration when this is reflected in the song-output.

I’m choosing ‘How Long?’ From the ‘World In Motion’ album as the other contrasting bookend.  I found the album in a shopping mall in Asuncion in 1991, though I think it may have been released quite a few years by then.  This wasn’t by any means the beginning of Browne’s more outwardly looking songs –even back in the mid 1980s, when Sue, Kev and I had gone to see him in Hammersmith Odeon, he was promoting his ‘Lives In The Balance’ album full of eloquent criticism of America’s foreign policy, and of awareness of its effects globally. That very title track in itself was a most arresting wake-up call.

The World In Motion album follows in the same vein –but the ‘How Long?’ track really got to me –because it seemed more than just mere polemic; it also employed the controlled emotive focus which song is so good at, of course (* see below) –to help promote and clarify that same anti militaristic perspective.  And so it alternates political statement (‘How long will they tell us these weapons are keeping us free?/It’s a lie..’) with more blatant emotive appeal (‘how long/can you hear someone crying..?).  *And OK, what needs to be debated of course, is whether all this is just political naivety; it could even be argued that the subtle complexities of political and militaristic pragmatism cannot adequately be addressed within the vehicle of song, which perhaps by  very nature tends towards simplifications and polarisations.  Today, I’m particularly aware that ‘emotive’ arguments can be easily abused – hearing Donald Trump crassly justifying his own recent air strike on a Syrian military target, with a suspiciously sudden newfound concern for the ‘poor little innocent Syrian babies and beautiful children’ who had not seemed on the radar of his compassion any time previously.  I’m not comfortable thinking that Browne and Trump might be using the same kind of manipulative technique , and I almost wish I hadn’t started this bit. Still, of the two, I know who the more articulate one is, and who I trust more.

Be that as it may, I still find this a powerful song –one of those rare ones that did make me cry; and it’s a song I have used in school assemblies – I constructed my first ever power point presentation with this song –and, with its sense of purpose and ‘protest’, I suppose it’s the kind of song I wish I had written more of, and perhaps had paid more heed to, and had celebrated more.

See what I mean?  In these two songs, a whole history….

40. THIS IS BAGHDAD – Bruce Cockburn


Most of what we know about present Baghdad will be from news reports. I felt, though, that the third section of David Mitchell’s wonderfully ambitious ‘Bone Clocks’ novel was probably giving me a different,more incisive glimpse into life there; and I feel something the same about this song – that both lyrically and in its sound-collage, it’s conveying something movingly authentic about life in that ravaged city.

If you read my earlier Bruce blog (After the Rain/Creation Dream) you may remember I promised a Part 2 to my Bruce story. Here it is. I met someone in a Jonatha Brooke concert who, in our chat, shared that she’d come to appreciate Jonatha through her association with Bruce (the ‘War’ track?); she’d been practically a ‘Cockburn completist’ she said, but she couldn’t rate any of his more recent albums (She was talking ‘Charity of Night’ onwards, I think.)

I realized then that I was far more indiscriminate about my acceptance of Cockburn’s work because – and you’ll need to see the previous Cockburn essay to get this –it was more of a case that I’d ‘adopted him’ than simply got attracted to some things rather than others. With each new album, it’s a bit like he’s come home from school with another new crayoned picture and each one of them I put up on the fridge and love, because it’s Bruce.

Ha. That sounds slightly pathetic, and it’s perhaps overstating the case, because obviously I can’t fully lay aside my critical faculties, and the part of me that responds appreciatively or otherwise, to song. So I suppose the fact is: I also do find so much to enjoy in ‘later Cockburn’. Having seen him in concert very recently, too, I feel like in some ways there’s even something of a growing strength in his compositions. Certainly in the maturity and confidence of his performance-presence.

Take this song – and I’m listening to it right now as I write – it feels like a major oeuvre. Based on his extensive travelling, BC’s songs have often reflected impassioned responses to various trouble-spots, highlighting and challenging examples of social and political injustice. For many of these songs (I’m thinking of the 80s and 90s especially) he’s chosen a more brooding monologue-type structure, more or less spoken verses with sung refrains – and no less powerful for that. But this song is melodic right through – verse and chorus – and the content, after some intriguingly cinematic orchestration in the intro, is direct from the word go – ‘Everything’s broken in the birthplace of law..’

