Songs that grow like trees: an appreciation of Sydney Carter (1915–2004)

CarterSydney_treeYour holy hearsay is not evidence
Give me the good news in the present tense

So begins The Present Tense, a song by Sydney Carter which sums up his approach to life and faith: based on personal conviction not imposed authority, complex not simplistic, questioning not dogmatic. He has been, through his songs, an inspiration and support to many, most of whom he never met, many of whom were not even aware of his name, some of whom do not even share his faith. And that includes me, an atheist who nevertheless appreciates the power, the beauty and the wry humour of Sydney Carter’s songs.

Carter Sydney (holding a skull) with the Friends (Quakers) Ambulance Unit in the summer of 1940.
Carter Sydney (holding a skull) with the Friends (Quakers) Ambulance Unit in the summer of 1940.

Encounter with folk music

Sydney Carter was born in 1915, during World War I. He was baptised and buried as an Anglican, but his spiritual home was with the Quakers, a nickname for the Society of Friends which stuck. Like the Quakers, he was a pacifist and joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit when World War II broke out, serving in Egypt, Palestine and Greece. In Greece he had his first significant encounter with traditional or folk music, which in turn led to his career as a songwriter.

His songs have a definite folk quality to them in melody, lyrics and phrasing, and one of his most well-known songs is set to a traditional melody. George Fox, about one of the founders of the Quakers, uses a morris dance tune, Monk’s March, with words which sum up both Fox’s and Carter’s theology:

With a book and a steeple and a bell and a key
They would bind it forever, but they can’t, said he
The book, it will perish and the steeple will fall
But the light will be shining at the end of it all.

Elektra Records album sleevesOne of his most-sung songs, Lord of the Dance, is based on the melody of a Shaker song, ‘Tis The Gift To Be Simple or Simple Gifts, often credited as traditional but written by Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr. (1797–1882). It isn’t so widely known among the many schoolchildren, church choirs and folk singers who have sung the song that Sydney’s inspiration for the lyric came from a confluence between Jesus and the god Shiva, Hinduism’s Nataraja or Lord of the Dance, who destroys so that the god Brahma can re-create. This source of inspiration sums up Sydney, seeking unity in diversity, seeing all faiths as imperfect attempts to encode what is essentially mysterious about life, “by whatever name you know”, as he put it in song. His only enemy was unyielding institutional dogma, which brings with it the certainty of truth, which in turn creates enemies of all who question or believe differently.

Outrage and revolt

And it follows from this theology, what Carter called his “rock of doubt” or his “dance in the dark”, that he saw the bringing of unity and peace in the world as central to his faith. Thus it was that he wrote his other ‘signature tune’, When I Needed A Neighbour, for the launch of Christian Aid Week in 1965, premiered by The Ian Campbell Folk Group at a rally in Trafalgar Square. This song is a little unusual for Sydney, lyrically simple with a straightforward message, as you might expect from a campaign song. Most of his songs were more deliberately oblique, as he saw the true meaning of the song, not in the voice of the singer, but in the response in the mind of the listener.

Thus Friday Morning caused outrage, resulting in 2,000 letters of protest when it was first published in 1959 in The World Council of Churches’ Risk magazine. Written from the point of view of an unnamed guilty prisoner being crucified alongside the innocent Jesus, the hookline retorts:

It’s God they ought to crucify instead of you or me
I said to the carpenter a-hanging on the tree.

In 1960, both Enoch Powell and The Daily Mirror tried to have the song banned. What those outraged Christians failed to realise is that being angry at God for injustice is only as controversial as the Psalms, and that one mainstream version of Christian theology is that God was crucified on the tree to pay for the sins of humanity. This isn’t stated outright in the song, of course: Sydney Carter’s songs were a subtle teasing, a catalyst, not a theological sledgehammer or a statement of dogma.

CarterSydney01John Ball was written for the 600th anniversary of the peasants’ revolt of 1381, in memory of a man who was hanged as a rebel. The man celebrated, and the song in his name celebrates, the dream of an equal society where people are not born into privilege based on injustice, or born into undeserved servitude and slavery, and where a good day’s work means a good day’s pay. John Ball was excommunicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury and not allowed to preach in any church as he was expounding the Bible’s message as one of social justice. So he became a roving preacher, a ‘hedge priest’, without a parish or any link to the established order, giving talks on the village green or wherever he could find a gathering. The Archbishop then gave instructions that all people found listening to Ball’s sermons should be punished. When this failed to work as there was mass non-compliance, John Ball was arrested and sent to Maidstone Prison for his “heretical speeches”. Still not defeated, he was rescued from Maidstone Prison by Kentish rebels led by Wat Tyler and, on 12th June at Blackheath, he preached to the rebels in the open air with lines that inspired Sydney Carter:

“When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by unjust oppression.”

“Gentlemen” then meant the gentry, who owned the land and thus held the power: they were the lords of the manors, living richly off the labour of others. Sydney Carter wove this into the verse …

Who’ll be the lady, who will be the lord
When we are ruled by the love of one another, tell me
Who’ll be the lady, who will be the lord
In the light that is coming in the morning?

… followed by the glorious chorus that begins:

Sing, John Ball, and tell it to them all!

