Thursday, December 20, 2018

Songs of Faith and Doubt by Sydney Carter--Donald Swann (1964)

Sometimes the best things show up in cluttered boxes of thrift LPs.  Such was the case with 1964's Donald Swann Sings Songs of Faith and Doubt by Sydney Carter.  I'd have foolishly passed on it, had Lord of the Dance not been in the title listing.  As far as I know, this if the first recording of that 1963 classic, which of course became hugely popular in and out of church.  After hearing this version, all others sound inadequate to me.  Carter's lyrics are brilliant, and probably because of the wonderful, bouncy melody (adapted from the tune to the Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts), people seem to miss the more powerful portions of the text, such as:

I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame,
And the holy people said it was a shame;
They whipped and they stripped and they hung me high;
And they left me there on a cross to die.

A lot of internet people claim that the dancing Christ is patterned after a pagan god or gods, just because pagan is so in right now, but maybe we should listen to Carter, who, after all, wrote the words.  In this EP's liner notes, he says he was attracted by the Shakers "because they used dancing as well as singing in their worship.  Christ is often pictured, metaphorically, as a shepherd or a king; why not a dancer?  His whole life, it seems to me, is the expression in dramatic form of the way things are, and were, and ever will be."  The dance is human nature, the human spirit, the indomitable human will to survive.  This is Metaphor 101, not rocket science.

Speaking of cluelessness, the folks behind the Lord of the Dance musical used Carter's words without permission, actually believing them to be folk lyrics.  As far as I know, the show was sued, but I guess Wikipedia wimped out and no longer includes that info in its entry on the musical.

The Devil wore a Crucifix is merely superb next to the EP's three devastatingly brilliant numbers--the one I've been talking about, plus Every Star shall sing a carol, and the life-altering Friday Morning.  The latter is probably Carter's masterpiece, and it's not easy to handle:

You can blame it on to Pilate,
You can blame it on the Jews.
You can blame it on the Devil,
But it's God that I accuse.

The song's closing lines move me so deeply, I can't describe how deeply:

Goodbye and good luck to you,
Our ways they will divide.
Remember me in Heaven,
The man you hung beside.

A weird choice for a Christmas LP, maybe, but Lord of the Dance and Every Star shall sing a carol fit this season of birth and rebirth beautifully.  Carter describes the meaning of the Nativity infinitely more eloquently than I can, and so I quote from Every Star:

When the king of all creation, 
Had a cradle on the earth, 
Holy was the human body, 
Holy was the human birth.  

God above, Man below,
Holy is the name I know.

Donald Ibrahim Swann, born in Wales in 1923, was a lifelong friend and songwriting partner of Carter, and his performances on this EP, on which he accompanies himself, are magnificent.

CLICK HERE TO HEAR: Songs of Faith and Doubt by Sydney Carter

Lord of the Dance
The Devil wore a Crucifix
The Rat Race
Every Star shall sing a carol
The Mask I Wore
Friday Morning
Lord of the Dance (Mono)

Songs of Faith and Doubt by Sydney Carter, sung and played by Donald Swann (Argo ZFA 48; 1964)



Anonymous said...

I'd like to find out more? I'd like to find out more details.

Lee Hartsfeld said...

Just a suggestion: you could try the internet. Type "Sydney Carter" into whatever search engine you're using. I've personally found the internet to be an amazing source of information. In fact, you're halfway there already--you had to go on the net to find me.

Let me know how it goes.

Ernie said...

Why was I thinking this was half of the comedy group Flanders & Swann? I'm just easily confused, I guess.

Lee Hartsfeld said...

You're correct--same guy.

Buster said...

Wonderful - so happy to have this. Great essay, Lee.

Mac said...

delightful, very glad to have downloaded - and thank you so much for your amusing and insightful comments - always a great read here.

Ernie said...

Really? I guess I'll need to use the Internet to learn more! :)

Kwork said...

Wow! Why would I want to use the Internet to learn more? I'm confused. LOL! After all, for many kids, isn't the Internet merely a place to download, stream, and social mediaize?
Seriously, thanks. Glad to hear an early version of a favorite song of mine. My go-to will probably always be The Christmas Revels performance on their self titled album.