We get snapshot images of the war-torn ruinous state of a city with such a richly historic culture. These elements are reflected throughout the song’s sounds – eventually we’re aware of a clashing, battering background rhythm, cumulatively insistent throughout the five-minute song, but over this – and unusual for BC – lush, melodic strings in the introduction and returning to sweep elegantly alongside the plucked guitar and percussion in the chorus. ‘This is Baghdad’ intones the repetitious refrain, underpinned by these musical elements – and the result is one of the most ‘filmic’ pieces he’s ever produced. Alongside these cameos of devastation and deprivation (‘Not enough morphine and not enough gauze/Firefight in darkness like snapping of jaws’)  there’s a sense of probing reportage ( the ‘blast’ in verse 3 – its ‘radiant energy’ and resultant fatalities), and the final verse is a bold challenge to US accountability – ‘Carbombed and carjacked and kidnapped and shot/How do you like it, this freedom we brought/We packed all the ordnance but the thing we forgot/Was a plan in case it didn’t turn out quite like we thought’…

Bruce takes his songwriting seriously and that’s another reason to love him. These are songs with integrity, asking questions.

26. THE BELLS OF RHYMNEY – Pete Seeger/Idris Davies

It seemed like a miracle, the first time that I heard this.  And once again, I am indebted to A.  Judy Collins –my earliest exposure to the song  was on her compilation album ‘Recollections’ –and B. my  brother Allan, of course, who bought the album .( Her version is still one of the most stridently powerful you’re likely to hear.)

Despite the mispronunciation (rim-ney) it was clear that Judy Collins was singing about my valleys, these villages and towns!  Blimey!  Somewhere in the vast commercial music business machinery of North America’s long playing record making and distribution industry, someone was highlighting the plight of the miners of the Rhymney and Rhondda valleys!  It boggled my teenage mind!  Here was my heritage in a song: my father’s struggles –remembering his life as a miner’s champion as the local colliery’s Lodge Secretary, N.U.M. representative and Labour Party Secretary in our village..  How far down the road I was in my recognition of the characters and talents of Pete Seeger and Idris Davies,  I can’t remember –I may have had some vague awareness of both…  But within not too long a time they had both become heroes of a kind.

Our secondary school awarded an ‘Idris Davies Memorial Poetry Prize’ to senior students –which I won in my final year of school…  To this day I don’t know for which poem, or perhaps it was for my general fascination with poetry?  To my shame, despite receiving the prize, I don’t think I bothered to explore anything about Idris Davies, beyond remembering that he had lived at Rhymney.  Then for one birthday, when I was in my twenties, my sister Judy sent me a copy of Idris Davies’s  Collected Poetry – with a note inside telling me that he had in fact taught at our primary school (Cwmsyfiog, New Tredegar) during her time there!  The connection felt even stronger; and I started to read the poems and loved his compassion for the people of his valleys, as well as his lyricism and pithiness.  ‘The Bells of Rhymney’ is from a long poem sequence called ‘Gwalia Deserta’ (wasted Wales?) and there are many sections of it which I began to ‘mine’ for teaching purposes doing my time as a secondary English teacher.

Somehow, in the 1950s it had caught the attention, then, of Pete Seeger – he the tall liberal, union-encouraging, banjo playing member of ‘The Weavers’ whom I had known primarily as someone who had popularised songs like Malvina Reynolds’s ‘Little Boxes’, and the folky antiwar ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ Branded inevitably as a commie-sympathiser in the 1960s witch hunts, he remained a musical hero right up to his death last year,  in his nineties, when he was still playing, still supporting the causes of international justice, unions, labour, societies’ underdogs, providing a voice for the oppressed, without ever being ‘precious’ about his own creative output, or trying to promote himself as any kind of ‘celebrity’!

Given those priorities, and that kind of integrity, we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised that this poem came to his attention –but the meeting of minds and artistry which his song ‘adaptation’ represents still seems miraculous!  The melody totally ‘gets it’, echoing sympathetically the reflected emotions.  Take for instance the way that the melody rises to something plaintive in ‘is there hope for the future?’ (the brown bells of Merthyr), and the lyrical trill in ‘why so worried, sister, why?/sang the silver bells of Wye’ perfectly captures the kind of blithe complacency of a ‘sister’ valley that geographically appears to parallel the industrial valleys to its immediate west, and yet in its rural comfort and relative affluence, cannot identify with their plight and struggles.  Seeger seems to get this, and makes of the poem a stirring anthem.

