Friday, 21 August 2015

Rumours of Glory

If you read this blog from time to time you'll know that I'm a big fan of Bruce Cockburn.  So you won't be surprised to hear that I was very excited about the publication of his memoir, Rumours of Glory,  which hit the shelves in late 2014.

I first heard Cockburn in the early 1980s and his music was a revelation to me.  He was the first singer I heard (and still one of a select few) who combined an overt Christian faith with a deep commitment to justice and an immersion in political and social issues.  He is a big name in his native Canada - winner of multiple Juno awards (the equivalent to our ARIAs) and inductee to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.  Elsewhere he has a fairly low profile and a small but devoted following - especially from people like me.

I read Rumours of Glory over the Easter holiday as we travelled around western Victoria and New South Wales.  Among other things, it inspired me to fill some gaps in my collection of Cockburn CDS and I bought myself three - High Winds, White Sky,  In the Falling Dark and Nothing But a Burning Light.  I'll let them help me tell the story.

Bruce Cockburn was born in Ottowa in May 1945, while his father was on military duty in Germany.  His childhood was spent in Ottowa, a standard middle-class suburban family life with his father supporting the family with his job as a radiologist while his mum stayed at home and looked after the kids.  He was a quiet and artsy teenager with a healthy disrespect for the strictures of school curriculum which meant he failed subjects in which he was disinterested.  By the time he finished school he was already an accomplished musician and budding composer but his refusal to take maths seriously disqualified him from most universities.

Wanting to please his parents and at least attempt a university education he enrolled in the Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA to study jazz composition.  He lasted 18 months before realising that actually he wanted to play music, not study it.  He is self-effacing about what he got out of the experience, claiming that he struggled with the discipline of the repetitive practice of jazz scales and the intricacies of the music.  However, the evidence of even his first recorded music suggests that the discipline, even if only partly absorbed, placed him far ahead of most of his contemporaries in musical skill and sophistication.

Be that as it may, he returned to Ottowa at the end of 1965 and began playing and singing in rock bands, firstly in Ottowa and later in Toronto.  None of them became famous although one of them did get to open a show for The Jimi Hendrix Experience.  Cockburn played guitar, sang and wrote songs.  As time passed he realised that the songs of his he liked best sounded better when he played and sang them on his own and so in 1969 he gave up on the bands and launched a solo career.  The rest, as they say, is history.

High Winds, White Sky is the second album of Cockburn's solo career, released in 1971.  In many ways it's not a bad album.  The songs are engaging, his guitar playing is already a cut above his folkie contemporaries, he sings well, he seems to have mastered a number of styles.  However, while all the bits are in place the package doesn't quite hang together.  He has not yet found his voice, in a number of different ways.

For starters his voice is literally different to what it was to become.  He has a natural baritone but in 1971 he was still yielding to fashion and singing in a higher register like everyone else.  As well as this, he has drawn on a number of musical genres - the renaissance-tinged folk music of the likes of Pentangle, the jazz of his Berklee days, the finger-style blues of players like Mississippi John Hurt.  These genres jostle for space, sitting side by side but not really communicating.  He seems unsure of himself and this leads him to do some odd things, like playing "mouth trumpet" on 'Happy Good Morning Blues'.  The bonus tracks even include an attempt at a comic song, 'Elephant Blues', recorded live in 1970.

Cockburn was also yet to find his voice spiritually.  Certainly he was already carving his own path.  His songs are steeped in the mystery and beauty of nature and the brevity of life.  He refused, or perhaps just failed, to play the commercial music game, like by disappearing for long wilderness holidays after an album release instead of touring relentlessly to promote it.  This gave him a kind of cachet as Canadian music's resident mystic.  He was also already married to Kitty and their wedding at St George's Anglican Church in Ottowa was a deeply spiritual experience.

