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Fishing with question marks

14 March 2014

The poet and songwriter Sydney Carter died ten years ago this week. John Davies examines his prodigious output, and finds a decidedly contemporary outlook


RABBI LIONEL BLUE called him "Britain's greatest hymn-writer of the 20th century". His most celebrated creations, "Lord of the Dance" (1963) and "One More Step Along the World I Go" (1971), still top the popularity charts for school assemblies, weddings and - increasingly - funerals.

Written primarily not for the church, but for a popular audience, Sydney Carter's songs, Rabbi Blue says, "were tunes that anyone could hum and sing - they spoke directly to the human condition, without fuss and with honesty. . . Carter created the hymn of modern people. His songs gave you courage on the way to the dentist, or on the way to visit the accountant or the bank manager."

A decade after his death (on 13 March 2004), it seems timely to revisit Carter's creative works to consider what they contribute to religious dialogue, and the development of worship in today's climate. Can Carter's singular approach to his art suggest models for contemporary Christian writers and musicians?

Sydney Carter was born in Camden Town, north London, in 1915, went to school at Christ's Hospital, and read history at Oxford. He came to prominence in the early 1960s - his work exemplifying the urge of John Robinson's Honest to God (1963), "to strip away the associations of churchiness and religiosity and everything that sets apart the sanctuary from society, and to let...the music...speak the language of the world it is meant to be transforming."

The broadcaster and poet Stewart Henderson says of Carter's writing: "He was an earth-bound visionary, with a metaphysics for the ordinary person." Carter described his musical creations as "carols...for want of a better word...religious song[s] for use by ordinary people, not trained singers."

ON THE English folk-scene, Carter would take to the stage to perform as a solo voice accompanied by percussion. Keith Wakefield, a friend and the joint managing director of Carter's publishers, Stainer & Bell, recalls: "He wasn't the greatest performer, but he carried his audiences with him through his sheer personality and the quality of his works."

His songs were fluid creations. The folk musician Martin Carthy - who played guitar on Carter's 1965 album Lord of the Dance - recalls working with him on ITV's Sunday-evening show Hallelujah. "Sydney's songs would change from rehearsal to rehearsal," he says. "While you were playing, you would see him scribbling in the corner. I was good at learning, and forgetting, but he was very troubled by the fact that it was difficult for us. Part of that was that he was still undecided himself - he was forever working it out."

In Green Print for Song, the 1974 collection of his works, which contains comments and explanations, Carter encouraged musicians to let his songs "keep on growing, like a tree", suggesting alternative tunes, lines, or verses.

The 1998 tribute compilation Lord of the Dance showcases an eclectic range of musical styles. The album's producers, Jeremy Taylor and Craig McLeish, determined, in McLeish's words, that "the songs would be flung far from their natural breeding-ground, and land elsewhere for others to discover."

John Bell, of the Iona Community, says that Carter and his collaborator, Donald Swann, had a strong influence on him through their work. "They, perhaps unconsciously, discovered that in the contemporary realities of public life, in order to speak to God, and resonate with the concerns of the scripture and Christian faith, you needed to find not simply a new verbal language, but also a new musical language.

"Folk melody has always dealt with issues dear to the romantic heart as well as the reflective brain. These tunes have been associated with everything from raunchy sex to mining disasters, raising the mainsail to selling herring. They don't exclude words or sentiments which seem contrary to the received vocabulary of traditional hymnody. This departure from the musical and verbal norms was, to me, Carter's great skill and gift."

ERIK ROUTLEY, in A Panorama of Christian Hymnody, says that two of Carter's favourite words were the noun "dance" and the verb "travel". Because "English religion doesn't - in some cases mustn't - dance", Routley says that "'Lord of the Dance' is a protest; he sings as if dancing is the last thing his hearers will ever do." Carthy sees it differently: "Sydney was very fond of 'the dance' - he saw the whole of life as a dance. It was a big part of his Christianity."

His song "Travel On" affirmsand celebrates orthodox belief:"In the kingdom of heaven is my end and my beginning, And the road that I must follow night and day." But his close friend and collaborator, the singer-songwriter Jeremy Taylor, says that "Sydney was a man of faith rather than doctrine."

In his book Rock of Doubt (1978), Carter wrote: "Faith, like love, is higher than belief or disbelief: it is a response provoked, awakened, in the looker or the listener." In the song "The Present Tense", he sings:

Your holy hearsay is not evidence:
Give me the good news in the present tense...
So shut the Bible up and show me how
The Christ you talk about is living now.

Carter's Jesus "is surrounded bya question mark," Wakefield says. "The poem of Sydney's that summed him up is 'Interview': 'Where have you been all the day? Fishing with question marks.' Notice that if you turn a question mark upside down, you've got a hook."

Many of Carter's songs were arguably a hook to faith's enquirers and explorers outside the Church, although they proved contentious to some Christians because of the questions they raised. "Some of his devotional songs were astonishing," Carthy says. But far from being "shut up", Carter's Bible was an open inspiration for songs sung as parables that powerfully connected gospel characters with contemporary, everyday people.

SOME songs heightened the moral dilemmas featured in the original stories. "Judas and Mary" debates the best use of her "ointment so rich and so rare"; Peter ("the saint with whom I can identify") contemplates his betrayal of Jesus in "Bitter was the Night".

Other songs carry the listener into uncomfortable areas, particularly "Friday Morning", with the criminal alongside Jesus at Calvary saying, "It's God they ought to crucify instead of you and me." Carter's spiritual intelligence led him at times to rage at a God "who made the Devil"; a God to whom Carter wrote (in Rock of Doubt): "You are terrifying; but you are exhilarating."

