YOUR name is nowadays closely associated in people's minds with Gospel songs. Father. How would you define a "Gospel Song"?
Difficult. Any song, I suppose, which puts the message of the Gospel into music. As long as it's understood that "the Gospel" is preached by the Oki Testament as well as the New. There is a Gospel according to Moses and Jeremiah as well as a Gospel according to Matthew and John.
For the Christians. all of them speak of Christ, or better, of that relationship between God and men which, for the Christians, is seen most perfectly in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. All true "Gospel Songs" celebrate one aspect or another of that.
Would you envisage these songs as hymns?
Not exactly. Most of the ones I have heard are solo pieces, sung to guitar accompaniment, and so don't fit into the pattern of church music as it's normally understood. They are more in the nature of folksongs, some serious, some light.
At the same time, since they all deal with the Gospel, they do form a kind of worship, a meditation on the Word of God to us today. Certainly I could see no objection to many of them being used in church, particularly where there is a refrain which people are easily able to pick up.
Could you tell us how you first became involved in this kind of work?
Yes. About five years ago, when I first entered this strange world of religious education, was frequently approached by teachers about the lack of religious singing material for the classrooms or assembly. The Continentals, especially the French, seemed to have an endless store of songs for children to sing or listen to.
Pere Duval, you mean?
Yes. and Marie Claire Pichoud, and Lucien Deiss, and Pere Cocagnac and so on.
We seemed to have nothing to match them in England. So I made a collection of as many traditional negro spirituals as I
could lay my hands on Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Josh White, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. the Golden Gate Quartette, and so on—to show these teachers what an immense store of religious songs was already available if only we would use them.
We had been treating them as comic songs for a boy scouts' campfire. I put a selection of these records on a tape so that I could stop thy performance every now and again to underline the truly deep spiritual quality of these songs.
Didn't this create any difficulties with copyright royalties and so on?
Exactly. That is why I eventually got down my guitar and decided to sing these songs on to a tape with my own uncopyrighted voice!
Only negro spirituals?
No, I added my own translation of a few of the French
songs 1 was mentioning earlier, and a half-dozen English originals then. beginning to be composed — this was 1965 and two of my first stumbling attempts to write Gospel songs of my own.
I built my own commentary into this tape, introducing and explaining the songs as I went along, so that it could stand on its own feet, as it were.
That would be the tape now issued by the National Carechetical Centre as "Forty Gospel Songs for the Guitar"?
Yes. Mind you, as I explain in the built-in commentary, the songs are not presented as the kind of polished production
that can be performed publicly, only as an illustration or demonstration of what I imagine others can do far better.
What delights me is that the tape has been so widely used by teachers all over the country that can be performed publicly, for it to he published as a book. It would seem that most people don't play by ear, as I have to, and prefer to have the actual notes on a piece of paper in front of them. So Chapman's are producing the Forty Gospel Songs in book form this summer, along with a smaller book of 'Ten Gospel Songs where the music is entirely my own work.
And the words?
Partly my own and partly Alan Dale's, but in both cases simply an adaptation or paraphrase of the text of the Bible. Alan Dale is a retired Metho
, dist missionary who is spending his retirement breaking down and translating the Bible into a form and language which can be appreciated and understood by schoolchildren. He is still working on the Old Testament, but his New Testament has been out for some time now under the title of New World.
What struck me about it was not only its scholarly competence, but its freshness and sparkle and brilliance. So wrote to him suggesting that it would be worthwhile setting parts of it to music. especially some of the sayings of Christ, which he has set out—as they were originally spoken — as poetry, that is to say, in lines of equal length, which could even be made to rhyme if necessary by changing a few words.
Did he like this idea?
I've never seen anyone more enthusiastic. He was delighted. and urged me to get down to it. So I tried my hand at adapting and putting music to some of his pieces. pieces like the Isaiah text quoted b.y Christ in the Nazareth synagogue when he was describing his mission: God's Spirit is in my heart, He's called me and set me apart,
This is what I have to do—
He's sent me to give the Good News to the poor, Tell prisoners that they are prisoners no more, Tell blind people that they can see.
And set the downtrodden free, And go tell everyone The news that the Kingdom of God has come.
There is a simplicity and a directness about such a song which comes partly from sticking close to the text (so many otherwise good songs are wrecked by trivialising or overmoralising the Gospel), and partly from the precision of the words (so many otherwise good songs are wrecked by clumsiness or a reluctance to work hard enough to make its message clear).
You get the same sort of simplicity and directness in the songs of Sydney Carter. who never wastes one of his finelychiselled words. For example: Your holy hearsay is not evidence.
Give me the good news in the present tense.
What happened nineteen hundred years ago May not have happened, how am I to know?
The living truth is what I long to see, I cannot lean upon what used to be.
So shut the Bible up and show me how The Christ you talk about is living now.
I believe it .was the American. John Dewey, who said, "If one could control the songs of a nation. one ?iced nor care who made the laws." Is it in something of that light that you see songs of this kind?
Yes, not in any "propagandising" sense, which would he objectionable, but simply in the sense that a good song, like good poetry, has a power of communicating far more deeply than any formal lesson or set of rules. It is this, 1 think, which has encouraged so many people recently to try their own hand at writing Gospel-songs, so that instead of the dearth people were complaining about in 1965 there is today a positive embarras de richesse.
Each publication of a collection of songs or of newly-composed originals seems to produce half a dozen more in competition, At the last count, I found over thirty books of Gospel songs in circulation.
Are you happy with this situation?
Delighted. Of course not all the songs are of equal merit But it does mean that teachers have a vast variety of songs to choose from. and no longer have to depend on ringing the changes on Michael Row the Boat Ashore and Blowing in the Wind.
And do you see this trend continuing?
As the Americans say, you better believe it!