Frank Sinatra passed away on May 14th, 1998. I recall thinking at the time that with Sinatra gone, all bets were off—anything might now happen in this sad old world. (And I think the record would show that my fears in that respect have been proved entirely correct.) Continue reading “Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours“
I’ve always liked the radio. There’s a visceral affection I have for small transistor radios that transcends any feeling I could ever have for any vulgar television set. I think of all the wonders that can come out of that little box with the grilled speaker—all that I learned about music and about the world while listening to it as a young ‘un; and in the here and now, there is this love I have for radio as a medium where one’s own mind and imagination are still in play, versus that televisual medium where so much (way too much) gets hurled at you in the way of stimulation, like it or not.
And, these days, thanks to the wonder of something much more modern (the internets) you can actually access radio programs from all over the world. Continue reading “Music, Mali, Melody and Wales”
Still pursuing a recent obsession with Welsh music, this American-of-Irish-extraction thought he would reflect a little on the beautiful song “Calon Lân” (generally translated to English as “A Pure Heart”). It’s a song that seems to be deeply embedded in the Welsh culture, to such an extent that you could easily believe it were a much older song than it is. It was first published in 1899, which isn’t yesterday, but is certainly modern times, only fifteen years before WWI.
The lyric was written by the Welsh poet Daniel James, also known by his Welsh poetic nickname, “Gwyrosydd.” It’s reported that he wrote the words as a prayer and then later asked the Welsh tunesmith John Hughes (known also for the great melody “Cwm Rhondda”) to put it to music, which he did, promptly creating a hymn of some sublime beauty and power. Its first appearance was in a Sunday School periodical, and it became widely beloved during what is known as “The Welsh Revival” of 1904-1905, a revival of Christianity which is credited with spurring similar awakenings far beyond the borders of Wales.
The song is also one of a number of great Welsh melodies which can be heard in the classic film, “How Green Was My Valley,” directed by John Ford, from 1941.
It’s the kind of a song where I think most anyone listening to it would find it affecting even with absolutely no idea of what the words mean. I can say at least that it certainly had me reaching for a hankie the first time I heard it, though I had no tangible notion of what it was about. Somehow just the sound of the singing of those syllables and that tune left no doubt that it represented something very profound. It seemed unlikely that it was a song about, say, scrambled eggs. It came across as a statement from deep within the human soul, full of emotion; it was clearly an extraordinarily deep declaration or plea.
Quite a lot of people heard “Calon Lân” for the first time in this way when it was performed on the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent” in 2012, by a choir of young Welsh lads known as “Only Boys Aloud.” It was one of those obviously choreographed but still likeable moments when people are unexpectedly wowed. The video is embedded via YouTube below (and then below that some more scribbling from me about the song). Continue reading “Calon Lân / A Pure Heart”
At the age of 72, most pure pop vocalists (if they’re still able to sing) are playing it safe, rehashing their tried and true work, or recording duets with friendly young stars to lift their visibility. Spirit in the Room,the new album from Tom Jones on Rounder Records in the U.S., is, however, nothing like that.
A couple of months back, I wrote at some length about the recording which is the opening tune on this album, namely Tom Jones’ rendition of “Tower of Song,” written by Leonard Cohen. I found it quite moving, brilliant and defining. I still do, and listening to the album which accompanies it does not disappoint. I think that any day would be a nice day to hear an album like this one.
There’s a certain kind of courage involved for a vocalist in tackling new material—material which has hardly been touched by other vocalists—and it’s on display here, albeit that the casual listener might not necessarily pick up on it. Since Dylan and the Beatles, the notion of “authenticity” has been very weighty in the sphere of popular music, and it’s inherently challenging for a singer to take on a song that has already been sung by those that have composed it. Tom Jones here, in collaboration with his producer Ethan Johns, shows no fear, but sings songs that have been recorded both very recently and quite brilliantly by the respective composers. That he pulls it off in each case without sounding ridiculous is no small achievement. And he generally does much better than that. Continue reading “Tom Jones: Spirit in the Room“
What is it about a great Ron Sexsmith song that can be so very pleasing and satisfying, right on the first hearing? I was trying to work that out while listening to one after another on his latest album, Forever Endeavor. For me at least I think it’s something like this: One has heard in one’s lifetime a whole lot of songs, by artists one likes a little or a lot, and there are so many instances where a song begins with promise but instead of fulfilling that promise it gets stuck, or reaches for a height it cannot attain. Sexsmith at his best can turn out a tune that is just so right, musically and lyrically, and seems to arrive and unfold effortlessly. He writes with an innate knowledge of so much of what’s come before him, and blends musical and lyrical references without strain.
Take just one song on this record. We’ve all heard of “Lonely Avenue,” but Ron Sexsmith gives us “If Only Avenue,” with a perfectly wistful and irresistible melody.
