Thursday, April 05, 2007

Lord of the Dance

from w
We have two little pre-schoolers who dance at church, right up the front, everytime there is a song - and that's great. One of my favourite songs/hymns/carols is Sydney Carter's 'Lord of the Dance'. On Good Friday and Easter Sunday I am not comfortable with sentimental films or even Mel Gibson's violent exposition of the death of Jesus. Perhaps we are meant to be very uncomfortable. Bearing our sorrows though is what it's about, being incarnate in the world, experiencing our grief. However, I find songs like 'Lord of the Dance' closer to my way of thinking. We do not live with two feet on the ground, but dance – one foot on the ground, the other leaping. That’s what being a Christian is all about - well that's how I see it. And my concept of God is not sentimental nor fundamentalist, and we do not know it all.

Some of the words by Sydney Carter are:
I danced on the Sabbath & I cured the lame
The holy people said it was a shame!
They whipped & they stripped & they hung me high
And they left me there on a cross to die!

Dance then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He!
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be
And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said He!
(...lead you all in the Dance, said He!)

I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black
It's hard to dance with the devil on your back
They buried my body & they thought I'd gone
But I am the Dance & I still go on!

Nicholas Williams wrote about Sydney Carter (1915-2004) in The Independent as follows:

In a way quite unlike other forms of music, songs punch far above their weight. Simple verses and tunes in judicious combination can inspire nations and revolutions if the message and mood are right…"Lord of the Dance", perhaps his best-loved and indeed most characteristic creation, has proved especially susceptible to reinterpretation on these grounds. Ever since Carter began singing "I danced in the morning / When the world was begun, / And I danced in the moon / And the stars and the sun" to audiences in the early 1960s, the song has sunk deeper into the national psyche…

It was while serving in Greece that his first definitive encounter with folk music occurred, an event he later defined as more or less influencing everything he did subsequently…

Writing in 1969, he explained that "songs should be learned the way you learn to make an omelette or drive a car". And he went on to say of his own music:
These songs are not "folk"; but a singer in the folk or blues tradition might know what to do with them more easily than a singer trained ecclesiastically. Animal vitality, the pulsation of the human voice, the dramatic use of vocal texture . . . are the qualities you find in a blues singer. They are not always welcomed in a church.

… He had embarked on an enduring partnership with the publishers Stainer & Bell, who were bringing out his songs and poetry.

Many in the church establishment frowned upon his radical statements of faith and doubt. The song "Friday Morning", for example, written from the perspective of the unrepentant thief and containing the line "It's God they ought to crucify / Instead of you and me . . .", prompted thousands of letters of complaint…
…although he will be buried according to the rite of the Church of England, thereafter it was to the Quakers that he often turned as a spiritual home. In fact, Carter's openness to religious truth makes talks of religious categories rather superfluous, which was indeed a major irritation for the early critics of the open-minded, non-credal statements of his songs.

That two of his most popular lyrics, "One More Step" and "Travel On", should invoke the concept of journey was indeed no coincidence. In this voyaging faith of interrogatives, the creed lay in the question mark, often of a Zen-like paradox. In 1974, he wrote: Faith is more basic than language or theology. Faith is the response to something which is calling us from the timeless part of our reality. Faith may be encouraged by what has happened in the past, or what is thought to have happened in the past, but the only proof of it is in the future. Scriptures and creeds may come to seem incredible, but faith will still go dancing on. Even though (because it rejects a doctrine) it is now described as "doubt". This, I believe, is the kind of faith that Christ commended.

Such an approach, quite without post-modern irony, and uttered with the Blakeian candour of a man asking questions of himself, has brought comfort and inspiration to many similarly beset by uncertainty over the years…Music for him was above all a physical thing, a felt process of creation through voice and act preceding any notation. The American Shakers were a source of inspiration, with a transcendental sense of the link between creation, life, faith and the dance behind all dances…

Friends and colleagues will remember Sydney Carter as a tall, virile figure, slightly stooping, a compelling if idiosyncratic performer, and in private, in the company of his second wife, Leela Nair, no less entertaining and stimulating, and liable to burst into song at the slightest provocation.

• Lord of the Dance was composed in 1963 - many people believe it's old because it's a hymn they sang at school.
• No, Mr Flatley it's not Celtic!
• Sydney was born on 6th May 1915 and died on 13th March 2004.
• The tune is an adaptation of the Shaker tune 'Simple Gifts'.
• It's not 'Traditional' - it is fully copyright throughout the world - Stainer & Bell Ltd.

Sydney's faith was contained in this quotation from his poem Interview:
"So what do you believe in?
Nothing fixed or final,
all the while I
travel a miracle. I doubt,
and yet
I walk upon the water"

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