When I was young and first met my wife, part of the soundtrack of our lives was a couple of albums by Everything But the Girl.
Tracey Thorn (the Girl in question) started making music again a couple of years ago, although I had not heard any of it until yesterday, when I heard a song called ‘Joy’. It made me cry. There is something in it that opens me up.
I ordered the album- a Christmas album of all things. I suspect it will be spinning a lot over the next weeks.
I have been thinking about our (often hysterical) response to the growth of Islamic extremism/militancy/activism/fundamentalism. Religion (particularly the religion of the other) as always portrayed as a force for bad, a force for evil even. It is impossible to envisage a militant Islam that sweeps into an area an brings good things. I am afraid I can not comment in any detail about the degree to which this might or might not be true now, but I do think we would do well to consider our own history…
A good place to start might be to look back towards Wat Tyler and in particular, John Ball, key figures both in what came to be known as The Peasants Revolt. There is a great programme by Melvin Bragg dealing with this period available on the I player.
The Key thing about the Peasants Revolt all the way back in 1381 is that the ideology that brought about a mass consciousness towards change was simply this- Christianity. It ended in dreadful persecution, mass hangings and a re-assertion of the power of Kings and Bishops and Lords, but it also changed the political landscape for ever.
What we know about John Ball is mostly told from the perspective of those Kings, Bishops and Lords that survived the Peasants revolt, but there is no doubt that for him, Christianity had only one logical outcome- something that we might recognise as an egalitarian state of equality re-envisioned by Marx. Rather than the opium of the people, religion was like gun cotton. This was the cry of ordinary people; When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?
Here is an excerpt from one of John Ball’s sermons, used to convict him of sedition;
‘Ah, ye good people, the matters goeth not well to pass in England, nor shall not do till everything be common, and that there be no villains nor gentlemen, but that we may be all united together, and that the lords be no greater masters than we be. What have we deserved, or why should we be kept thus in servage? We be all come from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve: whereby can they say or shew that they be greater lords than we be, saving by that they cause us to win and labour for that they dispend? They are clothed in velvet and camlet furred with grise, and we be vestured with poor cloth: they have their wines, spices and good bread, and we have the drawing out of the chaff and drink water: they dwell in fair houses, and we have the pain and travail, rain and wind in the fields; and by that that cometh of our labours they keep and maintain their estates: we be called their bondmen, and without we do readily them service, we be beaten; and we have no sovereign to whom we may complain, nor that will hear us nor do us right.’ John Ball, in J Froissart, Froissart’s Chronicles (1385) translated by GC Macaulay (1895)
Ideas are dangerous- religious ideas are perhaps more dangerous than most. But when faced with such manifest injustice and inequality, how we need dangerous ideas. How we need troublesome priests and prophets who will challenge us to take another look at ourselves.
There is a famous song about John Ball, written by English songwriter Sydney Carter, who also wrote other Christian standards such as ‘The Lord of the dance’, ‘When I needed a neighbour’ and ‘One more step along the world I go’. Here is one of my favourite (and avowedly atheist) musicians singing it;
Hozier himself describes it as “a bit of a losing your religion song”. Written in the wake of a breakup with his first girlfriend, it is a love song, certainly, but also a contemplation of the idea of sin, drawing influence from Christopher Hitchens and a Fulke Greville poem, Chorus Sacerdotum, that speaks of mankind being “created sick, commanded to be sound”.
He has been startled by the lack of controversy the song has stirred, particularly at home. “That it got on Irish radio, the fact of that was amazing,” he says. “But there is very little loyalty left for the organisation of the church at home. The damage done is obscene. And the lack of action to make reparations, and the lack of political will to make changes. It’s very, very frustrating.”
The core of Take Me to Church is “about how organisations like the Catholic Church undermine what it is to be human and loving somebody else”, and the “offensive, backward, barbaric” notion that every newborn child is born into sin and must be forgiven by God. He has, he says, “a lot of strong opinions about the church”. His parents were raised Catholic – his father educated at a Christian Brothers school, and his mother at a school run by nuns. “And I think they made a very conscious decision not to raise their kids the same way. And I don’t blame them.”
We have been spending a lot of time in the car lately, which is always good for two things- conversation, and listening to lots of music.
Michaela has this thing with music- it takes her about two three years to find her way into something new, and then something will grab her and she will play it over and over. It says something about our disparate personalities that I like something on the first time of listening, or probably will never like it at all (with a few notable exceptions, revisited as musical taste evolves.)
The soundtrack to our recent journeys has often been a band called Phantom Limb. Will and I discovered them a few years ago at Greenbelt Festival- we stood in a more or less empty field during the mid afternoon graveyard slot and were stunned by the sounds hitting us from the stage. Waves of complex harmonies, and a fusion of country, gospel and soul that did something to my innards.
Phantom limb are (or where- I think they are sadly no more?) made up of session musicians who escaped the slavery of playing ‘down’ to other peoples requirements into the freedom of playing what they wanted to play.
The lead singer in particular has a voice that comes along once in a blue moon. She sounds like an overdriven guitar solo at times.
Here are some acoustic versions of some of their songs;
I was thinking about the impact of creative gentle songs, crafted and honed, sung simply and tenderly- just like those Yvonne and David Lyon treated us to last night. We are left physically, spiritually and emotionally changed.
So I am grateful.
Grateful to Yvonne, and also to all those other people whose music becomes the means that life can travel.
The turn of words and tune that wrap up memories in beautiful blankets.
What are you doing with your Saturday night (tomorrow.) Nothing special?
If you live within striking distance of Dunoon, there are still a few tickets left to come and hear Yvonne Lyon sing in our house. A tenner each for a beautiful music in an intimate and relaxed setting.
If you have not come across Yvonne’s music before (why ever not?!) then you are in an increasing minority. This is what some others have to say about it;
‘just stunning music’
– Bob Harris, Radio 2
‘listening to Yvonne is a life affirming experience. She is the bees-knees!’
– Iain Anderson, BBC Radio Scotland
‘a fine voice…a fine album and one that is refreshingly positive’
– The Telegraph
‘this is an awesome level of talent that I cannot compare’
– Maverick Magazine – 5 stars
‘Yvonne Lyon’s continually developing songwriting sets her right at the top of the tree‘
– R2 Magazine
‘Yvonne Lyon is a wonderful talent, and name I urge you, no make that command you, to jot down in your diary. Be sure to check her out because here is a lady with class.
– Americana UK
Yvonne is about to support Eddi Reader on her UK tour, so is used to big venues- however, hearing this intimate delicate and poetic music close up is something else- in Dunoon of all places.
Here is Yvonne and her husband David, as a taster, singing a song that has reduced me to tears;
If you are local to Dunoon, we are doing another one of our ‘occasional’ worship events up at the Episcopal Church. Andrew assures me that after all the hard work the building is warmer and more welcoming than ever!
The idea for these events came when Andrew asked me a year or so ago if I would revisit my worship leading past. I reluctantly agreed and found it personally very moving to lead people in singing simple songs again. I don’t know how this will develop, but at present we intend to keep it humble, keep it simple, but to follow where the path leads.
Next Tuesday this involves finding the space inside some songs, a bit of theatre, and sharing communion. Nothing more. No hype. No expectancy on anyone who comes. Just space to worship.
Local folk- would you mind sharing this where you can to get some invites out?
Michaela tends to listen to one album over and over again- sometimes just one song. Currently we have a CD on in the car just about every day- Duke Special’s Oh Pioneer.
I am in two minds about the Duke. He writes some lovely lovely songs and has a stage persona that is almost unique- we have seen him live a few times at Greenbelt Festival. however his music often comes a little too close to musical theatre for my comfort. It is songcraft in the tradition of Cole Porter, with dreadlocks and a delicious Northern Irish accent.
Having said all that- most of us are one thing and also the opposite. I was thinking about this today looking at risque birthday cards on the mantle next to a celtic cross. It made me think of one of the Duke’s songs. I think I get where he is coming from, but frankly I could be wrong…