Some songs just haunt you. It's not the catchy melody or the memorable guitar lick that stay with you. It's not even the lyrics - you know that clever couplet that made you smile or the uplifting chorus echoing around your head. It's certainly not the style of the song or the voice of the singer that causes you to sit up and notice it because more often than not it's just not your kind of music. No what I'm talking about is a song that overshadows you - it feels as though it's lagging a footstep or so behind you ready to strike at any moment. I put Mary Gauthier's 'I Drink' in that category. I guess what haunts me about this song is the story. Much like my reflections on Townes Van Zandt's 'Waiting Around to Die' there's something in this song that rings true. It's personal, it's painful and it just demands a response. Why do I care? Well, I see this song being played out in life and it's frightening.
And it's for this reason that 'I don't drink'. In fact I've been fasting from 'drink' for nigh on 20 years now. Even now I occasionally miss it - a glass of red wine during Sunday lunch, a cool lager on a hot summer's day, a Bailey's at Christmas. But I've seen too much pain caused by drink to feel anything but antipathy towards it. Destruction too often follows in its wake. So it's a fast I'm proud to make. And whenever I'm tempted to break my fast I sense this song one step behind - a dark shadow creeping up from behind and it's then that I make my statement 'I don't drink'.
A while back I did a post on songs with Salvation Army connections. Since then I've had a couple of songs I didn't mention brought to my attention: Jonny Cash's 'Understand Your Man' and 'The Bannerman' by Blue Mink. Today, however, I came across what is described as an 'anti-Salvation Army song'. As you can imagine, I found that interesting!
Joe Hill was an American protest singer back in the early 20th century who was involved in union organising with a group known as 'the Wobblies'. He wrote songs to inspire poor migrant workers to rise up and fight for a better life. His beef with The Salvation Army came about because he often found himself competing with the SA band to make himself heard out on the streets. And whilst the Salvation Army sang about a better life in the next world, Joe concentrated on songs that sang about a better life in this world. And to drive his point home he used to take the tunes The Salvation Army were using and rewrote the lyrics! (This of course was The Salvation Army's own tactic - they took tunes used in the public house and put Christian lyrics to them). And so, the song 'The Preacher and the Slave', which mentions the Salvation Army directly, was a parody of the hymn 'The Sweet By and By'. Apparently, this song also coins the phrase 'Pie in the Sky when you die'!
As someone who has become particularly interested in 'organising' as a form of justice in today's world, as well as a Christian commitment to life in the next, I wanted to make a couple of observations about this song. I feel that Hill's point is well made, but is perhaps misdirected. Whilst Salvationists have always had one eye on the hereafter, it would be true to say, too, that the other eye has always been trained on the here and now. Of all Christian denominations, The Salvation Army has been committed to those who need a helping hand in this world. However, Joe Hill could be forgiven for thinking otherwise if all he heard were our songs. Where are the songs, for example, that deal with fighting for justice in this life? Where are the songs that reflect the radical teaching of Jesus about the peacemaker or the prophetic or the 'upside down' kingdom of God breaking into the world around us. Where are they?! On the whole Hill's right - mainly our songs are 'pie in the sky when you die'. And I for one would love to sing a new song - a protest song, a prophetic song, a song that brought heaven to earth as Jesus taught.
It's a long time since Bob Dylan wrote a 'talkin' blues'. It's a shame because I find them amusing. My favourite is probably this one - Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues (1962). It's a great send up of the anti-communist group - the John Birch Society. The song's protaganist is so keen to root out the communists infiltrating the US that he looks everywhere for 'the reds' - even down his toilet! Back in '60s there was a hint of controversy about the song when Dylan walked out on the Ed Sullivan show having been told he wouldn't be allowed to play it on air.