In "Friday Morning", Carter pushed the bounds of theological debate to try to reach the heart of the nature of God. Routley wrote of this song: "Here is a drama, here is irony, here is a theological exploration which opens up a terrifying vision of the real source of human grievance.

"But this is Carter: he is a folk-poet in that he expresses the unexpressed thoughts of ordinary human beings - about Jesus, about grief, about the Church, and even about the cross. He exposes them as alarmingly as this. In this, he isin line with the greatest of hymn writers. But he has to be publicly sung with circumspection."

Other songs of Carter's have been rarely, if ever, sung in church - in particular, those that wed theology to contemporary political concerns. "He never separated 'political' songs from 'devotional' songs; they were always part of the whole for him," Carthy says. "One of his songs which is still popular in the folk clubs is 'John Ball'".

Ball was a Lollard priest excommunicated for suggesting that all men were equal in God's sight: "Who'll be the lady, who will be the lord, When we are ruled by the love of one another?"

In the song "The Devil Wore a Crucifix", Carter contemplated how "evil can wear a righteous or a patriotic mask...the CND badge or the Cross. It can wear a smiling face."

"I THINK, for Sydney Carter, Jesus was the epitome of our reflected suffering," Henderson says, "and that in Christ is the ultimate in the human ideal of active pacifism, overcoming the brutalities and baseness of human nature."

He notes that "[Carter's] artistic endeavours reached their zenith during the years when CND was a rallying point for the articulate rationalists and pacifists who, from their watchtowers, saw the pointlessness of war."

His "Coming Down from Aldermaston", a 1961 duet with Sheila Hancock, was a song of its time; but perhaps Carter's most chilling song, his anti-war lullaby "Crow on the Cradle", remains pertinent and powerful today:

The crow on the cradle,
The white and the black:
Somebody's baby is not coming back,
Sang the crow on the cradle.

In contrast, the wildly celebratory "Come Holy Harlequin!" was well suited to what McLeish calls "the anarchic acoustic style" of the folk-punk band Why?

Come holy harlequin!
Shake the world and shock the hypocrite.
Rock, love, carry it away, turn it upside down.
Let the feast of love begin,
Let the hungry all come in,
Rock, love, carry it away, turn it upside down.

Carter notably composed his songs "upon the voice and body". Not an instrumentalist, he said: "I am forced to get up and move about, to tap out the rhythm on the table and the floor". "I saw him do it," Carthy says, "muttering to himself, and stepping around the room rhythmically."

It can also be said that, in his theology, Carter responded to an embodied Christ: in creation, with the Franciscan-inspired "Carol of the Creatures", and in other people, especially the world's poor and suffering.

Songs such as "When I Needed a Neighbour" and "I Come Like a Beggar" evoke the voice of Jesus in Matthew 25.

CARTER described his songs as "the product of a kind of inner dance," and, in his most celebrated song, he affirmed life as a dance led by Jesus.

Carter's "dance" with Jesus included: wartime service with the Friends Ambulance Unit in Greece and the Middle East (he was a conscientious objector during the Second World War); participating in the CND Aldermaston protests; working with many celebrated collaborators on revue stages, and the folk scene; and writing for stage, screen, and television.

Most comfortable with the spirituality and theology of the Society of Friends, Carter's dance embraced a universalist view of faith, which encouraged conversation between religious traditions rather than conflict.

It has become well known that "Lord of the Dance" was partially influenced by a statuette of Shiva, the Hindu god of dance, which Carter had on his desk, but Wakefield recalls that "Shiva had a palm cross stuck through the middle of it. Sydney Carter saw no contradiction between the two of them. He was only interested in dialogue between the faiths - what they bring to each other."

Carter said: "For most non-Christians...there are two main obstacles to Christian belief. One is the...climate of opinion to the effect that there is no God anyway, so all religion is a waste of time. The other is the blinkered, flat-earth view of most Christian believers: they believe that there is only one way...and only one word to describe it." He wrote this in Rock of Doubt in 1978. It could have been written by a Christian apologist today.

"Sydney Carter is more relevant than ever, I would have thought," Taylor says. "He was intensely curious about other religions, great pals with the Chief Rabbi, fascinated by Hindu theology, Zen Buddhism, Sufism, and so on. His battle with Christianity was more a battle with Church dogma.

"He embraced the person and message of Christ for what they called from us. He saw the New Testament as a challenge, a template, a backdrop against which to measure ourselves and our understanding of life and the universe, not as an abracadabra for gaining a passport to paradise. Mystery, not magic."

For Christian musicians and others longing to remove the obstacles to Christian belief in our society, Carter's "dance" demonstrates the priority of involvement with the real questions and concerns of those outside the Church, and affirms the potentialities of experienced faith to those who dogmatically declare that there is only one way to believe.

The Revd John Davies is Rector-designate of the Cam Vale Benefice, Somerset. He runs occasional workshops and retreats based on Sydney Carter's work.



Where have you been all the day?
Fishing with question marks.
The fish I caught
are piled up in the basket.
What I seek
is deeper than the water.
Where have you been all night?
Travelling past the flesh,
beyond the bone,
until I came to nothing.
Back again
I travel in the morning.
So what do you believe in?
Nothing fixed or final
all the while I
travel a miracle. I doubt,
and yet
I walk upon the water.
That is impossible.
I know it is.
is all you can expect. The
is supernatural.
Where are you going next?
Like you, I ask that question.
I can only travel with the music.
I am full
of curiosity.

© Stainer & Bell Ltd

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