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.

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70. BAÏLÈRO – Canteloube from Songs of the Auvergne (as sung by Kiri te Kanawa)

 

 

This is definitely one of my ‘happy’ songs – but I only tend to play it when I’m up in my shed/study/den/man-cave at the top of the garden, because that’s where I have it on a little cassette.  Let me tell you about that little cassette tape.

Isn’t it true that sometimes the greatest songs and the most beautiful pieces of music we seem to stumble across by accident? – and somehow that kind of adds to their magic and charm.  When we lived in Paraguay, it was notable that when non-indigenous colleagues and friends returned to their own countries after their period of work there, they would often want to offload items they no longer deemed necessary, or didn’t want to pack to take back.  Sometimes, in a way that I hope didn’t appear too ghoulish, those of us who remained might sort of sidle up, ‘help to pack’ in ways that meant we might pick up a few little items (no? Oh, just me then).  Anyway, thanks dear Nigel and Ally for a lovely red sleeping bag, and for this cassette tape by Kiri te Kanawa, showcasing music I had never heard before, or even heard of.

Joseph Canteloube was apparently as much of a musicologist as a composer, and I think this means  that he was as fascinated by songs as I am!  I’m joking – he was much more fascinated, because he actually got off his backside and went around the country ‘collecting’ songs that had developed and emerged through the oral tradition.  Yes, in other words he was a bit of a French Cecil Sharp, I suppose.  He went and collected throughout the region of the Auvergne, and then presumably took his collection and composed beautiful orchestrated versions of the songs. So the little tape was ‘Kiri te Kanawa sings Chants d’Auvergne by Joseph Canteloube’, and this song is the big ‘hit’ of the collection!

I’ve seen it called ‘Pastoral’, ‘Shepherd’s Song’, but most often ‘Baïlèro’, with its funny accents and all, because of course the songs are all in the local lingo, Occitan (thanks Wikipedia).  I think I may have assumed, listening to this first of all in a Spanish speaking country, that the title definitely had something to do with dancing (Spanish ‘bailar’ to dance), but no, from all the transcripts and translations I’ve seen, it appears that bailero and the frequently repeated ‘lero lero lero’ in the song is nothing more than your average kind of ‘fal-de-ri’ or ‘fa-la-la’ folk song filler!  But the repetition of those beautiful spilled out liquid sounds is part of this song’s glorious charm, for me.

These songs of course are filled with the staple diet of good rustic folk song- rather less murder, sprites and such than might appear in their rustic English counterparts – but plenty of shepherds and shepherdesses, hard work, harvesting, seducing, and unrequited love.  And it may seem a bit funny that I have called it one of my ‘happy songs,’ for apparently what we have in this particular song is the pining of a shepherd separated from a shepherdess (or vice versa?) by a river, and resigned to singing some melancholy but maybe hopeful(?) lero lero leros.

But there you go – sadness when depicted by the artist, the writer, the composer, is often heartbreakingly beautiful, and so – perversely – solidly life affirming, and happiness making!

As a kind of footnote…  I had also assumed that Kiri te Kanawa must have claimed this particular bit of music/song territory as her own, and certainly as I have played and replayed (and ‘lero’ed along to) that cassette tape up in my shed, it’s been hard to imagine anyone bettering her vocal interpretation!  But, dear reader, if you are at all interested/intrigued or can be bothered, the magic of youtube allows us to sample other singers taking on this particular classic.  I’m not sure that my ear is good enough to distinguish great from greater…  but take a listen –none of them disappoint, and some are accompanied by very nice pictures of the Auvergne!

 

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.)

 

46. A SIMPLE SONG – from Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Mass’

Started singing this, this morning, while I was showering and changing after a swim at Merthyr Leisure Centre. What triggered it I can’t imagine. I haven’t thought of it in a long time.

Its place in the timeline of my music-life is easy to pinpoint: 1976, I’d just started my PGCE teacher’s training in Cardiff University and bought the LP in a wander-about-town, one lunchtime, on a total whim. The purchase of such an item hints quite strongly at a complex confluence of attractions: not just the exotic and (at that time, for me) alien appeal of a liturgical Eucharistic mass (as opposed to the distinctly low-key non-conformist ‘communion’ services) but also – what seems an incongrous alliance – the excitement of performance and of experimental  musical ‘theatre’– after all what I mainly knew of Bernstein was that he had created the great score for ‘West Side Story’. The liner notes suggested, too, an attempt to blend a variety of musical styles and traditions in this enterprise of re-interpreting ancient liturgy. And even then, 40 years ago, such attempts at a kind of artistic synchretism always appealed.

