It was a quite a challenge for this lifelong and confirmed atheist to spend Christmas listening to sacred and holy music from all around the world, suggested by our erudite regular readers at the Song Bar – a challenge and an honour indeed. Despite my non-belief in an all-powerful god watching over us, I have always found religious music profoundly moving. On Christmas Eve I visited my local Emmanuel Baptist Church in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and the choir there lifted me off my feet as they always do. Music from the heart. You can hear the direct connection to soul music and other forms of testifying.
And so we got down to the serious business of nominating our favourite music, music which came forth from every genre and denomination, every century and style. In the end I chose pieces for our playlist that was played and sung from the heart of human beings reaching through their music for the divine, for the ineffable, for the spiritual.
John Coltrane's A Love Supreme: Acknowledgement was an easy choice, being such a mountaintop of yearning spiritual and inspirational jazz. Recorded in 1964 in New Jersey, it remains at the pinnacle of musical achievement of any century or style. With Jimmy Garrison on double bass, McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums and opening gong.
One of the earliest songs now in our Marconium A-Z of chosen music must surely now be Columba Aspexit sung here by Emma Kirkby, composed in 1180 by the multi-lingual polymath Hildegard von Bingen at the height of her fame. A preacher, abbess, healer, writer and composer, Hildegard's songs have survived the centuries to bear witness to her intense faith in a compassionate Christian God.
Winston Rodney, aka Burning Spear, has a different deity in mind, known as Jah in the Rastafari faith to which he belongs, a word from Hebrew (Yahweh) passed down to the spiritual Jamaican religion in the 1930s following the coronation of Haile Selassie I in Ethiopia, and ideas popularised by Marcus Garvey. Jah No Dead refers to the living Rasta god inside each one of us (I and I) in contrast to the crucified Christian Jesus, besides which it is a righteous and rockin' roots reggae tune.
Many gospel tunes were suggested and I have selected two – first up the great Marion Williams with a song expressing the inexpressible, in common with almost all of these tunes: Somebody Bigger Than You Or I, which is an extraordinary vocal performance which clearly comes from the very heart of her being. Williams came to fame as a singer with The Ward Singers though left to pursue a solo career leading The Stars Of Faith on this recording, and despite offers to sing blues or pop, remained a gospel singer. Unfairly overshadowed by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin, Marion Williams is undoubtedly one of the greatest singers ever recorded.
There was also a lovely selection of Indian music suggested – all Hindu religious songs both instrumental and vocal. I selected M.S. Subbulakshmi who hails from the Tamil south of India with the highly evocative and beautifully sung Kurai Onrum Illai (No Grievances Have I) in the Carnatic musical tradition. It is unusual for referencing India's lowest caste, the untouchables, and for stepping outside of the usual devoted prayer format of Hindu devotional songs, instead offering simple gratitude to Krishna and Venkateswara. The singing is once again outstanding.
Spirit in The Sky made the number 1 slot in the UK, Australian and Canadian pop charts in 1970 and has a fantastic and unmistakable bluesy groove behind the assertion “gotta have a friend in Jesus”. Writer and singer Norman Greenbaum is Jewish, and has since asserted that the song was about classic Hollywood Western movies and dying with your boots on. OK Norman.
Probably the most influential musician of the 20th century was Louis Armstrong, born in New Orleans in 1900 and right there at the ascension of jazz. His 1958 recording of the negro spiritual Swing Low Sweet Chariot – a quote from the Old Testament turned slave liberation anthem – is truly human with its chuckles, quips and asides, yet this warm humanity, as with all of his music, lends it a truly spiritual and emotionally holy aura.
One for the atheists then – The Gigolo Aunts are a power pop band from New York state, and this - Where I Find My Heaven - was their big 1994 hit. Best lines :
“ and Sunday morning is only for the blessed
and the grace keeps growing just as long as we can stay undressed,
and a whispered word in my spirit lies
and the sacred moments of sillyness are where I find my heaven...”
It is both played and sung from the heart with such spirit and pop gusto that it makes the playlist.
Meanwhile down in Texas in 1976 Kenny Rogers had abandoned the First Edition in 1976 and made his first solo LP from which the title track is the rather wonderfully moving Love Lifted Me.
Talking of classic lines and rhymes, I think Cole Porter would have been proud of this couplet:
And who knows I'm liable
To take a song from the bible...
It's gospel as country music, the two traditions lying side by side.
One of the earliest gospel tunes I was aware of growing up was the smash hit single Oh Happy Day which was all over the radio in our house in 1968 and 1969 where the incredible deep voice ofDorothy Combs Morrison and the dark fat piano of Edwin Hawkins himself gave testimonial to when Jesus washed he washed our sins away. An extraordinarily powerful and moving piece of work, due in no small part to The Edwin Hawkins Singers. I wonder where they all are now?
Gregorio Allegri passed away many centuries ago, in 1652 in Rome. A priest, singer and composer, he was responsible for one of the most potent pieces of church music ever written, the famous Miserere Mei written around 1635 for two choirs and an extraordinary example of Renaissance polyphony. It was guarded fiercely by the Vatican and only performed in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. The story has it that a 14-year-old Mozart, on a trip to Rome with his father in 1770, heard it twice and transcribed it from memory, creating the first known unauthorised copy. The pope subsequently summoned him back to Rome when it became known and instead of excommunicating the child genius, awarded him a chivalric order and showered him with praise. The piece is quite remarkably beautiful.
Astral Weeks is the result of three recording sessions in New York in 1968, (only two were used for the LP) when the young Van Morrison, fresh from success with Them but between recording contracts, went unrehearsed into the studio with a group of jazz musicians and asked them to improvise over his new songs. A blend of blues, folk, jazz and noodling, the resulting album is one of the most distinctive and holy records made in the rock idiom. The hushed atmosphere, the free-flowing improvised playing and the intense concentration of all concerned raises the recording up where it belongs, alongside A Love Supreme and the Miserere and Oh Happy Day and all of the other pieces of music in this playlist as a truly outstanding spiritual event.
Go in peace my music lovers, and have a happy and peaceful 2017.
Amen to that A-list playlist:
A Love Supreme: Acknowledgement – John Coltrane
Columba Aspexit – Hildegard von Bingen
Marcus Say Jah No Dead – Burning Spear
Somebody Bigger Than You Or I – Marion Williams & the Stars Of Faith
Kurai Onrum Illai :Ragamalika – M.S. Subbulakshmi
Spirit In The Sky – Norman Greenbaum
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot – Louis Armstrong
Where I Find My Heaven – Gigolo Aunts
Love Lifted Me – Kenny Rogers
Oh Happy Day – Edwin Hawkins Singers
Miserere Mei – Gregorio Allegri
Astral Weeks – Van Morrison
Abide with all of us B-list playlist:
Jesus Is Waiting – Al Green
Heavenly Houseboat Blues – Townes Van Zandt
Abide With Me – Thelonius Monk
Gloria : Domine Deus - Francis Poulenc
Children Crying – The Congos
The Donor – Judee Sill
Harps & Angels – Randy Newman
Eternal Source Of Light Divine – Handel
Im Abendrot – Richard Strauss
Oh, I Had A Golden Thread – Eva Cassidy
Gone Under – Snarky Puppy
Gayatri Mantra – Sunil Das, Rakesh Chaurasia, Ulhas Bapat and Bhavani Shankar
Guru's wildcard pick:
Give Me A Clean Heart – James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Gospel Choir
Christmas Bonus pick:
When I Child Is Born – Johnny Mathis
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic Peaceful presents: spiritual and sacred songs. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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