At that moment, when I held Kitty's hand to place her ring, I became aware of a presence standing there with us - invisible to the eye but as solid and obvious as any of the people in the room.  I felt bathed in the figure's energy.  I shivered and said to myself, "Well, I don't know who or what this is, but we're in a Christian church, so it's got to be Jesus".

While Christianity was part of the mix and Cockburn was starting to appreciate a side of the faith he had not experienced in his family's 1950s duty visits to church, he was still uncommitted, still exploring different spiritual pathways.  The album is clearly spiritual but it's unfocused, if anything a kind of nature mysticism best heard on 'Let Us Go Laughing'.



My canoe lies on the water
Evening holds the bones of day
The sun like gold dust slips away
One by one antique stars
Herald the arrival of
Their pale protectress moon

Ragged branches vibrate
Strummed by winds from o'er the hill
Singing tales of ancient days
Far and silent lightning
Stirs the cauldron of the sky
I turn my bow towards the shore

As we grow out of stones
On and on and on
So we'll all go to bones
On and on for many a year

But let us go laughing
Let us go
On and on and on
On and on for many a year

A lot happened between 1971 and 1976, when Cockburn released In the Falling Dark. For a start, he increasingly allowed himself to sing in his natural voice, a warm baritone with a definite Canadian inflection.  This means that all his albums from the mid-1970s onwards are recognisable as soon as he opens his mouth.

The same goes for his music.  It moved from being a slightly awkward pastiche of styles to his own fusion of them, a jazz-influenced version of folk rock with complex finger-style guitar parts.

Spiritually, he also progressed from sampling a smorgasbord of spiritual ideas to a more definite identification as a Christian.  His conversion was born out of personal pain as tensions in his and Kitty's marriage mounted.

I wanted a healthy relationship with Kitty.  It wasn't long before I was begging on my knees, consciously asking Jesus to help me, to fortify my mind and salve my soul, to make me the person he wanted me to be.  I prayed like a child, without reserve.  Suddenly it was there, the same presence I had felt during our wedding ceremony, in the room with me, its energy filling the air.  I felt my heart forced open.  He was there!  And it was definitely he.  A male entity, more fraternal than paternal, radiant with calm power, a saviour showing up to save me because I'd asked.  I made a commitment to Jesus.  From that moment I saw myself as a follower of Christ.

It is important not to misunderstand this conversion.  Cockburn was never an Evangelical.  He never saw Christianity as the only truth, never set out to covert other people to it.  St George's, where he and Kitty were married and continued to attend through the 1970s, was a progressive Anglican church and he learned a form of faith that was humble and open to other traditions.  His view of such things is beautifully illustrated by his tale of a visit to Nepal in the late 1980s.  Prayer flags on every house, little shrines dotted all over the place, one of the most religious countries on earth.  There he chanced to meet an elderly Christian missionary.

The old man told me he had left his teaching job in the Midwest to come to Nepal twenty-five years earlier and bring the gospel to its people....  He proudly told me that he had taught Robert Schuller, of Crystal Cathedral fame, but he was bitter and seemed diminished.  In twenty-five years, he said, he had not made a single convert.  His words were "These people don't want to know God".  

I felt sad for him, as he appeared so oblivious to the spirituality built into the surroundings.  He had spent a quarter of a century wearing cultural blinkers, not seeing, not learning what he might have about the Divine.  If it's true that the attribute of God that is supposed to have the greatest effect on us is love, how can it flower in a soil of censure, tribalism, false pride...fear of the other?  But for Big Circumstance, that could have been me.

This means he did not abandon the lessons he had already learned prior to his commitment.  He continued to see God in nature, to appreciate various traditions, to see himself as a seeker rather than someone who had arrived.  He was quite open to the notion that the Divine who appeared to him as Jesus could appear to others in a different form.

Nonetheless, the songs on In the Falling Dark are clearly Christian.  The title track concludes, "Don't you know that from the first to the last we're all one in the gift of grace?".  In place of generic nature mysticism we have 'Lord of the Starfields', a hymn of praise to the Creator.

