Martyn Joseph: 5 songs (part 5)

The bottom line is love

Five posts in five days – I don’t normally manage five posts in five weeks. But tonight’s the night we welcome Martyn to BGBC, so I have been working against a deadline. But before I go onto today’s selection, just one quick story.

Late in 2015, I had tickets for my wife and I to see Martyn in one of his Cecil Sharp House gigs. Sadly, I was unable to attend and so my wife took our 8 year-old son. He was somewhat wriggly, so they sat on one of the wall seats right at the edge of the hall where he could wriggle around without disturbing anyone. At the start of the second half of the concert on his way onto the stage, Martyn saw our son and came over for a chat. Later in the gig, he kindly name-checked my son who still talks about it. For me, that says something about Martyn’s character. My son is somewhat disappointed that I didn’t choose I Searched For You in this collection of songs, but this is my choice.

Anyway, back to the music. Last year I was sixty. I must confess that I have found this transition more existentially demanding than I was expecting, but once again I am grateful that Martyn has gone ahead and provided me with a resource to aid me in the guise of his album 1960 released in 2021 (with the acoustic version following late last night).

Listening to the album again this morning, it feels like one of Martyn’s most personal albums (perhaps his most personal), where he is taking stock of where he has got to in life. As usual with Martyn it is multi-layered as you sense someone who is at ease with who he is, but who is also looking forward because he knows that he still hasn’t arrived. How long does it take for a man to know himself? he asks in the opening song, in my experience 60 years is not enough. Am I more alive now, than when I first began? he asks in the next song. Yet shining through these musings is love, not the ‘need you baby, want you baby, got to have you baby’ ‘love’ that Martyn used to rail against, but the love that makes a cup of tea. For me, the album’s theme is captured in that one line from the song Shadow Boxing, where he simply states:

The bottom line is love

So, one song to choose. I so nearly chose House where he is joined by Janis Ian, another one of my favourite singer-songwriters but in the end I’ve gone with Felt So Much, in which a memory of a childhood car journey becomes a meditation on life before ending where it began.

Love’s big wide universe
Felt like a heart could burst
Much more than I deserve
Draw closer my love
I have felt so much

Oh and if you are coming to BGBC tonight, keep an eye out for a 15 year-old boy who may well greet you at the gate. That would be my son.

Martyn Joseph: 5 songs (part 4)

Hope we all have a Clara
Singing songs unknown
Songs for the healing
And songs for the coming home

“Morton Kelsey, the most prolific writer among twentieth century Christian mystics”

Bob DeWaay

Some time in the 1980s I read a book entitled The Other Side of Silence by a guy named Morton Kelsey. From memory, it was a good and helpful book. I knew nothing about the author until 2012 when Martyn released the song Clara and the album Songs For The Coming Home.

Clara was a young girl who was employed to look after a baby boy who was unwanted by his parents. When he was three, the baby was taken away from Clara and sent to a boarding school. Later, as a young man, he was overwhelmed by a sense of rejection. So deep was the hurt that he was on the point of suicide until a melody appeared in his mind where ‘it raids the landscape and invades his heart shines light where there was none, he gets up and walks out alive.’

Of course, Kelsey is that young man and he went on to write numerous books which helped many people like me in their faith journey. Many years later when Kelsey was 77 he received a letter from a stranger who turned out to be Clara (now in her 90s). They meet and talk and Clara shows him her faded photos. Before he leaves, Clara sings him the lullaby she sung to him each night as she put him down to sleep.

Before they part she sings gently to him but he knows he’s heard it before.
It wasn’t the breeze or the moon across those mountains, it was Clara’s love call.

The melody that had saved his life was Clara’s love song to him.

It is a beautiful song, a celebration of the redemptive power of music and of small acts of love. Who could have imagined the effect that simple melody sung night after night would have? Who can imagine the effect of small, consistent, acts of love?

I am grateful for all the Clara’s in my life (and MJ is certainly one) and despite the fact that my singing resembles a cat being strangled, this song reminds me of the human vocation to create melodies of the heart, songs for the healing and songs for the coming home.

