New Song(s) Friday… and more obsessing about Rhythm.

Hello again.  Well, it’s been a while since you’ve heard from me and you may all be desperate for a new song or two.  Hopefully you will not be disappointed by today’s offerings.

Over the last number of weeks I’ve been rather busy with work and then out of town (not to mention out of internet and mobile coverage!) at an arts conference in north Devon.  More on that in the future.  But I haven’t been entirely neglectful and there has been some discussion on the last post which also had to do with rhythm.  Discussion is good – and you are more than welcome to join in.

My current obsession with rhythm is coming from a few different places.  As noted previously, I am feeling a little dissatisfied with much of the worship music coming out these days – it’s all so straight.  Too many of these songs in a row and I tend to get bored.  Secondly, at All Souls we recently had a drum workshop with Ian Cape (, a very fine player and all-round great guy.  Ian encouraged us to be thinking about and feeling rhythm in many different aspects of our lives.  And thirdly, Louanne and I have recently been watching the HBO tv series, Treme.  (*disclaimer* – like most HBO programs, there is some objectionable content on Treme so viewer discretion is strongly advised.)

Treme is the name of a neighbourhood in New Orleans – historically important as a community of free blacks in the days of slavery.  The program tells the stories of various people in the community and opens just a few months after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.  Themes of loss, despair, restoration, injustice, and hope all come to the fore.  The storytelling is profound but what draws me back with each episode is the music.  Many New Orleans musicians play themselves on the show and brilliant performances occur in every episode, from “Second Line” street parades to recording sessions to nightclub concerts, music is a constant in the show.

As the birthplace of jazz, rhythm has always been central to the music of New Orleans.  Much of this emphasis comes from the West Africans brought into the city as slaves.  Their rhythms have stayed central but have also been joined by ones from other cultures and these have all blended and morphed into a polyrhythmic… concoction (desperately trying to avoid the word, ‘gumbo’) that can only be found in this one place.  In case you’ve never heard any New Orleans music, let Dr. John and his take on a traditional Mardi Gras Indian chant be an introduction.

My Indian Red

Did you hear all the different stuff going on in that song?  SO MANY different rhythms from the vocals (sung and spoken), horns, bass, drums and percussion instruments.  And for the very perceptive among you, yes those are members of the Neville Brothers singing and playing on this.

One of the best New Orleans drummers around these days is Stanton Moore who records solo, with his trio and with his band Galactic, among many other projects.  Here he is talking to Bob Edwards about what is going on in New Orleans rhythm.

Stanton Moore

Great stuff!



And just so you fully get his examples, here is the song he referenced: “Cissy Strut” featuring Zigaboo Modeliste.  This is perhaps the most important song in the evolution of New Orleans funk.  Again, featuring a number of rather young Nevilles.

Cissy Strut




I don’t want to conclude this post too definatively.  I have a feeling that this type of content here is only beginning so let this stand as a very brief introduction to something that many of us will spend our lives trying to get into our heads, under our fingers, and out to our audience.  Can you feel it?


Until next time…



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New Song Friday and A Call for Rhythmic Variety.

Last night we had our monthly open rehearsal at All Souls.  It was a smaller group than the last time but there were still seven of us making music together.  Whereas the previous time was great fun due to the number of people all playing together (5 guitars!), this one was fun due to the space everyone had to explore their ideas.  There was even some open-ended jamming!  Good times.

At one point, the jam got a little funky and that got me thinking about how many of today’s worship songs are rather limited in terms of rhythm.  Everything is played straight, in 4/4, and with no backbeat.  Now, that totally works for some songs.  Coldplay, Snowpatrol, and others have sold LOTS of records by playing with that feel and doing it well.  But perhaps too much modern worship music finds its musical roots in those bands.  Much of it is starting to sound the same.  Here in Britain, there are a couple of other songwriters (who will remain nameless) whose music could be described as ‘old-sounding hymns with a Celtic feel’.  Those songs all start to sound the same too.  Please don’t get me wrong, there is a place for these songs and we are (and should be) very thankful for these writers and their music.  They are serving us, the Church, and helping us to glorify our God.  But I think, in all humility, that it’s time for some new songs with some more variety, particularly when it comes to rhythm.

One of the problems with too much variety, or too adventurous a rhythm, is that the songs can be difficult to sing.  We as worship (in song) leaders always need to keep in mind that we are facilitating the singing of a group of people, be it 10 or 100 or 1000.  If the congregation can’t sing it, we’re not doing our job.  That’s not to say that the congregation has to get it on the first try but one has to gauge whether this particular group will be able to sing a particular song.  I once was the ‘director of worship’ at a church in Canada.  On one of my first weeks on the job I vetoed a song because no one in the church could sing it.  It was one of those hyper-fast Hillsong tunes that makes sense if you listen to lots of modern r&b/gospel music.  The leader on the day wanted to teach it to the church.  I asked her to picture individual people in the church and imagine them singing this song.  For the most part, she couldn’t.  “But,” she said, “it’s not that hard.”  Unfortunately, “not that hard” for singers who understand a particularly complex style can translate into “impossible” for a large group of non-singers who don’t have an understanding of the form.