This song sort of opens the performance, or..no, it kind of breaks across a grander, more traditionally choral ‘false beginning’ to the Mass, and it speaks to yet another internal impulse within this worshipper. I’m not sure whether, by this time, we’d discovered the simpler worship music songs of John Wimber and Vineyard; I’m pretty sure I hadn’t yet discovered Taize or (even later) John Bell/ Wild Goose Worship chants, but the longing for less-cluttered expressions, to balance wordier, more cerebral hymnody, was certainly there. [Of course we were becoming familiar with songs emanating from the house-church movement, many of which meditated on single phrases: ‘Jesus/ He died/He rose’.. etc.. And many of the songs coming from the charismatic movement eg. Fisherfolk/Church of the Redeemer songs were both ‘simple’ (Consider their famous ‘8-fold Alleluia’) and frequently open-ended in a way that encouraged improvisation (‘Come into his presence singing’.. and Max Dyer’s work song ‘Pulling the Weeds’, and  Diane Davis’s artless-timeless’Thank you Lord’ and many more…)]

So yes, this song eloquently addresses that need: along with ‘simplicity’, an invitation also to  improvisation. ‘Sing like you like to sing/God loves all simple things/For God is the simplest of all.’ There’s truth in this. Of course, there’s a quaint and obvious irony  in the song’s premise – ‘Sing God a simple song/Lauda laude/Make it up as you go along…’ – that this is a constructed casualness, only apparently improvisational (ars celare artem!): this ‘simple song’ is of course exquisitely and consciously crafted by a master musician’s skilful artistry.

I’ve only ever seen Bernstein’s Mass performed on one occasion (in Cardiff’s St David’s Hall – beautiful but often criticised for poor acoustics) and found it on the one hand a bold and exciting project and on the other a little awkward in overall construction and ultimately not totally satisfying. Still, the ‘simple song’ has stuck with me, as a song and I suppose as a concept – and it was a nice surprise to find, since it came popping up out of my head this morning, that it must have taken some kind of root in this little brain; and this heart still thrills to ‘make it up as you go along’ and sing out semi-improvised Laudas and Laudes to its God.

4. EL LAZO by Victor Jara

Although famously in touch with my feelings, and something of an easy crier, there are not too many songs that have conjured forth tears on a regular basis.  Joni Mitchell’s ‘Tin Angel’ was one notable exception; and ‘The Living Years’ (Paul Carrack) for different reasons; but this song got me ‘welling up’ (as they say) regularly, when I was first acquainted with it.

I had known of Victor Jara by name in the 1980s – growing up as a miner’s son in a socialist family it might be strange if I hadn’t – as someone who had been a popular theatre director and (more importantly for me) ‘people’s folk singer’ in Chile establishing a burgeoning ‘nueva cancion’ movement in Allende’s brief administration.; and ‘martyred’ under Pinochet’s brutal reactionary regime. In several of my teaching years (both before and after South America) I championed the inclusion of James Watson’s teenage fiction novel ‘Talking in Whispers’ as a studiable text for Key Stage 3: it looked at Chile’s recent (then) turbulent history and had a character based upon Jara.

So, when, living in South America, we holidayed in Chile at the end of 1990/beginning of 91, I made sure I bought some music cassettes in the streets of Vina del Mar, of both the wonderful Violeta Parra (‘Gracias a la Vida’) and also, obviously, of Victor Jara. Then, back in Asuncion, got to listening to them more closely.

Jara’s tape was a ‘Best of’, I think – with the moving ‘Plegaria a un Laborador’ and the wonderful ‘Te Recuerdo Amanda’ which later I heard sung by Joan Baez.  But it was this song, ‘El Lazo’, which got to me most.  I can’t say I understood all the lyrics.  Even apart from the less comprehensible Chileanisms, my Spanish was still pretty basic, and I eventually got a more experienced colleague in the staff (thanks Pat Baldock) to transcribe the lyrics for me.  But the bits I could understand (and several I couldn’t) touched me deeply.  ‘Cuando el sol se inclinaba/Lo encontré…’ – there is something so deliciously lugubrious about the sound of this and the idea of the sun ‘inclining itself’ adds so fittingly to the melancholy, as does the almost onomatopoeic ‘sombrío’ describing the dark ranch, this ‘rancho de pobre’ where the poor ranchero lives, twisting and twining his lasso rope. So begins and ends the song, with this deeply moving slow,minor key evocation of a poor tired man at sunset (his own life’s sunset?). In between are seven pacier verses sketching out the man’s work and life (inseparable) – the strength but skillful deftness of his lasso-making dexterity; the solitary, unaffirmed and unrelenting nature of his work (‘nadie ha dicho;’Es bueno/Ya no debes trabajar..’); a sense of his growing tiredness; while the ‘lazo’ becomes a metaphor for his own weary life ‘laceando’ by the countryside and the need to labour.

You could see this as merely romantic, perhaps, the noble poverty-enslaved agricultural artisan; you could see it all as socialist propaganda; but I don’t cry any more when I listen to it. Beyond the merely emotive appeal, the song has a value and performs the function of the best of true ‘folk’ song: and it seems to me a beautiful  and necessary thing to do, to celebrate the dignity and worth of old, honest workers. Whatever one’s level of Spanish fluency, I think you can still get a sense of that in this gorgeous song.