Supersonic Man

February 8, 2016


Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry,life — Supersonic Man @ 1:00 pm

I’ve always been fascinated by the hymn (if such it is) “Jerusalem”, or “And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time”, by William Blake and Hubert Parry.  In the British Isles, particularly in England (where it’s almost become an unofficial national anthem), it’s inescapable, but here in the States we’re not often exposed to it.  In my younger days I would catch glimpses of it, you might say — a fragment of a verse stuck into an episode of Monty Python, for instance.  And it always seemed to have a magic about it — some quality that other such songs did not possess.  That effect starts with William Blake’s words, which are an odd mix of religion, patriotism, and activism which sound like an inspiring call to arms, but which still mystify us as to exactly what we’re being called to do:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

I didn’t get the full blast effect of it as a work of music until I bought a copy of the canonical prog-rock album Brain Salad Surgery by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.  Their version of Jerusalem was their lead single for the album (it almost had to be, as it was about the only track that was short enough to fit on a 7″).  Even in its original form, it’s very catchy and singable and yet, at the same time, kind of strange and modernistic.  It has the same odd mix of simplicity and mystery that I find in the words.

I recently learned the story of how the music came to be written, and it’s a more interesting tale than you might expect.  It was commissioned in 1916, when the Poet Laureate of the UK, Robert Bridges, joined up with an organization called Fight for Right, which was — there may be fairer and more nuanced ways of putting this, but I don’t feel like bothering — a pro-war group.  Bridges saw how badly the public was reacting to the demoralizing horror of endless trench warfare, and decided that what the people needed was a song that would help brace their spirits and inspire them to be cheerful about making further sacrifices.  (Of course, this is easy to call for when it’s the common man who does the sacrificing.  Also, Bridges was highly religious, and so believed that such sacrifices could be balanced in the afterlife.)  He combed through some collections of poems and hit upon the above stanzas by William Blake, which at that time were little known, because Blake wrote them in a totally offhand way, as part of the preface to a much longer work (Milton, a Poem).  Bridges thought these words would function well for inspiring a lot of can-do spirit to aid Britain’s victory.  They just needed music — a tune which people could sing in groups.

The composer he approached was Sir Hubert Parry, a name which today is little remembered aside from this one work, though he was a major influence on a number of people who are much better known, such as Elgar and Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams.  Parry had substantial misgivings about becoming involved with Fight for Right, but didn’t want to disappoint Bridges, or those who were looking forward to performing the work’s premiere.

He originally wrote it for unison voices and pipe organ.  He made it into two verses of eight lines each, with a four bar instrumental bit at each end and between the two verses.  It sounds a lot like a church hymn, and indeed some refer to it explicitly as a hymn, though some argue it doesn’t quite qualify as one on the strictest technical grounds.  He used three-four time, which seems an odd choice given that the meter of the text is a very four-square iambic tetrameter.  This results in a melodic line that flows through graceful curves where someone else might have made a clunking march.  It also results in an unexpected separation between the bar lines and the emphasized syllables, creating a sort of loose syncopation.  This aspect makes it a little trickier to learn and sing along to than you think at first listen — you feel like you’ve got it, and then find you’re off beat.  Aside from that, the melody is simple and easy, though the organ chords are fairly sophisticated.

Between the rhythmic freedom and the varying chord progressions, the music strikes a quite interesting tension between tradition and modernity.  If you don’t know when it was written, it can be quite difficult to guess its actual age.

As originally conceived, it would be performed with a soprano soloist singing the first verse and massed voices singing the second, but this is rarely done.  Here is a typical performance of his original scoring.

Fifteen months later, Parry backed out, and said he could no longer support Fight for Right.  But that didn’t hurt the song at all — Bridges had chosen better than he knew, and by picking lyrics which managed to combine inspiration with obscurity, and discontent with patriotism, he’d managed to create a song which could be taken up by any political cause, left or right or center, as long as it was English.  And the first group which asked if they could use the song, now that Fight for Right was done with it, was the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.  Parry was delighted — he and his wife liked suffragism a whole lot better than warcraft.  He didn’t just grant permission to use the hymn for their cause, he gave them ownership of the copyright!  And if that wasn’t enough, he also threw in a scoring for full orchestra.  (Edward Elgar redid it for even fuller orchestra a few years later — it’s this version which is typically used in concert settings.)

Sadly, the flu pandemic of 1918 claimed Parry’s life.  After suffrage was won and the N.U.W.S.S. broke up, his estate passed the copyright to another women’s organization, which kept it until it went public domain in 1968.

Despite that, activist groups of all stripes made fairly free use of the song, including all three political parties.  It’s also used not infrequently in church as an actual hymn, and audience singalongs are routine even in settings that are neither political nor religious — particularly at the conclusion of an annual summer concert series known as “the Proms”.