Secular songs

Not all of his songs were overtly religious or theological, but all were thoughtful, playful, gently provocative.

The Rat Race wryly tells the story of a man who steals to keep up with the demands of consumerism, then on conviction he climbs on his prison bed to see the view beyond the bars, only to find that “a bloody great advertisement had blotted out the stars”.

The words of Like The Snow are based on a poem of François Villon, not a translation, but Sydney’s own work based on the ideas in The Testament. François Villon was a 15th century French thief, killer, barroom brawler, vagabond and poet. The song, like the poem, takes true stories of history to make the point that all life is fleeting. The first in the song is Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in ancient Greece, abducted then rescued by her brothers. Then Pierre Abelard, 11th/12th century French theologian, expected to be celibate – as all scholars had to be, in the belief that sex addled the rational male mind – but who had a child with Heloise, his pupil, niece of the canon of Notre Dame Cathedral, who then punished Abelard with castration. The lovers became monk and nun, their bodies reunited only in the grave. Lastly, Jeanne d’Arc, 15th century Catholic visionary cross-dressing army leader, who turned the Hundred Years’ War in France’s favour, but was then burned at the stake for wearing men’s clothes and claiming authority from God rather than the Catholic Church. The point of Villon’s poem is in his asking where these famous people are now, followed by his refrain, “But where are the snows of last winter?” Sydney reflects this in his refrain, “She has” or “They have vanished like the snow.”

Like The Snow by Sydney Carter, performed by Ian Pittaway. Click on image to play (opens in new window). The first line, slightly clipped in the video is video, is "Tell me, where did Helen go?"
Click on image to play video (opens in new window). Like The Snow by Sydney Carter, performed by Ian Pittaway. The first line, slightly clipped in the video is video, is “Tell me, where did Helen go?”

Crow On The Cradle juxtaposes the hopes and dreams of parents for a newborn baby with the realities of living in a war zone, to which even newborns are not immune.

Good Literature teases those whose wish to be well-read is defeated by the easiness of pop culture:

Good literature
Never bother with the book
I’m waiting for the film to come.

Silver in the Stubble is one of the few songs I know about growing older, and the most telling song I know about middle age. “This song should be accompanied by an electric razor”, said Sydney on his live LP of 1967, Sydney Carter & Jeremy Taylor at Eton.

Silver in the Stubble by Sydney Carter, performed by Ian Pittaway. I have omitted one of Sydney’s verses, added one of my own (the second), and slightly altered the words of the chorus to suit how I wish to express the song (see final paragraph of this article).
Click on image to play video (opens in new window). Silver in the Stubble by Sydney Carter, performed by Ian Pittaway. I have omitted one of Sydney’s verses, added one of my own (the second), and slightly altered the words of the chorus to suit how I wish to express the song (see final paragraph of this article).

Mixed Up Old Man expresses the view of a convicted old man who wishes he was young because, he imagines, if he were he could get away with it by blaming his actions on the influence of TV violence and being “misunderstood” by society.

Sydney and the folk fraternity

The folk singing fraternity recognised the significance of Sydney’s song-writing talent from the beginning. His songs have been performed and recorded by Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, Julie Felix, The Ian Campbell Folk Group, John Kirkpatrick, Maddy Prior, Show of Hands, Sheila Hancock, Nadia Catthouse, Jackson Browne, Dayle Stanley, Stefan Sobell, Tania Opland and Mike Freeman, Mary Black, The Spinners, Donald Swann, Judy Collins, Lady Maisery, Chris Wood, Dave Webber, Bob and Carole Pegg, Pete Seeger – to name just a few. He achieved the remarkable feat of composing three songs that have been so widely sung in churches, in choirs, in schools and at public occasions that almost anyone would recognise them, whether or not they’ve heard of Sydney Carter: When I Needed A Neighbour, Lord of the Dance and One More Step Along The World I Go. At folk clubs and festivals you can add John Ball to that list.

I have sung Sydney Carter’s songs since I was 18 – I am nearly three times that age now – nearly always in folk clubs, which Sydney saw as the natural home of his work, and where he sometimes performed himself. My only near encounter with him personally was in 2000 when I recorded George Fox for a solo album. I wanted to send him a copy of the album, but his publisher informed me that he had Alzheimer’s and was being cared for in a nursing home. He died in 2004.

Enduring songs

Why are Sydney Carter’s songs so enduring? And why do they matter? He expressed it best himself when he told the story of attending the lecture of a folklorist and folk song collector:

“A. L. Lloyd was talking about the way, in Romania, folk songs had been passed from one generation to another. A mother would teach her daughter how to sing a song, saying: ‘You don’t see the point or meaning of this song now, but you will need it later’, as if she were giving her a magic spell or a bottle of medicine.”

Sydney’s songs matter for the same reason that folk or traditional songs matter: they timelessly tell the stories of our lives, yours and mine, in multilayered ways that reveal more the more you live with them. They live and grow, like the progression of a folk song, changing over time, transformed through being sung in the mouths of different singers, and Sydney wanted it that way:

”There is nothing final in the songs I write, not even the words, the rhythm and the melody. This is not an oversight; I would like them to keep growing, like a tree.”

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