Oh Love that fires the sun
Keep me burning.

Perhaps clearest of all is one of the album outtakes, 'Dweller by a Dark Stream', written and recorded at the time but not released until much later.  Set to a simple country-style tune it sets out the idea of salvation in terms any evangelical would be happy with.  Nonetheless, if you listen closely you will see that even here there is a more progressive take on the story, like when he says Jesus "wanted us like you, as choosers not clones", and when, walking through the world, he longs for "a glimpse of your new life unfurled" like a shiny winged insect breaking out of its chrysalis.


It could have been me put the thorns in your crown
Rooted as I am in a violent ground
How many times have I turned your promise down?
Still you pour out your love
Pour out your love

I was a dweller by a dark stream
A crying heart hooked on a dark dream
In my convict soul I saw your love gleam
And you showed me what you've done
Jesus, thank-you joyous Son

You entered a life like ours to give us back our own
You wanted us like you, as choosers not clones
You offered up your flesh and death was overthrown
Now salvation is ours,
Salvation is ours

So when I'm walking this prison camp world
I long for a glimpse of the new life unfurled
The chrysalis cracking and moistened wings uncurl
Like in the vision John saw
The vision John saw

Another thing that is starting to happen on In the Falling Dark, although only in embryonic form, is the growth of Cockburn's social consciousness.  Even as his faith became more focused, he began to see more clearly the things in this world that seemed to pull against this "glimpse of the new life unfurled".  You see it most clearly on 'Gavin's Woodpile',  A series of meditations drawn from his time chopping wood for his brother's fire include, among pieces of nature mysticism from an earlier time, two very concrete images - one of a prisoner doing time, and the other of the catastrophic pollution of the English River in northern Ontario where contamination from a local paper mill poisoned the fish and the local indigenous people who ate them.

...Like the coloured slicks on the English River
Death in the marrow and death in the liver
And some government gambler with his mouth full of steak
Saying, "If you can't eat the fish, fish in some other lake.
To watch a people die - it is no new thing."

And the stack of wood grows higher and higher
And a helpless rage seems to set my brain on fire.

Cockburn didn't attend church regularly after the late 1970s.  He gives a few reasons.  One is that he moved from Ottowa to Toronto and never managed to find a church where he felt at home as he had at St George's.  It's not easy for someone who is both an introvert and a celebrity to just walk into a church, and it's hard for a musician who spends half his life on the road to become part of any stationary community.

However, I suspect that more telling is the fact that he moved to Toronto on his own.  His marriage to Kitty, troubled from the beginning, had ended.  He blames no-one for this but himself, acknowledging that he finds intimacy difficult.  This problem recurred throughout his life and he has had a number of relationships since which have gone the same way despite his best intentions.

He struggled to accept the idea that the vows he and Kitty had made in what he had experienced as the real, tangible presence of Christ could be annulled. His agony is written all over Humans, the album of songs he wrote during this time.  He was dealing, as we all have to eventually, with the problem of suffering.

Then there is the problem that from then on his love life didn't follow conventional Christian lines.  He recounts four other committed relationships as well as one steamy extra-marital affair.  This made for an uneasy relationship with the church.

In the early 1980s he got involved with a group called Jesus People USA, a hip and "alternative" but theologically conservative group based in Chicago.  He visited their church and got to know some of them, and their members attended his concerts and bought his albums.  However, when they eventually twigged that he was not only divorced but "living in sin" they dropped him like a hot potato, stopping their attendance at his concerts and advising members to get rid of his albums as if his marital status changed everything.  Naturally he was not keen to repeat the experience, and his knowledge that some of the people who follow the God of Love can be very unloving pushed him further in the direction of a tolerant, open spirituality.

