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.

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17. JESUS, I LOVE YOU – The Church of the Redeemer/ Fisherfolk

The other night, unable to sleep while lying in a constricting sleeping bag on an uncomfortable airbed on the floor of a church hall (doing a rare stint supporting the local night shelter) I put this song on repeat on my iPod, until the battery gave out and I still wasn’t asleep.  But at least .. I remembered… and I remembered what this song meant to me.  And –incidentally – the wakefulness allowed it to minister to me.

Winter 74, spring 75, my then girlfriend Tina passed me a cassette tape of worship music which had been passed on to her by her close college friend.  Apparently, this friend had made an amateur recording of a service she had attended at a dynamic church in Houston, Texas, while she had been travelling in the States.  Sadly, this friend was later discovered to be a spectacularly mendacious attention seeker.  And sometime later, I realized that this recording was in fact a commercially available recording which the Church Of The Redeemer choir(and musicians?) had recorded and released under the title ‘God’s People Give Thanks’.

None of this minimizes the effect of this little cassette.  In amongst stirring traditional hymns like ‘Crown Him With Many Crowns’ and ‘Glory be to Jesus’ there were unusual items – a boys’ choir singing an unusual setting of ‘Micah’s message’ to some subtle rhythmic percussion; a gorgeous  acappella Jewish-type tune, ‘Glorious in Majesty’; some jaunty Alleluia songs with tambourines (which later I came to appreciate as joyous Mimi Armstrong–Farra praise expressions); a wonderful ‘8 fold alleluia’ of utter simplicity, but growing in worshipful intensity.  And in a not too dissimilar vein, there was this.

Five chime bells signal the melody of the first line, and from there on the song is unaccompanied.  What was thrillingly fresh about it, I think, was that on the one hand there were these exquisite choral harmonies, but on the other, the song itself could not have been simpler.  And what simpler expression of adoration could there be than the entirely unadorned sentiment ‘Jesus, I love you’?

I was later to see that this is a mark of Kathleen Thomerson’s style, or perhaps rather, a mark of the way God had clearly taken hold of this talented composer-organist.  All her songs are marked with that same freshness and simplicity of authentic expression.  Take for example the other song of hers included in this recorded Eucharistic service – and now much more widely known and used – ‘I want to walk as a child of the light’.  This has the same disarmingly direct kind of lyric.  Later on, I was also to discover and appreciate other songs of hers – ‘I love the name of Jesus’ and ‘The Shepherd Of My Soul’.

Something else about the lyric of this song –one gets the sense that she didn’t necessarily go for neat poetical crafting – e.g. it didn’t always rhyme (‘now we have seen/the love of God/he has poured out/the spirit of truth…’) because it simply says what she wants it to say, and that seemed then – and seems to me even now –wholly part of its ‘anointed’ status.

Listening to it over and over in my unsleeping state that night, I realized that in my love and appreciation of this song I may well have mentally sidelined a major part of its lyrical thrust –the fourth line of the chorus: ‘Take my life.’ In the first verse too – ‘Life is your gift/I give my heart…’ and this beautiful song helps to lead us there –simple adoration, yes, but surrender and self-giving too.