Martyn Joseph: 5 songs (part 3)

For a number of family and career reasons, the late 90s and early 00s were not a time when I particularly engaged with new music; I even took a decade-long sabbatical from live music including Martyn. I still faithfully bought and enjoyed each Martyn album, I just didn’t especially engage. And then 2005 happened and we moved back to London (where I have spent the majority of my adult years) and Martyn bought out Deep Blue which became and has remained one of my favourite Martyn albums.

One reviewer wrote:

“The vein that runs through Deep Blue is a determination to hold together doubt and faith, anger and compassion, failure and persistence, disillusion and hope.”

Of course that is true of Martyn’s entire catalogue, but is especially true here. I guess that’s why Martyn’s music appeals to me because I find myself wrestling with these same things. Another feature of this album is that Stewart Henderson took in co-writing a number of songs. I always thought that Martyn and Stewart worked so well together as lyricists.

Anyway, I have been unable to choose a single song, so I have chosen two (it could easily have been five or six).

The first is How Did We End Up Here?. For some reason I have associated this song with the Gulf War and although the timings don’t work, the war is certainly part of the wider dynamic that is in mind here. This is an angry song and the anger is focused on the kind of imperial and nationalistic version of Christianity (”Jesus wearing battle dress”) which has and continues to be a stain on the church and a betrayal of the church’s missional calling.

Salute the troops with grave concern
Body bags we never learn
Why interrogate the soul
Dr Strangelove’s in control
And woe to us
And woe to you
And think of all the oil revenue
How did we end up here?

But for me the image in this song which really connected with me is the repeated line God bangs his head against the wall. There have been so many times over the last couple of decades when I have felt like I wanted to bang my head against the wall at the behaviour of the church and Christian and political leaders and it has been helpful to imagine God doing the same (although doubtless there have been many times when my behaviour has bought on a bout of divine head-banging).

If my first song is a song for raging, my second choice feels like a prayer for a tender heart. Martyn has always been aware that anger (however righteous) can eat away at a person’s spirit and hence this plea for a soft heart.

So turn me tender again
Fold me into you
Turn me tender again
And mould me to new
Faith lost its promise
And bruised me deep blue
Turn me tender again
Through union with you

Such beautiful, tender words and that juxtaposition of righteous anger and tenderness has always felt so important to me. The world desperately needs folks who can hold these things in tension.

And then right at the end of the song, in the final verse we get this:

And laments have a purpose and laments have a cost
A requiem playing gathers the lost
It sometimes tastes sour, the sweetness of hope
When the blizzards are raging on this lover’s slope
Yet I don’t want to freeze inside or out
For it’s you that dissolves the cold walls of doubt

One of the books I received for Christmas (alongside Bono and Ricky Ross’ autobiographies) was Lyrics of Lament by Nancy Lee. It is in many ways a history of lament in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and today in many cultures. I am looking forward to reading it.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I believe that the ability to lament well is a spiritual necessity (hence the number of Psalms that trade in lament) and I am so grateful for Martyn and for so many contemporary musicians who aid me in that process.

Martyn Joseph: 5 songs (part 2)

Three years ago today, I published this blog which was inspired by my two daughters’ birthdays (which have come around again – Happy birthday H & E!). It featured two of Martyn’s parenthood songs – Cardiff Bay and Driving Her Back to London. Re-reading it I see that I promised to write a post devoted to Martyn Joseph – it may have taken three years, but to make up for it I am now into part 2 of a 5-part blog.

Cardiff Bay, taken from Martyn’s eponymous album released in 1995, is probably my favourite Martyn song with its celebration of an ordinary day shared between a father and a son – of the escape from Sunday School and the seagulls and the cranes, and the old man waving and the mud of the low tide and Captain Scott setting sail on the Terra Nova and the sheer joy of being father and son. I remember from concerts around that time, Martyn’s joy and delight at becoming and being a father and this week, I too have been once again celebrating the joy of being a father. Confession time – I may have listened to this song more than once over the past couple of days!

