Monthly Archives: January 2019

Missing the message

 

Judee Sill was one of the musicians signed to the David Geffen’s new Asylum record label in the 1970s, alongside Joni MitchellJackson Browne, Linda Rondstadt and the Eagles. That she is less famous than those artistes is largely due to the fact she released only two albums and died prematurely, at least partly from drug use, in 1979.

However, I clearly remember the first single released from her debut album being played regularly on the radio: “Jesus was a Cross-Maker”. This was the golden era of the singer-songwriter and also the time of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, Christian narratives welded to pop/rock music. Equally the gospel influences of black soul artistes like Aretha Franklin were often admired and copied by white musicians from different traditions. The title of “Jesus was a Cross-Maker” certainly made this listener (plus many 1970s music show presenters ) think this song was one of those examples.

Sill’s singing and playing were very attractive, but these distinctive features and the song’s brisk tempo led to another consequence which is familiar to anyone who has listened to and loved pop/rock music any time during the last half-century: you cannot hear every word of the lyrics.

It was many years later, in the internet era, when, finally seeing the lyrics written down, I realised that the title phrase is the only reference to Jesus and that the lyric does not seem to have any particular Christian meaning or relevance.
One interpretation offered by Michael Crumsho in the Dusted music website is that the lyric is about “gaining higher momentum from the lower periods in one’s life, spurred on from the fact that Jesus Christ was in fact (depending upon your views of Jesus as a historical figure) a cross maker.”

Artists from the past who have died young or who are perceived to have become neglected are often the features of TV or radio programmes which blend factual information with the presenter’s autobiography or personal exploration. Judee Sill was the subject of such a programme in 2014 presented by the journalist Ruth Barnes.

This programme provided some new information about “Jesus was a Cross Maker”. John David Souther, another West Coast musician of the period with whom Sill was having a relationship at this point in her life, said that Sill specifically told him that the song was written about their relationship. So that might mean the song’s references to “bandit” are metaphorical references to Souther’s emotional influence over her rather than recalling her own dramatic youthful criminal exploits. It probably means that the reference to “Jesus” does not directly point to the Bible, although another contributor to the programme suggests that Sill had a genuinely wide interest in religion and spirituality which informed many of her lyrics.

The present-day internet allows many free opportunities to remind ourself what Judee Sill sounded like. Unlike Ruth Barnes, I tend not to regard her as a forgotten major figure, certainly not as important as Joni Mitchell. However, it is certainly easy to appreciate her songwriting as better than that being produced by most 21st century artistes, and to wonder whether that decline in quality might be caused partly by the erosion of the literary and cultural foundation once provided by the Bible and other religious texts.

 

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Outsiders

 

Happy New 2019!

You often read or hear journalists or actors or others in the public eye choosing their own favourite hero or heroine from literature or drama. A recent example was the journalist Rebecca Nicholson, who discussed her attachment as a young reader to Roald Dahl’s Matilda. A perfectly reasonable choice. Although I was a bit puzzled and sad that she felt obliged to apologise for not choosing the media’s standard example of Harry Potter. “It may well be a generational thing – I came to Harry Potter too late,” she explained.

J.K. Rowling’s hero is actually not unusual for being an orphan or an outsider. Children’s literature (or, to be specific, literature we often read first when we are children) is full of orphans and other isolated and lonely and bullied and neglected children – even in older and less fashionable books. For instance, David Balfour in Kidnapped, Tom Sawyer, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables, Carrie and her brother Nick in Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War, Billy Casper in Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave. And there are plenty of longer lists elsewhere on the internet.

It is because these characters are alone or neglected that they often display the courage and independence which we as young readers warm to.

Nicholson added, “When books for children are at their very best, they give power to those who feel different and strength to those who might, for reasons they do not know yet, feel like outsiders.” I was struck by her use of the word “might” and the subsequent phrase “for reasons they do not know yet”. In the current public concern about the mental health of young people, there has been a lot of discussion about children who feel neglected or misunderstood or outsiders. This has sometimes even led some adults to encourage such anxious young people that they will be happier if they change the gender which they were born into.

My view is that all people at some time in their childhood feel like outsiders. No matter how happy or comfortable their childhood, no matter how many friends or siblings they have, no matter how wealthy or caring their parents. It’s a natural part of growing up. That feeling may last for weeks or for years, at one particular occasion in your life, or regularly and for some time. But it will happen.

Obviously the more often such feelings of loneliness or isolation or anxiety or confusion occur and the longer they continue the more likely this should be considered a specific problem which a caring adult should do something to solve. But it may be that the adult has only to wait – and encourage the child to develop those qualities of courage and resilience and independence displayed by all of those loved literary characters.

 

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