Other things changed, too.  For one, he became more politically and socially active.  From the early 1980s onwards he started doing documentary projects and awareness raising for organisations like Oxfam.  This included visiting a number of global trouble-spots and observing first hand the plight of refugees, ethnic minorities and other victims of persecution.  He's been doing it ever since, starting with Guatemala in the early 80s and including  Nicaragua, Haiti, Nepal, Afghanistan and Iraq among other places, as well as ongoing support for the aspirations of Canada's first peoples.  All these experiences found their way into his songs by means of what he calls "reportage" - lyrics built from real, concrete scenes, events and images.  The book includes a number of diary extracts which later appear almost word for word as songs.  His songwriting began to take on a new life and vividness as he moved beyond nature mysticism to address suffering, resilience and hope not as theoretical constructs but as things affecting real people in real places.

Musically all this resulted in his moving away from acoustic music in the 1980s towards a more band-oriented electric sound.  He had never really been a folk musician but now not even the marketing department could call him one.  He picked up his electric guitar for the first time in a decade and his songs became louder, more jagged, more challenging.

You can hear some of this on Nothing But a Burning Light,  released in 1991.  In some ways the sound here is a little different from the albums before and after, courtesy of his brief working relationship with producer T-Bone Burnett.  It is more mellow, there is a rich warm keyboard sound prominent in the mix and a group of players a little more soulful than Cockburn's more usual collaborators.  Still it includes the elements - his distinctive vocals, the tight driving rhythm, the intricate and occasionally flashy guitar parts, the space for his collaborators to do their thing.

There is still Christianity here.  'Cry of a Tiny Babe' is a retelling of the Christmas story with a lovely chorus.

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

Other songs reflect this faith and hope, like the opening number, 'A Dream Like Mine'.

Today I dream of how it used to be
Things were different before
The picture shifts to how it's going to be
Balance restored
When you know even for a moment that it's your time
Then you can walk with the power of a thousand generations

The album also includes a rare cover, Blind Willie Johnson's 'Soul of Man', which also supplies the album's title in answer to the question "what is the soul of a man?".

Alongside this is a mix of more earthy stuff.  Tender love songs like 'One of the Best Ones' sit beside two acerbic songs about the uncomfortable history of the treatment of North America's first peoples.  'Kit Carson' deconstructs the legacy of this supposed hero of the Wild West, while 'Indian Wars' highlights how the war Carson fought is still going on today.

It's not breech-loading rifles and wholesale slaughter
It's kickbacks and thugs and diverted water
Treaties get signed and the papers change hands
But they might as well draft these agreements in sand.

You thought it was over but it's just like before.
Will there never be an end to the Indian War?

My favourite, though, is 'Mighty Trucks of Midnight'.


Used to have a town but the factory moved away
Down to Mexico where they work for hardly any pay
Used to have a country but they sold it down the river
Like a repossessed farm auctioned off to the highest bidder

Mighty trucks of midnight moving on
Moving on

Wave a flag, wave the bible, wave your sex or your business degree
Whatever you want - but don't wave that thing at me
The tide of love can leave your prizes scattered
But when you get to the bottom it's the only thing that matters

I believe it's a sin to try and make things last forever
Everything that exists in time runs out of time some day
Got to let go of the things that keep you tethered
Take your place with grace and then be on your way

Mighty trucks of midnight moving on
Moving on

It starts out a bit like a Bruce Springsteen song about America's post-industrial landscape as all the jobs are shifted south across the border, symbolised by the trucks rolling through the night importing cheap manufactures.  However, Cockburn's spirituality allows him to see further and deeper, to question the motives and to point the question back at the protagonists.

Religion, as he suggests, can be one one of many things used to oppress and rob, just as much as nationalism, sex or education.  However, those who are at the top of the heap can find their prizes scattered just as much as those at the bottom.  By the end of the song, the trucks have become a metaphor for a completely different kind of movement, an understanding of the brevity of life which makes our striving for wealth and our fetishisation of the economy seem not just criminal and exploitative but absurd and pointless.  In the end, love is what counts - not the soppy romantic love of the Beatles or their ilk but a costly love that has to be earned and learned.  You have to give up other things to have it.  You have to love actual people, not rob them.

