Johnny Cash sometimes described himself as a “C+ Christian”. Robert Hilburn, in his wonderful biography of Cash, observes:
Most thought this American icon was just being humble. To those who’d been close to him at various points, it appeared he was being a bit generous with his evaluation. But there was no question Cash believed. He wasn’t using his religion as commercial strategy.
Cash was a flawed man, and he knew it. His honesty about those flaws were part of his greatness. He made a gospel song, even one which was perhaps a bit twee, meaningful precisely because of that.
This is one of those songs. The arrangement could be better. No need for the backing vocals! Simple, spare would suit the song. But Cash’s voice carries it. It is the voice of a common sinner, the C-grade Christian, asking for forgiveness. Again.
Artist: Johnny Cash
Album: Hymns of Gold (compilation of various artists)
Back in the 1980s, there was a thing called “New Age”. It was a not-quite-religion, a mish-mash of spiritual practices and beliefs all broadly rejecting materialism and suggesting people slow down. Sort of Buddhism-lite, for prosperous Californians. It was a bit self-centred – long on attending health spas and short on volunteering at soup kitchens – but basically harmless.
My main objection to New Age stuff was olfactory. New Age markets and shops and such were invariably accompanied by the heating of essential oils and the burning of incense. Fine for those who like it, but incense makes me sneeze and get a sinus headache – it is almost instant. Hard to connect with your previous lives, dude, when you feel like someone is tightening a G-clamp across your temples.
There was also a thing called New Age music. In hip circles, to call music “New Age” was a bit of an insult. There was truth in the caricature: dolphin calls echoing over synth washes, with maybe the odd didgeridoo and Tibetan musical bowl to add street cred. Incense of the ear.
But the best of it what got labelled New Age was worth a listen. The format offered talented musicians an opportunity to break out of the restrictions of commercial music. They could turn the volume down, riff on a theme and see where it led, trusting that listeners would give the sounds a fair go. If this sounds a bit like jazz, it is: a lot of the best practitioners of New Age had some jazz in their past.
One label which did New Age well was Windham Hill Records. They started out in the late 1970s in – you’ll never guess – California. A guitarist, William Ackerman, was asked to record some of his tunes on cassette for friends, and radio stations picked them up and vinyl records followed. Ackerman’s girlfriend, Anne Robinson, was a skilled graphic designer: she created a distinctive minimalist look for the label: avoiding rainbow tie-dye cliches she created restrained images, framed in white.
Windham Hill became underground-popular – initially the records were “distributed in health-food stores and book stores” – then broke into the almost mainstream. Billboard magazine, for well or ill, created a “New Age and Contemporary Jazz” chart, and Windham Hill became its star label for many years.
It all seems long ago and far away. The label was sold, then sold again, then merged, and now exists somewhere in the “legacy” section of the Sony catalogue – which is better than not existing at all.
This LP was a sampler, released in Australia in 1985. I discovered it, a few years later, at a dark time in my life. I was couch surfing, and in a bad place. One of the couches (my eternal thanks to the people who provided it) was in a room with a record player. There were not many records, but this was one, and I played it a lot. It is soothing, relaxing – all that stuff – but I also loved the folky-jazzy-“who cares, really?” style.
It is music which says: “just be”. You can call it “New Age” if you like, or “Contemporary Jazz”, or something else altogether. Okay, not “Easy Listening”. But just listen.
Artist: William Ackerman
Album title: An Invitation To Windham Hill (Various Artists)
Track: B4: “The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter”
Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
Label: Windham Hill Records
Made in: Australia
Catalogue: WHA 1
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“Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?” asked Charles Wesley, the great religious reformer and hymn writer. Like anything to do with religion, arguments about what music, if any, should be played church can be furious. There have probably been wars fought over it. Which is why this record is symbolic of a revolution. I know, I know. It is pink, has a picture of a harp, and is called Celestial Strings, performed by something called the Christian Faith Orchestra, directed by one Ralph Carmichael. Radical? Controversial? Well, so was Charles Wesley in his day.