The paranoia that Dylan so brilliantly satirizes back then is just as relevant today as ever. Perhaps not in terms of Communism and leftist politics but rather around Islam and the political ambitions of 'Islamic fundamentalists'. I've rewritten this song a couple of times for a new political context. Now it becomes 'Talkin' Andrew Gilligan Paranoid Blues' or 'Talkin' Pamela Geller Paranoid Blues'. Andrew Gilligan is a British journalist who is doing his utmost to 'expose the political ambitions' of my local mosque - the East London Mosque - and the Islamic Forum Europe, a group of Muslim activists who dare to believe that social welfare, politics and faith can work together! Now I know a few of the bigwigs at the mosque and IFE and more than a few of the faithful congregation and let me tell you - there is an excessive paranoia to his over zealous reporting. The leaders of the mosque can't even sneeze without being accused of having some underhand reason for doing so!
So without more ado - here's my re-write:
Well, I was feelin’ sad and feelin’ blue
I didn’t know what in the world I wus gonna do
Them Islamists they wus comin’ around
They wus in the air
They wus on the ground
They wouldn’t gimme no peace . . .
So I run down most hurriedly
And joined up with the Andrew Gilligan society
I got me a secret membership card
And started off a-walkin’ down the road
Yee-hoo, I’m a real Pamela Geller now!
Look out you IFE!
Well, I wus lookin’ everywhere for them IFE
I got up in the mornin’ ’n’ looked where I could see
Looked in the sink, behind the door
Looked in the glove compartment of my car
Couldn’t find ’em . . .
I wus lookin’ high an’ low for them Islamists everywhere
I wus lookin’ in the sink an’ underneath the chair
I looked way up my chimney hole
I even looked deep down inside my toilet bowl
They got away . . .
Well, I wus sittin’ home alone an’ started to sweat
Figured they wus in my T.V. set
Peeked behind the picture frame
Got a shock from my feet, hittin’ right up in the brain
Them Muslims caused it!
I know they did . . . them hard-core ones
Well, I investigated all the books in the library
Ninety percent of ’em gotta be burned away
I investigated all the people that I knowed
Ninety-eight percent of them gotta go
The other two percent are fellow Gilligans just like me
Now Barak Obama, he’s a Muslim spy
Merkel, Cameron and that Milliband guy
Well, I fin’ly started thinkin’ straight
When I run outa things to investigate
Couldn’t imagine doin’ anything else
So now I’m sittin’ home investigatin’ myself!
Hope I don’t find out anything . . . hmm, Allah Akbar!
After a year's break - I appear to have come up for air again and climbed back onto my blog (this is my second post in a 2 weeks!). Having a spare 20 minutes I cast my eye over my previous work and on the whole still stand by most of it. Great to read a couple of comments that had sneaked through my radar over the last year. Also, realised that during my silence, I've been listening to more inspirational music than ever, so plenty to share.
Perhaps my personal discovery of the year is Arcade Fire. I enjoyed a corporate worship experience with them back in December at London's O2 venue. The last two gigs I saw at the O2 featured Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen - two mighty singer-songwriters who will forever be legends. But as good as it was to spend time in their company it was even better to watch a band in their prime and at the top of their game. It was remarkable how they turned such a huge arena into an intimate setting. Simply stunning.
Now I've come late to Arcade Fire. Just don't know how I missed them. However, what's great about discovering a band onto their third album is that instantly you have a decent amount of music to get into. For me, their first album - Funeral - is the best. Their 'anthem' appears to be the song 'Wake Up' from that album. It seems to sum up the general feel of so much of their music. In a recent interview in the Guardian - lead singer Win Butler, brought up in a Mormon household says:
"I had a somewhat religious upbringing," he says. "Not strict, but it was there and I'm kind of thankful for that. If you grow up just watching MTV, that's its own form of religion and it's not even based on happiness or communal responsibility. I mean, try to construct a worldview out of that."
Project that onto the lyrics of 'Wake Up' and the song starts to make sense. Watch what you fill your soul with - fill it with nothing or meaningless rubbish and you're lost. WAKE UP before it's too late! It's a prophetic call to the present Western generation. I defy you to listen to this and not be moved.
