Songs have a remarkable capacity to speak into a range of specific contexts. In doing so, their meaning can be completely transfigured. Sometimes it’s a conscious re-application, someone uplifting the music or melody and applying it to a different purpose. Take the melody of the British National Anthem, for example. Originally it was probably a sixteenth century plainsong or chant. Later, Purcell and Handel borrowed the tune and Purcell used it in association with the words “God save the King”. We know the words and music were sung together at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1745 as a patriotic response to the Scottish Jacobite victory over George II’s soldiers at the Battle of Prestopans. On that occasion it included this verse:
May the sedition hush, and like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush, God save the King!”
Strangely, it seems the Jacobites themselves used the tune as a drinking song at the same time. Beethoven also wrote piano variations on the tune in 1804, possibly free of political sentiment. Even today the melody provides the tune to other nations’ patriotic songs including the United States’ “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”.
Sometimes this transfiguration of melody or lyric can happen simply by accident or historical happenstance. In the days before Covid-19 took over our lives, when Corona meant a cold beer with a slice of lemon tucked in the top, we went to see Kate Tempest at the Festival of the Arts. To be honest, we knew practically nothing about her. She was billed as a spoken word and hip hop artist, a rapper, a poet, novelist and playwright. But that gave so much to go on we had no idea what to expect. It turned out her show was a dynamic and relentless waterfall of words that nailed a world of contemporary angst while still offering a glimpse of a positive future.
She closed her show with “People’s Faces”, a song from her 2019 album The Book of Traps and Lessons. Most people presume the song draws on the Brexit debacle. But actually it was written a long time before the referendum. As she told Radio New Zealand’s Kathryn Ryan, “as events develop, and time comes and goes, poetry takes on meaning and resonance far more than the poet intended.” The song’s chorus might have been written as a realistic/optimistic comment on the struggle with the pandemic and the prospect of weeks in lockdown.
It’s hard. We got our heads down and our hackles up
Our back’s against the wall. I can feel your heart racing
None of this was written in stone
The current’s fast but the river moves slow
And I can feel things changing
Even when I’m weak and I’m breaking
I stand weeping at the train station
‘Cause I can see your faces
I love people’s faces”
Isolation may require of us the practice of a certain tranquillity. William Congreve (1697) tells us that “Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast”, and recently, at Wellington bar and brewery, Tuatara Third Eye, I came across a band that was soothing any potential savagery in spades. It featured the startlingly melodic talents of alto sax player Hayden Chisholm. Chisholm has lived, taught, played and produced in Europe for 25 years. “Unwind” is a partnership with jazz pianist and composer Norman Meehan, bassist Paul Dyne and drummer Julian Dyne. Their music, available on Rattle Records, is little short of extraordinary. It invites you into a place of calm, a fluid world of melody and exploration. Have a listen to Hayden’s “White Nights”. It opens with an introduction, reminiscent of the “Acknowledgment” that begins Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”, before moving to the body of the song. If you want music to isolate to, it’s hard to go past this.
Is isolation a kind of prison? I don’t really think so. But it gives me all the segue I need to close with a kind of gospel song reflecting on imprisonment and release. I say a kind of a gospel song. It’s actually a Dylan song from long before his religious period. The Bobster wrote “I Shall Be released” in 1967 and it was first recorded by the Band. But almost everyone has had a shot at it: Joan Baez, Nina Simone, and The LA Gospel Choir (whose album was released as The Brothers and Sisters), perhaps my favourite.
Here are two versions. The first is from the Band’s great farewell concert, The Last Waltz (1976). It features a cast of thousands including Bob himself, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Neil Diamond (why?), Ronnie Hawkins and Van Morrison. As you’ll see, no-one is exercising appropriate social distancing. The audio proper starts at 0.52. Anthemic.
But then there’s the original take on the song from The Band’s Music from Big Pink (1968). This recording is so much more vulnerable, so much more fragile, so much less confident. It resonates more for me, sitting in my living room, wondering and hoping more than knowing which way the wind will blow.
Be kind, stay well, keep safe, wash your hands.
Chris Nichol is a Wellington-based communications consultant, theologian, alto saxophonist and singer. Most recently he’s been a member of The Zimmermans, a Wellington band showcasing Dylan songs.
Read more by Chris Nichol on Corpus: