music


Conversations with journalists often involves challenging the suggestion that the Church of England spends all its time in conflict over sex and women. If 5% of what we talk about forms 95% of media coverage about us and this shapes 100% of popular perception about the church’s preoccupation, no wonder we have a problem.

Well, despite my protestations that the bulk of our preoccupations have nothing to do with sex or conflict, the House of Bishops spent 95% of its meeting this week doing sex and women (bishops). One colleague at the two-day meeting in York, having wondered after months of bad weather what the big yellow thing in the sky was, asked why we couldn’t leave the stuffy room and meet outside – or as he put it, “Can’t we do sex outside?” Er…

Anyway, dispute now rages about women bishops, marriage and associated matters. More anon. Although my meetings this week about the media and the conflict in Sudan won’t hit the headlines…

What has made me laugh today, though, is the prospect of Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest in Baku. The human rights questions there raise enough questions, but surely the biggest challenge this year is how to lose the contest while appearing to try to win it. The country that wins the contest has to stage the event next year. And who wants to do that in the middle of a massive financial crisis?

It will be interesting to see how Greece, Spain and Portugal perform. A win might cheer them up during hard times – music can do that sort of thing – but a noble defeat will prove cheaper. And Ireland has chosen Jedward again…

(I met Engelbert Humperdinck in a BBC Radio 2 studio a couple of weeks ago. I only heard his song yesterday. Apparently they have chosen him because he is very popular in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Nice song, though…)

Given the awful news in the last week of deaths in Afghanistan (6 British soldiers and then 16 Afghan civilians), I wasn’t sure what to write for Pause for Thought on this morning’s Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. How do we address something like this in a couple of minutes in the context of a lively, fun show?

 

I immediately thought of the blues – I was downloading an Eric Clapton CD to my iPad at the time. Whihc is why I began my script as follows:

 

You know what it’s like when you listen to an album time and time again, but you never really take any notice of the song titles – and then you have a look at the back of the CD box… and you wonder what you’ve been listening to? Well, I was getting an Eric Clapton album onto my computer (Me and Mr Johnson, if you must know) and, apart from the epic They’re Red Hot (er… let’s not go there), the one that caught my eye was the intriguing Milkcow’s Calf Blues. I still don’t know if this refers to the baby cow born to the milkcow, or the lower rear leg muscle of the cow itself…


The blues often have odd titles. When I was a teenager I played trumpet in a jazz group and one of my favourite tunes was St James Infirmary Blues – a Louis Armstrong classic. I have no idea which St James Infirmary it referred to, but I guess it wasn’t the one in Leeds.


The thing about the blues is that they always dig deep into human experience and the everyday stuff of our lives. Like the Psalms of the Old Testament, they lend a vocabulary to the profoundest – and often most painful experiences of loss and love and longing. They give a voice to those bits of life we find it hardest to express – especially if such expression makes us sound weak or miserable or, worst of all, a failure.

 

I have written about the blues elsewhere. The power of the blues is in the raw honesty, the lack of fear of exposure or ridicule. They often strip away the veneers of human self-sufficiency. They go deep. Try listening to Clapton’s River of Tears (on Pilgrim) and you hear the music weeping.

 

Anyway, how should we apply this briefly to events of the last week – especially as the news came in this morning of an appalling tragedy in Switzerland in which 28 Belgian people were killed in a coach crash, 22 of them children?

 

In a week in which six soldiers were killed in Afghanistan – five of them from West Yorkshire – and a rogue American soldier systematically killed 16 innocent people in Kandahar, and the dreadful news from Switzerland this morning, perhaps we need the blues to give us a voice. Otherwise, how do we say something useful about such horrors and the agony of sudden loss?


There is a time for simply voicing the pain – not trying to make some sense out of it. The psalmists cry out at the injustice of this world – the same now as it was three thousand years ago – and tell us that God invites us to be honest, not correct.

 

It doesn’t exactly nail theodicy. But it is a rather feeble example of how to try to say something useful when rationalising is inappropriate, but something needs to be said that shines some light on our reaction to events that tear at our heart. The context shapes the content.

I just got news of a new film about the legendary Bob Marley. A mate of mine did the song on the trailer and it all looks worth a look.

There I was, all set up to talk about football and the Brontës, then I find the studio full of women singing. And aren’t they brilliant?
 
On this morning’s BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans Show Gareth Malone brought 20 of the 100 Military Wives choir (whose single Wherever You Are must surely go to number one for Christmas) to sing. There was a great atmosphere in the studio, but my Pause for Thought was in danger of missing the mood as well as the mark. So, I tried to bring the ‘choir experience’ into the script – before saying something about the honesty of genuine prayer.
 

The starting point was last Sunday’s dual experience of Haworth and Anfield:

Last weekend I had a bumper culture experience. On the Sunday morning I did a baptism and confirmation service in Haworth – the church where the Brontë sisters wrote their moody books. It was a good gig (as they say) in which several adults took up their responsibilities in the Christian Church. (I was back in Haworth the next day and it was freezing. I’d have called ‘Wuthering Heights’ ‘Brass Monkeys’…)

 

That afternoon I went with friends to Anfield to watch the Liverpool vs Manchester City game – the first time I’ve been back to Anfield for over twenty years. It was amazing. OK, the result wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for, but the atmosphere – and Liverpool’s performance – were just fantastic.

 

And what was it that linked the two events – Haworth and Anfield (and singing in a big choir)? Well, it was something to do with a shared experience, a sense of awe, and very vocal expression of support. OK, 50,000 screaming footie fans make a different noise to 100 worshipping Christians – and they use different language sometimes, too(!). But, they both involve being caught up in something that’s bigger than ‘just me’.

 
(And this is where the collective experience of singing in a choir comes in. For most of the Military Wives there had been little or no previous experience of singing collectively. Every child everywhere should get the opportunity to experience learning a musical instrument and playing in an orchestra or singing in a choir.) 

One of the things I do every morning is read poetry that was written nearly three thousand years ago. I’m not a freak, but the Psalms mix up the cries of individuals with corporate songs of praise, lament, hope, fear, shame, joy… and just about every other human emotion. With no holds barred, the poets shout at God, complain about their lot in life, curse their enemies, question everything about why the world is the way it is, and yet usually hold onto the fact that God holds on to them. It’s wonderful and edgy stuff – and often reminds me that we are free to tell God the unvarnished truth about how and what we feel.
 
OK, Liverpool didn’t quite respond to my vocal urgings to put the ball in the net more often. But, that’s OK. Cos our prayers in the morning in Haworth weren’t about forcing a result; it was enough just to tell God the truth. And then move on.

 

I guess this is particularly pertinent – in an unplanned way – to the experience of the military wives in the studio this morning. Being separated for months on end from your husband or partner who is serving in dangerous territory in Afghanistan must from time to time evoke fear, loneliness, frustration and anger. Yet many people think that prayer is something pious – telling a rather disconnected God what he wants to hear… whereas, in fact, prayer is supposed to be the free, uninhibited and honest expression of real emotion and reflection to a God who understands… because he has been here. (Which, of course, is what Christmas is all about.)
 
I hope Chris Evans’ promotion of the Military Wives’ single will be enough to get it to number one for Christmas. It would be a great achievement. Especially as it involves ordinary people (not stardom-seekers) doing something as ordinary as singing together and creating something that is greater than the mere sum of its parts. 
 

 
 

 

 

 

Just for the record, I note the following:

1. On BBC Radio 4’s excellent ‘The Report’ programme, broadcast last night, I was introduced as having been a vicar in Southwark before moving to Bradford. Not true. I told them I had been Archdeacon of Lambeth for three years and then Bishop of Croydon for eight years.

2. In the same introduction to my contribution to the same programme it was said that I had kept in close touch with clergy at St Paul’s Cathedral – which was part of the theme of the programme (whcih was really about the Corporation of London). In fact, I had said I had been in touch with Giles Fraser on the day of his resignation announcement and that I had met Graeme Knowles several times in the past, but didn’t ‘know’ him. I had also said that the Cathedral Chapter was autonomous and that the Diocese of London was not the same as the Diocese of Southwark – and that my real connection with St Paul’s was having been consecrated there in May 2003.

3. During the chit-chat on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 yesterday morning I said that we can see toward Ilkley from our house in Bradford. Well, that’s true in the same sense that you can see towards the North Pole from where I live in Bradford. I meant to say Bingley – and the moors that lead over eventually to Ilkley. Locals who listened must have thought I am seriously geographically challenged.

Neither of those is a moan about the media! Although the first two need clearing up in case anyone connected with St Paul’s wonders what is going on that they don’t know about. It wasn’t me who said it, guv.

But, here’s a plug:

4. My daughter and son-in-law gave me a CD for my birthday which I listened to in the car today. Called simply Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, it is a brilliant, atmospheric recording of some great (almost primitive) rock and roll. It says on the back:

We took a year to record and mix this album in our back room. Over a period of time we collected a lot of ribbon microphones, tape recorders and ancient sound equipment and eventually built a workable studio inspired by Sun studios in Memphis and Chess studios in Chicago along with the makeshift chaos of Joe Meek’s studio in the Holloway Road in London. Our main objective was to capture the energy of our live gigs.

It is excellent, moody, raw – and I would never have come across if it hadn’t been given to me!

If you have a problem, why broadcast it to over ten million people? Good question.

I was back in the Chris Evans studio at BBC Radio 2 to do Pause for Thought this morning after a six month break while I settled in to Bradford. I’ve missed it – not because I’m a groupie, but because (a) it is unfailingly enjoyable and (b) it’s an interesting challenge to write and deliver scripts that work in that environment. Chris and his team were very friendly and welcoming despite the pressures of running an auction for Children in Need.