I just love it when a song just comes out of nowhere and hits you between the ears! Take, today for example. I'm in the car on a 30 minute journey to an appointment and catching up with a post Christmas sale CD that I hadn't had much of chance to listen to, yet - Upside Down (The Best of the Jesus and Mary Chain). Despite the obviously religious title of the band - I'm essentially listening to an 80s gothic rock band that as far as I know don't have particular religious tendancies. I've the volume pumped up and loving the sound when suddenly the song I'm listening to turns into a prayer. 'God Help Me' is the track. And as I'm listening to it - the images of friends and people I often hang out with through The Salvation Army in Stepney spring to mind. People I know who are praying this prayer - every day, several times a day. And my eyes mist over with tears as I drive along and I thank God that we can pray this prayer and I thank God for The Jesus and Mary Chain. (Also - Pogues fans might be interested that frontman Shane MacGowan sings it.)
God help me through this day God please help me through this day I'm blind, can't see the way God please help me through this day
I can't take it I just can't take it anymore God help me through this day God please help me through this day I'm blind, can't see the way God illuminate this day
I can't take it I just can't take it anymore I've been waiting long time I've been waiting long time I've been waiting too long To see the light
As far as I'm concerned Christmas 2009 has been unparalleled for discovering new Christmas music. I've loved having a renewed soundtrack to Christmas and it's been great to say goodbye to Slade, the entire Christmas Crooner selection and the usual seasonal tat and replace it with music that is both original and yet still evokes that Christmassy feeling. Here's a few of my new favourites.
Firstly, I got hold of a copy of Sufjan Stevens 'Hark! Songs for Christmas' collection. A few tracks can be downloaded for free on his offical website - check it out here. I love the sounds of these records and they have enough quirkiness to make it really fun.
Next, I listened to Bob Dylan's double helping of the Christmas Theme Time Radio Hour. There are some great songs on this show - and some very funny moments, too. You can check out the tracklist here or download it from here. My personal favourites are 'Merry, Merry Christmas' by Alton Ellis and the Lipsticks and 'Santa Claus' by Sonny Boy Wllliamson II.
Now if that wasn't enough (around 70 tracks), there are some other great songs I've discovered. Steve Earle's 'Christmas in Washington' is magnificent and pretty much everything on 'The McGarrigle Christmas Hour' that features plenty of Rufus and Martha Wainwright.
And so all that remains is to wish you a very happy Christmas! And happy listening...
Christmas music is contentious in our household. My wife loves it so much that until recently it was not unusual in our home to hear it pretty much any time of the year. It all came to a head a couple of years ago, when coming into the house on a very warm sunny July afternoon I heard the strains of 'chestnuts roasting on an open fire' drifting from the lounge. Later that evening I gathered all the Christmas CDs from the storage rack and sneakily hid them away in the attic. A couple of weeks later when my act of cunning was discovered, I promised to reveal the hiding place - but only on 1st December! Now it is generally agreed that waiting until the appointed time, and the opening of the first window on the Advent calendar, makes the wait all the more worth it.
So... what a dilemma I faced when Bob Dylan decided to release his Christmas album 'Christmas in the Heart' in mid-October! I openly admit that my increasing fanaticism around Dylan has rendered my ears incapable of hearing anything negative in his music (except perhaps Self-Portrait), so the quality of the actual renditions of the Christmas songs was not something I was concerned about. My key difficulties were how was I going to 1. find a way to persuade my wife that that the £8.95 was worth spending on pre-ordering the item, so it would arrive on release day; 2. listen to it immediately and not wait until 1 December; and 3. avoid my listening to it before the appropriate time becoming a 'free for all' on all Christmas music before the 1 December deadline.
Well, here's what happened. Firstly, I pre-ordered the album without telling my wife. This was truly justified because I didn't buy it for myself - it was a loving gift from husband to wife. Secondly, on it's arrival, allowing my wife to rip open the package I spontaneously swiped it from her hands and declared - 'I know it's early but because you love Christmas music so much I think we should put it on now, what do you think?'. Of course she consented. And so Bob was slipped into the CD player, the volume turned up and Christmas came to our household in October. And the best thing of all - since all the other CDs are still in the attic well it wouldn't hurt to play Bob's CD again and again and again until they come out on 1st December would it?
Someone once asked, 'why should the devil have all the best tunes?' Truth is, he doesn't. Songs for the Journey is a record of my favourite tracks that motivate, inspire and challenge faith. It's the kind of stuff you'll never hear in church but you should do, because if you listen hard enough you can hear His harmonies.