I sang it a few weeks ago in Merthyr’s monthly ‘Acoustic Evening’ in their beautiful, recently renovated town hall (Red House).  I feel like everyone around here must know this song, yet I hear it sung so rarely.  One man came across afterwards  and said ‘That’s an old Byrds song –they used to do it, didn’t they?’ They did indeed.  West coast electric folkers, a million miles away from the struggles of Blaina miners asking for a fair wage for their dirty work.  Funny old world.

21. DEPORTEE by Woody Guthrie and FISHING by Richard Shindell

It must be the current migrant crisis in Europe that has brought these two songs back into my mind over the last few days. Though yes of course I know that it’s not exactly the same: there is a difference between USA’s handling of ‘illegal’ Central American immigrants, and Western European’s response to the families fleeing (particularly) Syria in recent months, seeking asylum, refuge, hopeful new beginnings. Perhaps the connection between that situation and these songs is the way these songs identify the distrust and dehumanisation of suffering individuals, and that even convenient labels employed in media reportage can start to erode necessary compassion.

While not totally overriding the complexity of the issue, Guthrie’s song hints boldly at his country’s institutional doublemindedness about Central Americans aching for more secure and prosperous lives north of the Mexican border  – i.e. tolerated when they are economically useful eg to bring in huge fruit harvests at minimal expense; shunted back speedily when that seasonal usefulness is over. The particular shunting flight which occasioned this song never made it – hence the subtitle ‘Plane Wreck over Los Gatos’. The key line which reflects (what he sees as) this callous dehumanizing process of the kind of media coverage discouraging imaginative empathy is the final line, slightly changing each time, of the chorus .. ‘The radio says they are just deportees’. Similarly in the last few weeks I note that people have used social media to challenge British newscoverage-speak and politician-speak  resorting to the kind of politically technical terminology – when referring to the tragedies of even the youngest individuals from these migration stories- likely to distance us from true fellow feeling . ‘The word you’re searching for, Mr Cameron’(or whoever, I can’t quite recall now), said one posting,’is simply children!’.

Both these songs are more than mere polemic: they invite us to enter the human situations of those making these perilous journeys: in Guthrie’s case we enter into a sense of loss not just for those who are bereaved by the tragedy (‘Gooodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita..’), but also that their very treatment seems to have deprived them of dignity and identity  – ‘You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane/ All they will call you will be..deportees’. Shindell’s song is a masterfully imaginative composition, a largely one-sided dialogue featuring a Latin American ‘illegal’ being interviewed by an immigration officer, with a series of racial slurs (‘I bet you Indians can really reel them in..’), threats (‘We know just where [your next of kin] is hiding’), taunting half-promises, quickfire interrogation questions, brutal confrontations (‘good citizen or poor campesino?’) as pressure is applied to give information about more illegals. The extended metaphor throughout is of fishing – the officer, particularly, trying to ‘catch’ the worker out by guile and coercion – both the metaphor and the manner add to the dehumanization that is taking place.

Apparently (Shindell says in concert introductions to this song) he originally wrote it as this monologue, without the worker’s riposte in the final verse: this man is the literal fisherman who has been forced to flee his land of origin. I’m glad he gets a voice in this coda.There is a beautiful contrasting dignity in his response, in his unwillingness to play cynical pay-off games, in his resignation at returning to a land where, despite its presumable danger and poverty, he has a profession, and – in the final image of the fish – there is a paradoxical freedom and ‘wealth’ – ‘They’re waiting there for me/ Running deep’.

Shindell is a terrific troubadour, and my brief sketch of the lyric gives no real reflection of the power of this as a whole, sung song. Joan Baez covers this song well, but for grit and passion, hear the original. Guthrie’s song has been covered many many times (and you won’t be surprised by now if I say that Judy Collins’s version was the first I heard – her cover is both controlled and moving) but – interestingly – Shindell too has recorded it on his lovely covers album ‘South of Delia’. I’m not real sure I’ve heard a bad version – it’s such a solidly good verse and chorus standard of a song.

The best of art, the best of songs, should lead us to enter into and appreciate others’ humanity; these two songs certainly do that. And whatever political and economic solutions and compromises have to be forged between nations and (within nations) by local authorities and communities in the coming months, these don’t negate the necessity for compassion, and anything that encourages compassionate responses is worth listening to intelligently.