On a Sunday over Cardiff Bay
This is one day of our lives
And on a Sunday over Cardiff Bay
Don’t you know that I love you
All of my life

In my post from three years ago, I commented:

Maybe it is those simple everyday shared moments – moments shared between a parent and a child, between a husband and wife, between friends, that are the truly holy moments, the moments of real blessing …

Three years on, and a global pandemic and a senseless war later, I am more convinced than ever that this is true. And I am taking Martyn’s song as an invitation to remember and reflect on some of those ‘Cardiff Bay’ moments in my own life.

Martyn Joseph: 5 Songs (part 1)

This Friday, BGBC will be hosting a concert by Martyn Joseph. I have to confess to being ridiculously excited about this. I first saw Martyn play some time in 1983/4 at a University Mission. Suffice to say it wasn’t an auspicious start to our relationship, he and I were in a very different place in terms of our faith journey at that point. Little did I know that his music would become a valued part of my life, speaking into my experiences and, in a sense, giving me a place to process some of those experiences. He remains a much appreciated companion on life’s journey.

So this week I am going to briefly blog about five of my favourite Martyn songs – one each day leading up to Friday. It would be an incredibly difficult job to pick twenty songs, so five is almost impossible. I have not necessarily chosen my favourite five songs (that list would probably depend on my mood), but different songs from different periods over the past 30+ years that have been important to me at the time.

We begin with a song which first appeared as the title track of Martyn’s 1989 live album, An Aching and A Longing. The video is taken from his 1990 appearance at the Greenbelt Festival (I was there!). The accompanist is the wonderful Mike Haughton.

We don’t know nothing
We don’t know much
Just an aching and a longing to be loved

Loved with dignity
Whispers deep inside of me
A million years away
From what the experts have to say

Just an aching and a longing to be loved
To be cared for, to be precious,
to be someone, to be special,
to be cared for, to be loved

30 years later it feels like the song still captures the aching and the longing of this human heart. And after 25 years pastoring folks, it feels like this song captures the aching and longing of just about every human heart – to be loved with dignity and also I believe to give oneself in love.

Music for Christmas 8: God Is With Us

God is with us.
Hear ye people, Even to the uttermost end of the earth.
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.
The people that dwell in the shadow of death,
upon them the light has shined.
For unto us a child is born! For unto us a son is given!
And the government shall be upon his shoulder;
And his name shall be called Wonderful! Counsellor!
The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of peace.
Hear ye people, Even to the uttermost end of the earth.
God is with us.
Christ is born! Christ is born! Christ is born!

John Tavener

Composed in 1987, John Tavener’s Christmas Proclamation, ‘God Is With Us’, ends with a crescendo of joy as we welcome the news that Christ is born!

Happy Christmas everyone!

Music for Christmas 7: Peace on Earth

But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring; –
Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” (Luke 2:13-14)

There are no words which can express the pain of a mother who lost her newborn son in a shelling of the maternity ward. A moment ago, she was caressing her baby, calling him by his name, breastfeeding him, inhaling his smell – and the next moment a Russian missile destroyed her entire universe. And now her beloved and longed-for baby lies in the smallest coffin in the world.

Nobel Lecture given by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate 2022 Center for Civil Liberties, delivered by Oleksandra Matviichuk, Oslo, 10 December 2022.

We had our church Carol Service yesterday (you can catch the recording here if you are interested). During the service we reflected on the tension between the idea that the One whose birth we celebrate is the Prince of Peace, an idea captured in the angels’ song in Luke 2, and the reality of our common experience of peace as something elusive, both in our own personal lives but also on a global scale. I believe that is it vitally important for those of us with faith to acknowledge, name and own these tensions and to live within the tension.

I have to confess that It Came Upon A Midnight Clear has not always been a the top of my list of carols although I have come to really appreciate it this year, in part for the way in which it does acknowledge and name that tension. I’ve enclosed links to two versions of this carol, the first is a contemporary, folk arrangement by The Hound & The Fox,

The second is a more traditional version taken from Carols from King’s in 2016.

Of course others have also sung this tension and during his sermon my colleague referenced the U2 song Peace On Earth.

Hear it every Christmas time
but hope and history won’t rhyme.
So, what’s it worth?
This peace on earth.

