By the Landlord
"Saints need sinners," said the philosopher Alan Watts. But do sinners need saints? And while there are plenty of songs with sinners in them, where do saints, or the saintly also appear? And why are saints so inspirational? Do they set a mark of goodness none of us can dare aspire to, and that's why they do it for us? Or could any of us be such heroes?
"Virtue is something you have to get good at, like playing the trombone or tolerating bores at parties. Being a virtuous human being takes practice; and those who are brilliant at being human (what Christians call the saints) are the virtuosi of the moral sphere - the Pavarottis and Maradonas of virtue." – Terry Eagleton
So what makes a saint? And are saints a thing of the past or are they still among us, in the present or potentially the future? Are they obscure, mysterious figures, canonised for their good deeds and strange miracles? Or are they very much still part of western and many of cultures? If one thing is for sure, saints crop up in numerous songs, so their names, and associations, continue.
Today, 17 March is St Patrick's Day. Who was he? A 5th-century cleric and missionary who died on this day and is the patron saint of Ireland who is mentioned in numerous songs? Most definitely. But did he really ban snakes from Ireland? And why? And was there really another Patrick before him? Pope Celestine I? And did Patrick's walking stick grow into a living tree? Was he a pioneer of the significance of the shamrock? Who was this charismatic man who inspires hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Irish people, and many others, to wear daft Guinness hats and get absolutely legless on his day of death? My most fun St Patrick's day was seeing The Pogues in Brixton Academy many years ago. It was a proper wild gig that left me feeling far from virtuous.
And let us not forget that only a week ago (8 March), for example, it was the saints' day of Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy (1883 – 8 March 1929), an Anglican priest and poet, nicknamed 'Woodbine Willie' during the first world war for giving Woodbine cigarettes along with spiritual aid to injured and dying soldiers. You can do all sorts to become a saint you know, even by being a cigarette donor. Small mercies, I guess
Saints are mysterious figures, often sinners who are converted, people who lived life at the edge, intense, possibly unbearable or even mad people whose life burned out quickly, but brightly, and literally burned in many cases (see Joan of Arc - she inspired a few songs) but whose canonisation gives them a form of immortality. For a quick overview, check out this song by Paul Camarata to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan, with, one hopes, apologies to Tom Lehrer.
As well as thousands of Christian saints - there are also, for example, the many figures of Buddhist enlightenment, or bodhisattvas, the Jewish tzadik, the Islamic walī, the Hindu rishi or Sikh guru. Saints are international. Their days are holidays available, sometimes for holy activity and acts of devotion, and more often, for people's unsaintly enjoyment.
Suffering features heavily in a saint's mortal life, almost without exception, whether it be for a life of selflessness, or being cruelly treated by unbelievers. The patron saint of musicians, Saint Cecilia, also the source of many song titles and lyrics, was a martyr, an early Christian believed to be beheaded by the Romans, and who sang, proclaiming herself to be an angel of the Lord. But can you be a martyr without being a saint. This week they are both relevant, because you are free to mention any songs highlighting an act of selfless suffering on behalf of others. Can we all all be heroes? Heroism therefore, in this context, is also in the running.
Not all saints are saintly. Saint Vladimir of Kiev, also known as Vladimir the Great, was warlord before his conversion in AD988, slaughtering people everywhere, and freely copulating with hundreds of concubines and multiple wives to produce scores of children. Saints are strong characters and in their lives have the personality to be just as bad as good.
I promised you a miracle, or two, someone may have once said, and here are some. In 1973, Japanese Sister Agnes Katsuko Sasagawa had a vision of the Virgin Mary,. She then suffered stigmata, and was cured of deafness. In the same year, statue of the Virgin Mary in Atika, Japan, started to bleed in the same place and also cry and sweat. Was this real? Scientists, allegedly, found the bodily liquids to be genuine. It was a huge story at the time once the news leaked out.
And while we are on music, what about the "voice from the afterlife" of Saint Clelia Barbieri (1947-70) an Italian whose voice could apparently be heard, and does to this day, in choirs, and began from a year after her death? That really is a tremendous echo.
Finally, in terms of genres, saints, martyrs and heroes/heroines cover the full range, but gospel, I predict may come up a lot. When the Saints Go Marching In, an overarching example, an upbeat number famously recorded by Louis Armstrong, but with a rich and complex history from the early 1900s. Interesting, its meaning, judged by many is that is apocalyptic, expressing a wish to go the heaven, which is why it is so popular at funerals, but is far from funereal.
Mixing then, the saintly and virtuous with the miraculous and mad, is this week's scholar of scruples, the tantalisingly talented Tatanka Yotanka. Put forward your lyrical or thematic songs of saints, martyrs, suffering, heroism and the divine by this coming Monday 21 March when time will be called, for a write-up and playlist published on Wednesday 23 March. I pray you find some divinely fine examples.
New to comment? It is quick and easy. You just need to login to Disqus once. All is explained in About/FAQs ...