Leonard Cohen: Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc may be the most famous of the martyr saints, so I need not tell her story in detail. Leonard Cohen shows himself to be a gifted story teller here. He reimagines her martyrdom as a wedding between Joan of Arc and the flames that would consume her. Cohen has Joan at the last tired of war, and maybe seeking release. The song dates from 1970, so it may reflect Cohen’s feelings about the Vietnam War in this way.
The funny thing is, I don’t really like the music of Leonard Cohen that much. His devotees are passionate about him, and will probably resent my saying so, but I find that a little of his voice goes a long way. In fact, I never would have known about this song at all, were it not for an amazing cover by Darrell Scott. There is an informal rule here at Star Maker that we should not post anything released after 2000. We’ve bent that rule a number of times, but Scott’s Joan of Arc is from 2008, so that’s pushing it. That said, if one of my fellow Star Makers should happen to post Scott’s version in the comments, I won’t tell. I really like Cohen’s original as well, now that I’ve found it, but I just don’t know if I would want to listen to the entire album it came from in one sitting.
Friday, January 28, 2011
Thursday, January 27, 2011
Alison Brown: Saint Genevieve
Like most of her solo work, this piece is an instrumental, so it's hard to say explicitly what commentary, if any, Compass Records founder and banjo-playing bandleader Alison Brown has to offer about the patron saint of Paris, France.
But music has mood, and this slow, stately, almost morose tune, with its sweet, soaring strings and gentle plucking, speaks to the pleading nature of the devout 5th century nun, a pious ascetic and vegetarian who spoke out on behalf of virgins, prisoners of war, and lenience to all wrongdoers.
Red Foley: Our Lady Of Fatima
[Out of print]
Some Catholic saints have more than one feast day, operating under several titles. None has more than Mary, the mother of Jesus. There are those that celebrate milestones, including the Immaculate Conception (which, trivia fans, refers to Mary’s own conception, not that of Jesus), others that mark her various ecclesiastical titles (Queen of Heaven), and others yet her apparitions to assorted people all over the place. The Catholic Church is reluctant to recognise most alleged apparitions, but can’t undo those that already have been approved and attract a massive following.
One of these is the alleged apparition of Mary to three shepherd children in the Portuguese village of Fatima in the 1910s. It was big news, and the deal was sealed when tens of thousands of people came to Fatima for the last of the scheduled apparitions, and saw the sun “dance”. Previously the shepherd kids, by now a national story, had said that the apparition would perform a miracle at an appointed time. Bang on time, the sun did all kinds of odd things, like swirling and zig-zagging towards the earth. Some witnesses, however, reported seeing nothing. Scientists explain the phenomenon as optical effects or mass hysteria.
Catholics are not required to believe in apparitions, but Pope John Paul II did. He credited his survival in the 1981 assassination attempt to Our Lady of Fatima, whose feast day it happened to be that day. The apparition allegedly gave the shepherd children three secrets. Two of them were boring, it seems, but the third was closely guarded. It was finally revealed in 2000 and was also boring. Catholic fanatics believe the Vatican released a fake secret and are withholding the real secret.
I don’t think country legend Red Foley was a Catholic, but his paean to the apparition at Fatima, released in 1950, is supreme kitsch, capturing the post-war American Catholicism of Bishop Fulton Sheen, that crook Cardinal Spellman, Going My Way and The Bells of St Mary's. Our Lady of Fatima was recorded with the Anita Kerr Singers, whose voices backed something like half of all RCA numbers recorded in Nashville in the 1950s; Elvis’ pals, The Jordanaires, appeared on the other half. Red Foley was Elvis’ childhood idol: his Old Shep was the first song Elvis Presley ever performed in public, at the age of 10.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Grateful Dead: St Stephen
The original St Stephen was the first Christian martyr. The story goes that he was criticizing the way Judaism was being practiced in Greece, and the Jews there stoned him to death. Bear in mind that this was while Christ was alive, and remember that Christ was himself a Jew. So it was Christ’s version of Judaism, which would become Christianity after His death, that Stephen was preaching.
The Grateful Dead song St Stephen may also be about Steve Gaskin. Gaskin taught a spirituality class in San Francisco in the 1960s, and he would later found a commune called The Farm. So Robert Hunter’s lyrics may be trying to equate the newness of Gaskin’s teachings with those of St Stephen in his time. Musically, St Stephen is one of the Dead’s most interesting songs, with its tempo and mood changes. I was surprised to find that the song has almost never been covered.
Update: One of our readers pointed out in the comments that I made some fairly serious errors in my telling of the life of Saint Stephen. For more on this, please check the comments to this post.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Joshua Redman: St. Thomas
Poor St. Thomas. (To be more specific, poor St. Thomas the Apostle, not to be confused with St. Thomas Aquinas, or St. Thomas More, or St. Thomas of Becket, or any of the other dozen or so Thomases who are also Roman Catholic saints.)
Thomas had a long and productive saintly career. He is said to have travelled to India and introduced Christianity there (er, well, maybe not so productive there). But we know him best from one New Testament episode, and the story goes like this (with embellishment):
Thomas was not with the other disciples one fateful day---they probably sent him off for the beer and snack run. And when he returned, his apostolic buds had amazing news.
"Guess who was just here visiting with us? You'll never guess!" they told him.
"Dudes. Just tell me."
This must have struck Thomas as a really tasteless joke, since Jesus had recently gone through the "crucified, dead and buried" part of the familiar story.
"Yeah, right. Pull the other one, lads, it's got bells on."