The story continues. Cockburn takes it up to about 2008, but he is still alive and continues to make music.  If you want to know more read the book.  You could even do Bruce a favour and buy it.  Meanwhile, in the spirit of reflecting on a life well lived let me leave you with what is possibly my favourite Cockburn song, 'Strange Waters', from 1996's The Charity of Night.


I've seen a high cairn kissed by holy wind
Seen a mirror pool cut by golden fins
Seen alleys where they hide the truth of cities
The mad whose blessing you must accept without pity

I've stood in airports guarded glass and chrome
Walked rifled roads and landmined loam
Seen a forest in flames right down to the road
Burned in love till I've seen my heart explode

You've been leading me
Beside strange waters

Across the concrete fields of man
Sun ray like a camera pans
Some will run and some will stand
Everything is bullshit but the open hand

You've been leading me
Beside strange waters
Streams of beautiful lights in the night
But where is my pastureland in these dark valleys?
If I loose my grip, will I take flight?

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Farewell Michael Clarke

So, Michael Clarke has announced his retirement from international cricket, to take place at the end of the Ashes series.


It's kind of surprising and not surprising.  Surprising because he's only 34, still young for a cricketer, and because he had been so adamant that he was not retiring.  Not surprising, because his degenerative back condition always meant he would retire younger than most, and because over the past few months he has looked like his heart's not in it.

No-one in elite sport is universally loved even among among their team-mates, especially not while they're playing.  Elite sportspeople are driven and competitive and this often makes them abrasive and inconsiderate.  Still, Clarke seems to have copped more criticism than most considering his achievements.  So, in the interests of fairness, here's six things to remember him by.

1. 2012
In the 2012 calendar year, the year after he took over as captain, he scored 2,400 test runs including three double centuries and a triple.  He was like the energiser bunny, super fit, with supreme concentration, unthreatened by pace or spin, able to run up the steps to the dressing room after two days at the crease.  He was Bradman reincarnated.  Ricky Ponting experienced a late career renaissance just by following in his wake.  The deeds of the greats of the past - Chappell, Border, Waugh - all paled beside him.

Before and after he was not quite so great.  With one test to go in his career he has a touch over 8,000 runs at an average of just under 50, which is good but not as good as many other present-day masters.  But it's none too shabby either and he can retire feeling pretty pleased with himself.

2. The Golden Generation
Clarke started his career as the youngest member of a great team.  His team-mates in the early years included Hayden, Langer, Ponting, Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath.  They swept all before them.

This generation of players was so dominant that the Australian selectors have been reluctant to let them go, even though in the last few years all that has been left are the understudies.  Ever since Adam Gilchrist retired they have been loyal to Brad Haddin, notwithstanding a short preference for Matthew Wade and despite Haddin's up-and-down form with both bat and gloves.  They have shown even less explicable loyalty to Shane Watson, the promising allrounder who is still promising at 34 without ever having quite delivered.  They built their bowling attack around two veterans, Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris.

When they were worried about the batting for the 2013 Ashes tour they called in long-time opening batting bridesmaid Chris Rogers.  The gamble was so successful they rolled the dice again in 2015 with Adam Voges, proving that if you have a big win at gambling the law of averages indicates you should go home right away.

Clarke, the only one of this number who was not an understudy, was the only realistic choice to lead them.  It's not surprising that even his own superlative batting and tactical nous were not enough for this ageing B Team to match the feats of their predecessors.  Still, Clarke can be glad he was not Brian Lara, the last scion of the West Indies great generation forced to play alongside bumbling mediocrities as West Indian Cricket crumbled.  Clarke got to lead a decent team and they got some decent results.  Steven Smith will have a much sterner challenge, with all but Johnson set to exit stage left after this series as rebuilding gets serious.