The Emerson, Lake, and Palmer version was recorded shortly after the public-domaining, but as a single to sell the album, it failed — largely because the BBC decided, for some poorly articulated reason, that it was inappropriate to turn the song into rocknroll, and declared it not suitable to play on the radio.  Their version substantially elaborates Parry’s music, most notably by stretching the three-four rhythm back to four-four (with occasional exceptions).  This does surprisingly little violence to the melody.  The rhythmic fluidity noted above allows it to adapt to this change almost unaffected, just by stretching some long notes a bit longer.  Their intent is clearly to show off the music, rather than to lay any claim to the text, and maybe it’s that which irked the squares — all that God and Country stuff shouldn’t be taken so lightly, perhaps.

Speaking of the text brings us back to Blake.  What did he actually mean by it?  First off, what’s all this about God making a visit to the English countryside?  Well that part, at least, is easy enough to answer, and it’s another bit of culture which is apparently ubiquitous in the UK but little known in the states.  See, there’s an apocryphal story, or at least a folk belief, that Jesus of Nazareth visited the British Isles in the company of Joseph of Arimathea, who in this version was said to be a tin merchant.  (Tin was the main resource for which the Romans colonized Britain.)  Blake doesn’t endorse the tale, but just asks if maybe it were true, and this is the basis for the first half of the poem.

In the second half, he vows to strive and battle for his goal, which is to build Jerusalem in England.  Building Jerusalem is the one idea that unites the two verses.  He doesn’t mean the literal city, of course.  Apparently it was a commonplace (and in some traditions still is) to use the name “Jerusalem” loosely to refer to a righteous and Godly society on Earth, as opposed to the sinful or secular morass that we experience in real life.  The legend of Jesus’s visit is apparently used to make this dream of a new Jerusalem seem achievable, by suggesting that it had a precedent.

This leaves one oddity in the lyrics: “Among these dark Satanic Mills”.  (Parry, or perhaps Bridges, softened that line a bit by changing “these” to “those”.  EL&P changed it back.)  Given that the English environment is otherwise painted as bucolic, the natural tendency is to hear this line as referring to the smoke and blight of the early industrial revolution.  But this is not the only place William Blake used that term, and it’s apparent to readers of Blake that he meant something else, though he was never exactly clear on what.  He apparently meant something in the general ballpark of: those social institutions which train people’s minds into obedience and conformity and ungodliness.  And some say that what he meant more specifically was… the Church of England.

If so, that would explain why he wouldn’t spell it out.  It wasn’t safe.  I used to think, because it was the consensus I heard from those who were supposed to know, that Blake was a kook nutcase who saw visions and wrote in a private symbolic code because he wasn’t able to share the same world as the people around him.  That remains a common way for him to be depicted.  But another reason for his symbolic obscurity becomes apparent when you learn that in 1803, he was arrested on charges of sedition.  The case went nowhere, but still, it’s a clear reminder that having revolutionary sympathies, as he did, was not a safe thing to express in public.

What this makes me wonder is, how many other radicals and idealists are there in history, who we remember now only as kooks and cranks and crazies?  How many times have those who seemed to be speaking visions of madness actually been speaking of reform and revolution, in times when such ideas could not be spoken openly?

One item which comes to mind, when asking that question, is the granddaddy of all kooky visionary texts, the Book of Revelations.  To my eye, verse 13:18, the one which states the number of the beast, is saying that he’s talking in a coded way about real people — names a reader at the time would recognize.

Can you imagine what a different religion Christianity would be if the early councils had placed that book in the Apocrypha instead of in the New Testament?  One kind of wonders why they didn’t — there’s nothing else like it included.  It’s been a magnet for the real kooks and crazies, and on the opposite side, those who insist that everything in the Bible is absolutely literal, rather than at all symbolic, have ended up producing almost the same effect.  Much of the worst stuff that’s gone wrong in the name of Christ might have gone quite a bit differently without that one book.

To return to the song…  I have sometimes dreamed that I might, at some point, manage to write a protest song which has some enduring value, and which could enter the canon of popular tunes which people pull out when it’s time to stand up for what they believe in.  A song which has a memorable and singable melody with some element of beauty, which can benefit from instrumental accompaniment but in no way requires it, and whose lyrics invite people to add their own verses.  Such a song would not be about any one issue, but about the generalities that apply to most any protest issue, such as the eternal conflict between equality and privilege, between liberty and authority — the inevitable opposition that arises between the ordinary populace and the few with power.

If I ever manage to create a song that has any success with such aims, I’ll have to credit “Jerusalem” as its primary inspiration.


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