Ralph Carmichael was born in 1927, the son of an Illinois Pentecostal Minister. Musically gifted, he listened to the radio, and was struck by the beauty and excitement he heard there, but which he did not hear in church. “I was captivated by the chordal explosions I heard on the radio,” he later told an interviewer:
I felt a sadness that we didn’t have that in our church. Our church orchestra sounded weak and terrible by comparison. It was embarrassing. Why? Why did we have to settle? Why couldn’t we use those gorgeous rhythms, sweeping strings, the brass, the stirring chords? That started to control everything I did.
Carmichael became a musician, and tried to fuse his Christian faith with classical and jazz music techniques. Later he did the same with blues and rock music. Reaction was, to put it gently, mixed. He was denounced as a heretic (yes, really) for using guitars in worship. Some conservative pastors stopped the band mid-performance. Appearances on television drew the sort of hate mail my church gets for supporting gay marriage. But others loved it, and it caught on, and Carmichael is now regarded as the father of contemporary Christian music. He also made it in the mainstream: his skills as an arranger saw him work with the cream of American singers through the 1950s and 1960s, including Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Jack Jones, Sue Raney and especially Nat King Cole.
Celestial Strings is different again. It is a set of orchestral interpretations of old hymns. The music is restrained and evocative, woven around the harp playing of Kathryn Thompson. If it sounds cinematic, that is no coincidence: Carmichael had great success writing and arranging film scores. This track is an arrangement of a nineteenth century hymn, “My Redeemer” (the tune is very similar to “This Land is Your Land”). You can imagine it playing during a film scene: a soldier of the Civil War returns to his family farm, maybe.
Artist: Christian Faith Orchestra. Ralph Carmichael, Director. Kathryn Thompson, Harpist
LP Title: Celestial Strings
Side 2, Track 1: “My Redeemer”
Format: 10” LP 33⅓ rpm
Label: Chapel Records LP 1524
Manufactured in: USA
Year: no date (late 1950s?)
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Richard Harris is now chiefly famous for two things: singing the mysterious, melancholy song “MacArthur Park”, which was a huge hit in the late 1960s, and playing the role of Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films.
He was not especially good as Dumbledore, though in fairness he was in poor health. His singing on “MacArthur Park” is impressive: Harris has an expressive, slightly cracked voice, of great power. But. The song was written by Jimmy Webb, who is among the finest writers of the popular song ever to pick up a quill, but the essence of Webb’s best work is simplicity, economy. That is not the characteristic of the many songs he wrote for and with Harris – they tend to be over-complicated, over-arranged, over-worked. There is great skill in every aspect of these recordings, and millions loved them and still do, but I have followed the Planet Vinyl manifesto – just listen! – and they just are not quite my cup of tea.
However, there is a track on this album, a 1973 “best of” package, which is unlike anything else on the record. Indeed, unlike anything else.
Generally, when a singer recites a poem it is a false move. But Harris was first and principally, an actor who sang. His first starring role was in the 1967 film Camelot, and that was after years of treading the boards in the West End and on Broadway. Perhaps his singing is overly theatrical? Depends on your point of view. Clearly, though, his theatricality is what gives life to the poem “There Are Too Many Saviours on My Cross”.
Harris was Irish, and a Catholic and a Republican, and he wrote this poem about the Troubles in Ulster. If you know the story of that bitter strife, the references will be obvious. If you don’t know the story, it would take too long to explain. But that doesn’t matter. This is about people killing for God, and we have plenty of that going on now, even if the scene and the actors have changed.
The voice is that of Jesus, and this is Jesus’ cry of horror, seeing what is being done, ostensibly in his name.
Shame on you again and again
For converting me into a bullet and shooting me into men’s hearts.
It is not comfortable listening, but though it is addressed the Ireland of 1973, reeling from Bloody Sunday, it speaks just as much to our world.
Artist: Richard Harris
LP Title: His Greatest Performances.
Side 1, Track 4: “There Are Too Many Saviours On My Cross”