So how do we resolve this tension? Well perhaps that is the wrong question, maybe a better question is how do we live within this tension? At Christmas we don’t get a powerful king who bends the world to his shape and compels peace and obedience. Ultimately, that would be a false peace. Instead we get a vulnerable infant Messiah who invites us to walk the path to peace by walking in step with him. As my colleague observed in his sermon:

We can’t bomb our way to peace. The path to peace is the path of peace.

The invitation and the challenge is to become people of peace, people who embody peace. People who, in Charlie’s words, build bigger tables – tables of fellowship, of encounter, of reconciliation, of inclusion.

But this is a post about music for Christmas and not a sermon, so let’s end with a song which I have blogged about before (see here) which picks up this theme of bigger tables and which feels very appropriate for this time of year.

I want a house with a crowded table
And a place by the fire for everyone
Let us take on the world while we’re young and able
And bring us back together when the day is done.

Music for Christmas 6: If You Were Born Today

I must confess that Low had not really entered my consciousness until the death of Mimi Parker, their drummer and vocalist, a couple of months ago.  Anyway, it wasn’t too long before I came across their 199 Christmas album imaginatively titled Christmas.

I’m always on the look for new Christmas music and it took one listen before I was hooked.  It has a certain melancholy that always appeals to me.

The track that really grapped my attention is If You Were Born Today (Song for Little Baby Jesus).  The song begins and ends like this:

If you were born today
We’d kill you by age eight
Never get the chance to say

Between these two verses, the song essentially lists some of the sayings of Jesus (Forgive them for they know not what they do … Blessed are the meek … Blessed are the humble).  The whole song fascinates meand it also reminds me of something I heard a Christian preacher say 40 odd years ago to the effect that if Jesus were born today, MI5, the CAA and KGB would all have a file on him entitled ‘neutralise.’  His message is simply too radical, to threatening to the powers-that-be.  As Walter Brueggemann puts it:

“God’s will for the world is in deep tension with the way the world is organised”

Walter Brueggemann

Both Brueggemann and Low get that the Gospel is deeply political.  It is concerned not merely with individual souls but with transformed lives, transformed relationships and transformed ways of organising our common life.

Music for Christmas 5: Merry Christmas Everyone

A couple of weeks ago, my sons and I went to see Status Quo at Wembley Arena. I’ve seen Quo a couple of times before and they always put on an entertaining concert. My 15 year-old son is a big Quo fun and this was his first gig in a big venue. Suffice to say Quo were great and he loved it. The support act was another blast from the past, Shakin’ Stevens. I was never really a fan of Shaky but again he put on a decent show ending, of course, with Merry Christmas Everyone which transformed the audience into a mass choir belting out the words for all they were worth – great fun!

One of the things I often ponder this time of year is the relationship between the Festival of Advent, Christmastide (the Christian festival which runs from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night) and the celebration of Christmas which takes place outside of the church. Personally, I am quite happy to celebrate the second and third of these as separate but concurrent events.

In fact, I feel uncomfortable when Christians use phrases like, ‘Jesus is the reason for the season,’ or say that we should, ‘put the Christ back into Christmas.’ To me that has echoes of Christendom, which is not, in my opinion, a good thing. For an interesting take on this, see this article by W. David O. Taylor who poses the fascinating question,

“what would happen if the church were to become more profoundly shaped by the stories that Matthew and Luke tell? How might our traditions change if we attended to the whole narrative and not just to the highlight reel of the Nativity stories?”

W David O Taylor

Maybe the church needs to get its own house in order rather than presuming to tell others how to celebrate Christmas?

For myself, I decided a number of years ago that try to enter fully into the different seasons that present themselves at this time – to fully enter into Advent with its emphasis on active waiting and hoping for the coming of Christ in the past, present and future, and then to properly mark Christmastide, rejoicing at the birth of Christ and pondering on its significance. That is how 25th December will begin, with my church family. And finally to enjoy the celebration that is going on all around me – I will spend time with family, I’ll eat, drink and make merry. At some point I will watch It’s a Wonderful Life and the Bristol Old Vic’s setting of A Christmas Carol and who knows, maybe I’ll even sing-a-long with Shaky. Knowing that in doing these things I am also enjoying the grace and goodness of God.