3. Tactics
One of the reasons Clarke had reasonable success with a relatively modest team is that he is an astute tactician.  Under his predecessor Ricky Ponting, fans and critics got used to scratching their heads as he made odd, paradoxical and sometimes downright stupid tactical decisions.  His teams mostly won despite that because the players were so good.

With Clarke there were no tactical brain snaps.  He set clever, well thought out fields, he made canny bowling changes, he declared at the right time, his choices at the toss were carefully considered.  If his team lost, it was because the players failed to perform, not because the captain was a dill.

4. Lara and Kyly
Clarke was much maligned for his relationship with Lara Bingle, yet it is hard to see what he did wrong.  He fell in love with a beautiful and vivacious woman.  He missed cricket to support her when her father died, as any man should.  When it became clear the relationship couldn't last he ended it privately, face to face, missing more cricket to do so.  If she is a flighty drama queen that is hardly his fault.

You might have thought that his marriage to former schoolmate Kyly Boldy would settle all that down, but she is hardly less glamorous than Lara, although apparently much more grounded.  The marriage has served to cement Clarke's reputation as a playboy with an eye for beautiful girls.  Personally I think his detractors are just jealous that in his lifetime he could win the love of two such gorgeous women.

Still we all age.  Clarke has shown he has a strong sense of family and of personal responsibility.   I would be willing to bet that he will still be treating his wife with respect and dignity long after the bloom of their youth has faded.  I don't reckon it's an accident that his retirement coincides with the impending birth of their first child.  Who would want to travel the world hitting a leather and cork sphere with a lump of wood when the light of your life is growing up at home and you're missing all the best moments?

5. Team-mates
The one criticism of Clarke that does seem fair is that he has a very prickly relationship with his team-mates.  This problem first hit the headlines when he had a fistfight with Simon Katich in the dressing room. I'm firmly with Clarke on this one.  Mike Hussey was the designated singer of the team song, to be sung after each Test victory.  No-one could leave the dressing room until it was sung, and it could not be sung until the designated leader said it was time.  Apart from being a pretty dumb custom (and a stupid song to boot) in Hussey's hands the dressing room celebrations got longer and longer.  Clarke had other plans.  Mentioning it politely didn't work.  He got cross.  Hussey's mate Katich grabbed him by the throat.  Clarke just wanted to have a life.  Simon Katich needed to learn about work/life balance.

On the other hand, some of his conflicts show a level of inflexibility and even harshness which seems out of place in a leader.  He was the main instigator of the final banning of Andrew Symonds, effectively ending his career.  Certainly Symonds had disciplinary form but the final cause was his missing a team meeting during a rather pointless Top End series against a mediocre opponent.  Not only that, but Symonds had a good explanation - he didn't know the meeting was on.  It was supposed to be a free morning, so he got up early to catch the tide and was out on the water with his fishing rod when the meeting was called at short notice.  He got disciplined for wanting to have a life.  What's good for the goose...

Team meetings were once again at the root of the Homeworkgate saga in which Clarke also played a central role.  Team members were supposed to submit some written tasks prior to a team meeting during an Indian tour.  Some of them didn't, including then vice-captain Shane Watson and Mitchell Johnson, and all were suspended.  It was hard to know whether to laugh or cry.  That's not the way to build team spirit and get everyone working together.

6. Phillip Hughes
If we can be critical of some of Clarke's relations with team-mates, it's impossible to be critical of his response to Phillip Hughes' death.  He was clearly shattered.  He rushed to be at Hughes' bedside as he lay dying, visited his family at home and gave a moving, tearful eulogy at the funeral.  As with the passing of Lara Bingle's father, he showed that he is a man his friends can rely on in a crisis.  He may get the little things wrong, but when something big comes along he knows what to do.


For most of us, Hughes' death is in the past.  It was sad but after all he was just someone we watched on TV.  Not so for Clarke, who played with him at State and National level.  Imagine that a long-standing workmate is killed in a workplace accident.  From then on, every time you go to work you think of him.  Every time you do the task which resulted in his death your hands shake.  This is precisely what Hughes' death is for Clarke.