In this morning’s script I wanted to connect to today’s ‘Dine and Disco’ theme. Basically, I can do the ‘dine’ bit, but the ‘disco’ gives me the wobblies. Some people can dance, some can’t. I try, but I’m hopeless. Unfortunately, at the end of the slot Chris asked me to show him how I dance. He stopped me pretty quickly. Now he knows… (Radio is always better than telly for activities such as this.)

I referred back to the two gigs I got to last week: Imelda May at York and Jools Holland in Bradford. Both were fantastic, but you can’t sit still to either of them. Rockabilly, rhythm and blues, boogie woogie – even I had to get up and … er … dance … sort of. Fortunately, it was dark…

But, one of my favourite Imelda May songs ( which she did in York) is Proud and Humble. I think it’s really a prayer in which, with her extraordinary voice and cracking band, she wrestles with the attempt to live right while also trying to make life happen for herself. Addressing herself to God, she recognises where she fouls it all up, but pleads that at least she’s trying to get the most out of the life God has given her in the world which he created and loves.

And my point in this morning’s script is that I think this hits the button. We all need to own up to our failures, but not fail to celebrate the good stuff. We need both.

I think this is why the two gigs last weekend were full of joy. (I tried to find a less cheesy word than joy, but I couldn’t.) Even songs about loss and longing made the audiences dance – perhaps because somewhere in us there is a deep recognition that, as Bruce Cockburn once sang, ‘joy will find a way’. It comes when we know we’ve got nothing to fear – because the God who made us still knows us, beckons us, loves us, still holds open the possibility of a new start.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: music hits the soul and demands a response. I concluded my script with the following profound observation: Several thousand years ago a Psalmist wrote: “You turned my grieving into dancing.” Many of us know the feeling. Even though, I fear, my dancing would have made him grieve.

And that’s when Chris asked me to demonstrate. And then played Genesis’ I can’t dance. Very funny. And very accurate. How sad is that?

(Chris also clearly knows Bradford and bigged it up. Good to hear such positive stuff about the place.)

Actually, that’s the title of a song by Clive Gregson. I’d heard of him before, but not heard him. Last night he was the support act for Jools Holland at the brilliant St George’s Hall in Bradford. I know two gigs in three days sounds excessive (Imelda May supported by Big Boy Bloater in York last Friday), but I had a couple of days break – the only break between August and post-Christmas – and it was my birthday!

Clive Gregson was fantastic. Like Bruce Cockburn, you can’t hide when you are playing acoustic guitar in front of a live audience. Great songs, great musicianship, great chat to the audience – Clive set up a great evening. (Sorry for the superlatives, but it just was great.)

I have seen Jools Holland every year for the last decade or more – usually at the Royal Albert Hall or in Croydon. Last night he had the usual suspects with him: Ruby Turner, Louise Marshall and, standing in for the cancelled Shane MacGowan (ex-Pogues), the inimitable and always understated Chris Difford (Up the Junction, Cool for Cats, etc.). Other tour dates have Sandy Shaw and the epic German rocker Herbert Grönemeyer (who I once saw live in a stadium in Linz, Austria – long story…) with Jools, but I was happy with Squeeze‘s Chris Difford who has supported him many times.

This gig is worth every penny. It is sheer energetic joy from beginning to end – an evening devoted to brilliant musicianship from people who clearly love what they are doing and draw the audience (however reluctantly) into a serious bit of bopping. From the moment Jools walks onto stage the music doesn’t stop – boogie woogie, blues, ska, etc. See here for previous posts on these gigs. Sheer unadulterated joy. Even an embarrassment like me can’t help but try to dance.

I realise this is a bit of a tenuous link, but it was in my mind while writing. Yesterday began with the Remembrance parade at the Cenotaph in Bradford – always a moving event, but especially when a photograph of someone’s son killed in Afghanistan or Iraq is placed among the wreaths. Remembrance isn’t simply about history or the past. It brings the past into the present and reinforces the responsibility to deal justly in the present in order to vindicate the sacrifices of the past in order better to shape a common future. But, memory is not restricted to wars and the military; it drives us back to the whole of life’s experiences.

Much of the music played yesterday had its ultimate roots in the experiences of the slaves. Black music didn’t just give expression to the misery of loss and humiliation, but it also confounded that subjection with musical exuberance and joy that promised a future. The language of Exodus fired the hope of a people who knew that empires come and go, that ‘now’ isn’t the final word, that ‘justice will out’. It defiantly dances in the face of the miserable oppressor who above all fears losing his status or possessions.

Or, as Clive Gregson puts it on his album Bittersweet:

The door is open, somewhere, somehow,

There has to be a better life than the one we’re living now,

I won’t believe it’s for a chosen few,

The door is open, let’s go on through…

 

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