"No, really. You just missed him."
"Look, next time, you can fetch your own damned beer if this is the thanks I get."
And then he said the famous words that he soon came to regret: "Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe you."
And for this, a statement of incredulity that I bet every one of us would have come up with in some form, he is best known by the not-very-cool epithet, "Doubting Thomas."
A week later, the resurrected Lord pops in again, but this time Thomas is hanging around. Now I don't think Jesus was at all harsh about Thomas's earlier doubts. He must have had a pretty good sense of humor, because you have to admit, the whole notion of resurrection was pretty unexpected. So Caravaggio is probably taking artistic liberties with the sort-of-icky scene above. I'm sure that Thomas, when invited to act out his earlier words, just said, "No, that's okay, Lord, I'm good, thanks anyway."
Thomas did get a pretty sweet Virgin Island named after him, though, so there's that.
The real reason I'm posting this song is that I just saw Joshua Redman in concert on Sunday and wanted to share something from one of the great tenor saxophonists alive today. This is a tune written by Sonny Rollins, performed in 1995 by Redman at the Village Vanguard. You may recognize the melody after the long introductory solo, at about 4:30.
Letters to Cleo: St. Peter
Saint Peter, whose real name was actually Simon until Jesus renamed him, was one of the original Apostles, and considered to be chosen by Jesus himself as the first Pope. These days he's mostly known as the doorman at the Pearly Gates of heaven because of a line in the scripture about Jesus handing him the keys to heaven, thus he is often depicted holding a set of keys.
In scripture, Apostle Peter was considered the most devout, the most enthusiastic follower of Christ, and thus why he became heaven's proprietor. In the song, St. Peter is used for a bit of symbolism. The song is about someone who lies, who is not what he says he is. In the Bible, Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him three times in the course of a day, and in deed, he does deny his faith three times, despite being the most devout of all. But he also represents judgment of those who've sinned, a bit of a dichotomy, and both ways are expressed in the song. So, in this case, knowing a bit of history makes for a great song, despite it being a bit bitter considering it's name-dropping one of the Lord's close buddies.
And I can't believe I hadn't posted a Letters to Cleo song here yet. Perhaps this theme had some divine intervention?
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Joan Osborne: St Teresa
St Teresa was an ecstatic saint, one who was said to receive holy visions. Hers involved painful experiences through which she received divine wisdom. Here is her description of one of her visions, of an angel:
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it...Teresa battled various illnesses for much of her life, so the modern cynic might regard this not as a vision but as a fever-induced hallucination. However you see it, it is a fact that she developed a system of meditation which helped her in her studies of the Divine. Prayers are offered to her for relief from severe pain. Joan Osborne’s St Teresa is a perfect example of the kind of prayer I mean.
Sarah MacLachlan: Prayer Of Saint Francis
If you visit Assisi, the central Italian hometown of the most revolutionary of Christian saints, among the many souvenirs flogged there you will find paraphernalia featuring the prayer usually attributed to St Francis (whose name meant Frenchman, after his father’s Francophilia). “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon.” And so on.
The prayer has been influential. Mother Teresa adopted it for her religious order; Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa has said it forms part of his daily devotions; Alcoholics Anonymous did use it for their inspirational literature. But there is no record of St Francis having composed such a prayer, even if it sounds like the kind of thing one would associate with the Catholic proto-hippie, who once was turned away from an appointment with the pope on account of his neglect in matters of personal hygiene — at an age when pretty much everybody stank.
The prayer’s first documented appearance dates to 1912, almost 700 years after St Francis’ death, in a French devotional magazine titled La Clochette (The Little Bell), published by a Catholic association known as La Ligue de la Sainte-Messe (The Holy Mass League). In 1916, during World War I, the prayer was reproduced by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano and the French mass circulation Catholic daily La Croix, giving it wider exposure and a reputation as a peace prayer. The prayer was first attributed to St Francis in 1927 by a French Protestant movement, Les Chevaliers du Prince de la Paix.
It has been put to song several times, most often obviously within a religious context. Singer-songwriter Denison Wittmer (a Christian musician of the Sufjan Stevens and Rosie Thomas variety) has recorded it. And Canadian singer Sarah MacLachlan recorded it as a bonus track for the Japanese version of her 1998 album Surfacing. It was made available to non-Japanese consumers on her Rarities, B-Sides, and Other Stuff Volume 2 collection, released in 2008.
MacLachlan has performed for a pope and recorded a couple of songs with Christian themes, but also covered XTC’s “Dear God”, a hymn to atheism. Apparently her deal is agnosticism.
Bob Dylan: I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine
Thea Gilmore: I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine
Of the several saints titled Augustine, it's not clear which one Dylan meant to reference here. But most folks assume it's Augustine of Hippo, an early Roman convert and philosopher whose work dwelled heavily on the nature of good and evil - patron saint of brewers, printers, theologians and sore eyes, framer of the concepts of original sin and just war, and often considered one of the theological fathers of Reformation due to his teaching on salvation and divine grace.
Pensive and spare in the '67 original, the song has been covered many times, by some of the stalwarts of folk music, from Joan Baez to Earl Scruggs. Most manage to retain the original guilty tone of the lyric, which decries the absence of martyrs in modern society, but holds us responsible for that lack even as it portrays us as powerless to fix it. My favorite cover, though, is Thea Gilmore's - in no small part because of the loud wash of echoey electric guitar which lends so much depth to its slow, gritty Americana pulse. For fans of the Cowboy Junkies, especially.