Initially, he was determined to soldier on.  Despite his own back troubles he turned out against India the following week and scrapped his way to a century before snapping his hamstring.  The determination kept him going through a difficult rehab and into the victorious World Cup campaign.

There is only so long you can grit your teeth and fight on.  Eventually the sadness will gain the upper hand and the tears will flow.  You come to understand that death is irreversible and that you can no longer see things the same way.  Clarke still wears his black armband.  I would be willing to bet that this grief is a much bigger factor in his recent poor form, and in his retirement, than he will ever admit.

***
I know cricket is not that important.  People are starving , millions are threatened by war, we are stuffing up the planet.  What is a bunch of men hitting a ball beside all that?  Yet what is life without art?  What is it without play, without fun, without learning a skill for the pure enjoyment of the challenge?  Michael Clarke has taken us out of ourselves as he performed his art on the world stage for more than a decade.  He has given us a chance to admire his dancing feet, his deft timing, his sheer concentration and determination.  He has made the near-impossible look easy.

Now it's time for him to move onto other things.  May he go well.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Redemption Songs/Songs of Freedom

Over the last couple of years I've been listening attentively to all sorts of religious music in the process of rethinking my own practice.  There's been nothing systematic about it.  Often what I've been listening to is music I've known for a long time, but because I'm more focused on the question I'm listening with different ears.

How can we get past heavily theological, formulaic music and find something that creates a genuine emotional connection?  How can we get out of the atonement bubble and sing about everything that matters in our lives?  Are we prepared to weep and get angry as well as celebrate and praise?

I've expressed my frustration at the music currently promoted in my church and others like it.  I've contrasted this with the ancient Israelite practice shown in the Book of Psalms, and with some other Christian practices that are often unfairly derided.  But I've also found a lot of what I'm looking for in songwriters from other traditions, including Richard Thompson's Sufi songs and George Harrison's Hindu spiritual awakening.

Last Sunday I found myself playing music for evening church with the theme of redemption and a set of bleeding Jesus songs.  I even swallowed my pride and played 'The Mystery of the Cross', but only because I wasn't consulted before the songs were chosen!  Yet as I drove home I found myself singing this little gem from Bob Marley instead.


Old pirates, yes, they rob I, 
Sold I to the merchant ships, 
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
But my head was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty.
We forward in this generation
Triumphantly.

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have, 
Redemption songs, 
Redemption songs.

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, 
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy, 
'Cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets, 
While we stand aside and look?
Some say it's just a part of it, 
We've got to fulfill the book.

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom? 
'Cause all I ever have, 
Redemption songs, 
Redemption songs, 
Redemption songs.

I'm sure most of my readers will know that Marley was a Rastafarian, a deeply spiritual man like Thompson or Harrison as well as an iconic musician and songwriter.  But how much do you know about the Rastafari?

The Rastafarian faith was born in Jamaica in the 1930s.  It takes its name from the Emperor Haile Selassie 1 of Ethiopia (who reigned from 1930 to 1974), who before his coronation went by the name Ras Tafari.  Ras is a title, roughly equivalent to "Duke", and Tafari was his given name, meaning "one who is respected or feared".  His dynasty traced its ancestry to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and saw themselves as the direct heirs to Solomon's throne.  The Rastafarians hold that the Emperor is the Messiah and Son of God, the second advent of Jesus.

This means the language and stories of the Bible are re-purposed as a tale and promise of liberation for exiled Africans everywhere.  The coming of the Emperor/Messiah is a sign to strive for freedom and work towards their return to "Zion" (understood as Ethiopia or more broadly as Africa) from their captivity in "Babylon" which is interpreted as the corrupt and oppressive regimes of Europe and America.  This journey can be understood literally as a physical return home, or spiritually as a personal and social transformation wherever they are.

