Where sheep may safely graze

I always associated this piece of music with England, perhaps from constantly hearing it on The Home Service (1939 – 1967 national radio station, now BBC Radio 4) in my childhood. Now (ach!) I discover that it is in fact Bach’s Cantata 208 and the ‘sheep’ of the title are not so much our lovely, fat woolly English sheep roaming over hill and dale, as the citizens of Weissenfels, who could ‘safely graze’ under the gracious care of the Duke of Weissenfels. Presumably the Duke was a patron or sponsor. Later it came to be thought of as the sheep being looked after by the Good Shepherd. However, it’s a lovely piece of music and I have included a classical guitar version of it. Much prefer guitar to other instruments (particularly abhor trumpets).

I was thinking about the love of one’s country the other night, whilst plugged into the MP3 player, drowning out the upstairs-and-downstairs thundering of the beastly neighbours by listening to, among other things, The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams. Music is more powerful than words. It cuts through all those ‘logical’ explanations, our sophisticated smokescreens. Like Sheep, The Lark Ascending reminds me that if you are British you cannot ever really get away from the love of your own country. This is an unfashionable and somewhat embarrassing thing to say, and it usually only surfaces here when some external threat arises.

It’s one of those visceral things like there sometimes are between people – an invisible cord joining the two, painless and mostly-forgotten about until you try to pull, or find yourself being pulled away. I feel that I have always been here, through all my incarnations. I suspect some of us are ‘travellers’, soul-wise, and some of us arise the soil. We grow out of a particular landscape, and are part of it.

When I was quite young my mother sank into depression. In those far-off days everything female/unhappy-related came under the heading of – in ascending order of severity – Needing a Tonic, Nerves, or Nervous Breakdown – the standard treatments being a) bottle of iron tonic from the chemist b) Pull Yourself Together – ‘Curtains’ as the Samaritans put it – or c) Being Taken Away. Suspect Mum had the Nervous Breakdown. She did not get Taken Away, but it felt as if she had gone away somewhere, and she only half returned.

I remember she stopped practising cartwheels on the lawn and no longer felt like playing tennis on the road with us, in the gaps between infrequent (and always black) motor cars. I remember mainly that it seemed to go on for years, and involved having to be quiet while Mum curled up on the sofa with yet another headache and Nan tiptoed round doing the housework, and getting us our tea. I remember all the aspirins, and the four hour thing. On the dot, every four hours, another two aspirins. No more than twelve a day. I remember Dad telling me it was my fault, for arguing with my sister. If I was better behaved, he said, Mum wouldn’t be sick.

One thing I don’t remember, from then, but do recall overhearing Mum talking about years later, was her obsession with the Atomic Bomb. She was convinced that we, her three girls, were all going to die, at once, and soon, under some great mushroom cloud. I am guessing that this bit of her illness may have been around 1962, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Recently it has occurred to me that what with North Korea, and America, and Russia – the whole world, it seems – threatening dire outcomes and technicolour mass destruction – wouldn’t it just be ironic if what Mum so feared for her children were to come to pass after all, but over half a century later and when she was way past fearing or comprehending it? What if she even somehow wished it into being and is somehow linked, to it?

But let’s not venture onto that same dark pathway into the woods: no good ever comes of it. Let’s just say the music made me think, about all that has been, here, on this little archipelago of islands, swished around by a chilly sea, lashed by gales in winter, rained on every few days, blessedly warm and sunlit on occasions.

All our history, all those little lives. Dinosaurs once walked where I live now. We find their footprints. We find their bones. All those kings and queens, those beggars and paupers. All those families, all those mothers fearing for their children, all those wars, all that surviving somehow-or-other, all the new generations, all the moving on, the changing and the staying the same. Sometimes, like my mother before me, I feel that something pulling away, that potential for catastrophic loss, that painful tug on the cord.

Playing piano in the dark

Years ago I read that the Zen way to learn piano would be to sit in the dark and start to play. I sort-of understand this. I suppose the idea is that, in the correct frame of mind, you can tap into the part of you that already knows full well how to play – your portion of the universal mind, maybe. I’ve never tried it, but then I’ve never had a piano.

And today I read an article in the New Scientist about a woman with deteriorating memory, now aged a hundred and one.

‘She rarely knows where she is, and doesn’t recognise people she has met in the last few decades.’

And yet apparently she can play nearly four hundred songs by ear. She plays ragtime, show tunes, gospel and many other genres, and can also learn new songs just by listening to them.

She says she does not know how to read music; she just finds the starting note and her fingers do the rest. Although she cannot now remember having learned to read music, researchers think she would have done, at some point. Born in Tennessee in 1914, she learned to play piano and violin as a child, earned two degrees in music education and played the violin in a women’s orchestra, though she did not play much after 1946.

What it is about music that ‘sticks’ when so much else, even everyday common-sense things do not? How can a person, for example, not know that they are hungry or thirsty, whether it is day or night, and yet play the piano with almost as much skill, and as much energy as when they were younger?