With the luxury of hindsight
The past becomes so clear
As I look out on the twilight
My days have become years
It’s strange, as people we’re prone to dwell
On things that we can’t undo
And we’re liable to wander down
If Only Avenue
Cue the wonderfully languid riff that anchors the tune, and basically there’s nothing you can say about this short, unpretentious pop song other than that it is flawless, and could easily be taken for a standard written forty years ago. As on a number of other tracks, producer Mitchell Froom has added string arrangements that are understated and apropos. The whole thing is just a sheer pleasure. Continue reading “Ron Sexsmith: Forever Endeavor“
The final blessing of Moses on the people of Israel is described in chapter 33 of Deuteronomy. The first part of verse 27 goes like this (ESV):
The eternal God is your dwelling place,
and underneath are the everlasting arms.
The famous American hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” was published in 1887, and was composed by two Presbyterian men, namely Anthony J. Showalter and Elisha Hoffman. It was Showalter who received the initial inspiration, writing the refrain and the melody, reportedly after reaching for the above scriptural verse to console two former students of his who had both recently lost their wives. He then asked Hoffman—a prodigious hymn-writer credited with over 2000 religious songs—if he could come up with lyrics for the verses. Naturally he could.
In looking into the history of this song, I found the text of an old book online, written by one J.H. Hall, filled with short biographies of various composers of gospel songs. It includes this passage on Elisha Hoffman:
Mr. Hoffman’s first impressions of music came from hearing the voice of sacred song in the home. His parents both had sweet voices and sang well. It was their custom, in the hour of family worship, both morning and evening, to sing one or two hymns. The children early became familiar with these hymns and learned to love them and to feel their hallowing and refining power. Their lives were marvellously influenced by this little service of song in the home. A taste for sacred music was created and developed, and song became as natural a function of the soul as breathing was a function of the body.
As natural a function of the soul as breathing is of the body: What an inspired way of thinking about the singing of these kinds of songs. It immediately reminded me of the quote highlighted in this space last week from Abraham Joshua Heschel, where he says of losing oneself to prayerful music that: “it is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.” Continue reading “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”
Gosh, is it time for another Heschel-related post already? It seems no one can stop me, so the answer is yes. I’ve been reading yet another of his great books, this one titled Man’s Quest For God. It is in major part a reflection on the way in which human beings reach out for God through prayer. I suppose that it easily qualifies as the most moving book on prayer I’ve read. It includes reflections on, among other things, the power and nature of words themselves, and the special nature of scriptural and liturgical words.
The paragraph I’m pulling out here, however, is in reference to that special quality of music to express that which cannot be said with words alone.
In no other act does man experience so often the disparity between the desire for expression and the means of expression as in prayer. The inadequacy of the means at our disposal appears so tangible, so tragic, that one feels it a grace to be able to give oneself up to music, to a tone, to a song, to a chant. The wave of a song carries the soul to heights which utterable meanings can never reach. Such abandonment is no escape nor an act of being unfaithful to the mind. For the world of unutterable meanings is the nursery of the soul, the cradle of all our ideas. It is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.
Naturally, I love everything about what he says and how he says it there, but consider that last sentence in particular. To give oneself up to prayer in the form of music, Heschel says, “is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.” What a wonderful way to meditate upon our origin: this idea that we have come from that same place from which music comes, and the thought that music is ultimately our true language.
People have always sought and found glimpses of the transcendent in music; this surely dates from the moment in which the first human being sang. (And certainly people have been annoyed by music since the time that the first human stomped on the floor to tell his downstairs’ neighbor to turn it down.) We might look around the world sometimes and wonder if the scientific reductionists have it right, if human beings really have no special purpose in any transcendent order, but are merely freaks of nature—nothing more than chipmunks with swollen brain cavities. But how many chipmunks (other than Alvin, maybe) sing like Ella Fitzgerald, or even like your mother or grandmother used to in the kitchen? We credit birds with song, and whales, and frogs, and the sounds they make are wonders of creation, but we humans seem to be pursuing melody and harmony on a very different level. And even if we don’t make music ourselves, we cannot resist listening to it (I deeply pity the rare soul who just never listens to music).
Yours truly spent some years without any easily definable or shall-we-say-biblical beliefs, but never shook off a belief in a God at the bottom of it all, and there’s no question that a love of music was the major reason for that. And it was purely popular music which I listened to during those years, and indeed that remains the form of music I’m happy to listen to most, hour for hour (albeit that some of it stretches the definition of “popular”). Being able to detect some shred of the transcendent in a song and performance which brought tears to my eyes for reasons that were ultimately inexpressible kept me in mind of the fact that there was, after all, a transcendence out there. Many are happy enough to concede the reality of an impersonal transcendence, but to me at least it’s always felt very personal in those moments, shot through with mercy and with hope. Continue reading “Music as prayer (featuring Abraham Joshua Heschel and Harry Secombe)”