The faith is highly eclectic, drawing on Christianity and on writers of African consciousness such as Marcus Garvey and the "Holy Piby", an alternative Bible written by Robert Athyl Roberts in the 1920s as the basis for an Afro-centric religion.  It started to take its current form with Haile Selassie's coronation in 1930, when a number of Jamaican preachers started teaching that he was the returned Messiah.

Haile Selassie himself was an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and made no claims to divinity.  On the other hand he didn't go to any great lengths to discourage the movement which revered him.  When he visited Jamaica in 1966 he was greeted by over 100,000 devoted followers.  He granted audience to their leaders, to whom he gave gold medals, and ensured that senior Rastafari were part of any official party that greeted him as he toured the country.  A master of diplomacy, he didn't outright refuse to entertain their mass emigration to Ethiopia, but gently suggested that they should first devote themselves to the task of liberating Jamaica.

His death in 1975 following his deposition in a military coup did present a serious problem to the Rastafari.  Some still maintain that he didn't die, and that he is in hiding in a monastery from where he will return to reclaim his throne.  Others suggest that there is a further advent still to come.

Described in this way it sounds odd to Westerners like myself, but I suspect that this is because we are not descendants of African slaves. Rasta provides a spiritual basis for a form of African consciousness, a source of pride in their culture and identity, a framework within which to understand their current poverty and oppression, and a hope and goal for liberation and equality.  Its power is shown in the fact that it has as many as a million followers worldwide, not as a result of highly organised and well funded proselytisation but through grass-roots activism via a highly non-hierarchical and unstructured "church".


Rita Marley was among the 100,000 who greeted the Emperor in 1966 and her faith was confirmed by seeing stigmata on his hands.  She introduced her musician husband Bob to the faith and he became one of its most prominent activists and spokespeople. spreading the word through his infectious and joyful music and his social and political activism.

'Redemption Song' was written sometime in 1979 and recorded on Bob Marley and the Wailers' 1980 album Uprising.  It has become a much-covered standard for musicians of African descent and it provides an eloquent testimony to the power of Rasta and the poverty of the Christianity experienced by Marley and his contemporaries.

Rastafari are in the habit of saying "I and I" in place of "you and I", emphasising the unity of all people and the idea that if you suffer, I suffer, if you rejoice I rejoice with you.  Hence, at the beginning of the first verse he is identifying himself with his ancestors who were stolen from their homelands, sold to slave traders and brought to Jamaica to work the plantations of wealthy Europeans.  Despite this, God is still with him/them, making them strong and enabling them to survive.

The beginning of the second verse is drawn from a speech by Marcus Garvey.  Its import is that while their bodies had been freed from slavery, Jamaicans still needed to free their minds from the ways of thinking inculcated by their masters.  Only then would they be truly free to chart their own course.  Marley clearly believes that the time for this liberation has come and nothing can stop it, not even nuclear warfare or the slaughter of prophets.  The entire body of Marley's work is a joyous testament to this liberation and this hope.

The sting for practitioners of Christian music, and for Christians generally, is in the chorus.

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom? 
'Cause all I ever have, 
Redemption songs.


Because when "I" was being enslaved and oppressed, where were the Christians?  They were not singing songs of freedom, they were singing redemption songs, encouraging the oppressed to accept their oppression now and hope for freedom in the next life.  In the process they were providing comfort to the oppressors of Babylon, either actively supporting them or looking away while they abused "I".

No wonder they had to re-purpose and re-create the faith to find what they needed.  None but ourselves can free our minds, and Christianity was keeping "us" in chains.  It's sad because I'm convinced Jesus did not mean it to be that way.  This is what he did in his first public sermon in his home town of Nazareth.

He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Will we dare to sing this?  It is much safer to stay in our atonement bubble, where no-one's cage will be rattled and we can dream of a happy afterlife without having to care about those who suffer here and now, or challenge their oppressors.  But if we fail them, those who suffer will just have to look elsewhere, to our eternal shame.  "Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me".

Or as Bob put it so much more simply, "Set the captives free!".