As yet no one seems to know whereabouts in the brain music lives. One suggestion is that musical ability may be diffusely located – so presumably damage in one area is less likely to have a dramatic effect on it, as it might with something more localised, like speech.

I do hope this aged lady gets as much pleasure from playing the piano at one hundred and one as she did in her youth, and isn’t just doing it because it’s the only thing she can remember how to do. Supposing it wasn’t just music; supposing we were all allowed to keep a single gift to the age one hundred and one and beyond – or even a single memory, a single name and face – what would those be?

The lake a lady’s mirror

It’s astonishingly hard to remember lyrics, I find. Separate from the music, that is. The very best songs are those in which the lyrics need the music and the music needs the lyrics – but either would stand alone.

I suppose it’s the poet in me, but I do tend to go for lyrics that tell a story. Right now, for example there’s I Wasn’t Expecting That by Jamie Lawson:

I like this acoustic version, though it sounds like he’s struggling with a sore throat.

In “olden times” we had The Last Time I Saw Richard by Joni Mitchell. Shadows of hippie café sadnesses. This is the last verse:

  • Richard got married to a figure skater
  • And he bought her a dishwasher and a Coffee percolator
  • And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on
  • And all the house lights left up bright
  • I’m gonna blow this damn candle out
  • I don’t want Nobody comin’ over to my table
  • I got nothing to talk to anybody about
  • All good dreamers pass this way some day
  • Hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes
  • Dark cafes
  • Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings
  • And fly away
  • Only a phase, these dark cafe days…

And later, Dire Straits’ streetwise take on Romeo and Juliet

  • A lovestruck Romeo sings a street suss serenade
  • Laying everybody low with a love song that he made
  • Finds a convenient streetlight steps out of the shade
  • Says something like you and me babe how about it?
  • Juliet says hey it’s Romeo you nearly gimme me a heart attack
  • He’s underneath the window she’s singing hey la my boyfriend’s back
  • You shouldn’t come around here singing up at people like that
  • Anyway what you gonna do about it?
  • Juliet the dice were loaded from the start
  • And I bet and you exploded in my heart
  • And I forget I forget the movie song
  • When you gonna realize it was just that the time was wrong, Juliet?

I suppose my favourite lyrics of all in my favourite ‘genre’ would be those to Story of Isaac by Leonard Cohen:

  • The door it opened slowly,
  • My father he came in,
  • I was nine years old.
  • And he stood so tall above me,
  • His blue eyes they were shining
  • And his voice was very cold.
  • He said, “I’ve had a vision
  • And you know I’m strong and holy,
  • I must do what I’ve been told.”
  • So he started up the mountain,
  • I was running, he was walking,
  • And his axe was made of gold.
  • Well, the trees they got much smaller,
  • The lake a lady’s mirror,
  • We stopped to drink some wine.
  • Then he threw the bottle over.
  • Broke a minute later
  • And he put his hand on mine.
  • Thought I saw an eagle
  • But it might have been a vulture,
  • I never could decide.
  • Then my father built an altar,
  • He looked once behind his shoulder,
  • He knew I would not hide.
  • You who build these altars now
  • To sacrifice these children,
  • You must not do it anymore.
  • A scheme is not a vision
  • And you never have been tempted
  • By a demon or a god.
  • You who stand above them now,
  • Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
  • You were not there before,
  • When I lay upon a mountain
  • And my father’s hand was trembling
  • With the beauty of the word.
  •  
  • And if you call me brother now,
  • Forgive me if I inquire,
  • “just according to whose plan?”
  • When it all comes down to dust
  • I will kill you if I must,
  • I will help you if I can.
  • When it all comes down to dust
  • I will help you if I must,
  • I will kill you if I can.
  • And mercy on our uniform,
  • Man of peace or man of war,
  • The peacock spreads his fan.

Now, this is one of those rarest of songs – an actual poem. It doesn’t need the music at all, although the music complements it. Cohen takes you to that scene on the mountainside:

  •  Well, the trees they got much smaller,
  • The lake a lady’s mirror…
  •  Thought I saw an eagle
  • But it might have been a vulture,
  • I never could decide…

You climb that mountain with the father, and the child, half knowing, half not-knowing that his father intends to sacrifice him with that golden axe.

 

PS: Interesting to note how the words differ in this early live version from those that he settled on eventually. It’s a kind of privilege to watch a poet “in the process”.

IMAGINE

What can you say about this one? They’ll be playing it for centuries to come – assuming they’re still around and not ‘toast’ of some sort. (If you knew how long I spent looking for precisely that pair of glasses long after they’d gone out of fashion.)

 

The past is another country. Who would have thought someone could sing a Beatles song so much better than the Beatles?

 

Many years ago I failed to buy this record on my first bus trip into town, got home with it still going round and round and round and round in my brain, turned round and caught the next bus back. All for a little piece of plastic in a paper sleeve. Those were the days.

 

You know how, with some records, you never forget where you were and who you were with when you first heard it? I was in a country pub with a plate of chips and the dullest man in the world. And I was the dullest woman – I could hear his thoughts. Hearing this song – more than made up for that.