At All Souls, we regularly deal with the same issue.  We have a great and continuing legacy of hymn-singing and we also incorporate new music.  It is, for the most part, working quite well but some of the new songs are taking a while to catch on simply because of the form: they’re pop songs rather than hymns.  The structure of the songs is different between the two styles.  For those of us who listen to pop music, these songs make sense.  We can feel when a song is building into a bridge, which we expect to be different from what we’ve been singing up to that point.  We can feel when, after the bridge is done, we’re going back into the pre-chorus which will launch us into the great truth and strong melody of the chorus again.  All of this makes sense to us.  But not everyone has this same musical background and so as we teach these songs we need to remember that they don’t necessarily make sense to everyone.  How we teach and lead the songs should reflect that awareness.

So let us challenge ourselves to use (or write, please!) songs with some variation in rhythm.  And as we seek to expand our musical and rhythmic vocabulary, let’s start (or continue) to broaden our listening.  To that end, our new song of the week: “Wheels”.  This song was written by Gram Parsons so it’s probably about as old as I am but this version was done much more recently by Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller.  Most people’s introduction to Emmylou was when she sang with Gram so she’s staying faithful to his legacy as she sings this.  If I remember the quote right, Gram called this “a righteous shuffle”.  Enjoy!


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New Song Friday – Radiant Lamb

Sorry to be a little late this week but we’ve been having internet issues for the last while.  So I better make this quick before I get thrown back to the mid-90s.

This week’s song is rather different than what I usually post here.  It’s a choral piece performed by my college choir: Columbia Bible College Concert Choir back in 1999, if I remember correctly.  The reason for this post this week is threefold.

Reason 1 – I’ve been attending a number of year end recital exams by music college students over the last few weeks.  This means I’ve been listening to lots of “classical” music and, while this piece may not fall exactly into that category, it is certainly more towards that side of the spectrum than most of what I post.

Reason 2 – I’ve been doing LOTS of talks these days and this song ties together a talk I did a few days ago (Isaiah 9:1-7) and one that’s coming up on Sunday (Revelation 4&5).  Ultimate themes of the redemption of the whole of creation.

Reason 3 – I’ve found that to regularly remind myself where everything is headed is a good important necessary thing.  I need to remember the future; not only to shape my life here and now but for it’s own sake: all things will be as they ought to be.

Enjoy the song and have a good weekend.


Radiant Lamb

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New Song Friday

Another fine and sunny day in London with the temperature moving well past 20 degrees.  The only strange thing is that the clouds are moving west.  They never go west; always east.  Odd.

Today’s song is “World Sick” by Broken Social Scene.  The album, Forgiveness Rock Record, came out a little over a year ago and Louanne and I went to see them on that tour.  This album made up a huge part of my soundtrack last summer and I was reminded why as I put it on my ipod for my “commute” this week.  The songs have LOTS of energy, some of them are anthemic in scope, and often a single instrument can be singled out as the reason a song hangs together or has the momentum it does.  I like the idea of a single instrument being able to take a good, or even average, song and bring it to the realm of the extraordinary.  On this song, the guitars are the deal: the main riffs, the descending line in the chorus, the power chords; all are integral to making this song a great one.

I hope you enjoy a little Canadian indie rock for the weekend (despite the one or two objectionable words).

World Sick

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New Song Friday – The Words in Red

Hello again.  This week’s post is a recent song by American folk/blues/rock/punk artist Peter Case.  Case has been one of my favourites for 20 years or so and I first came across his music as I was beginning to play guitar.  I am deeply in his debt.  I’ve met him once, seen him play twice and spent MANY hours listening to his songs and learning some of them.

Over the years Case has always included songs of faith in the midst of his records.  His life has not been an easy one attested to by two broken marriages and recent life-threatening illness.  On top of these obvious struggles, his songs allude to character traits, flaws and failings that suggest he has not moved through life easily, floating above it’s hurt and despair.  But that’s where faith comes in, right?  He often seems to be a man in search of redemption and his music gives me hope that he knows where it can be found.

This is a song off of his 2010 record, Wig! and it certainly isn’t his strongest song to date.  He, at his best, is a wordsmith, crafting poignent songs and stories out of the vernacular and portraying people that we might meet on any given day.  With this song and it’s rather obvious rhymes, we don’t hear a man who has lost his art but rather a man who has something he needs to say.  Truthfully, it’s a bit of a rant.

Have a listen and let me know what you think.  Do you agree?  Is he being a little judgmental?  Or…?

The Words In Red
Have a great Bank Holiday weekend!

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New Song Friday

Hello again friends.  Today I’ve got something rather different for you.

Those of you who’ve known me for a while know that the word ‘bluegrass’ can easily appear as I talk about hymn arrangements, particularly when the hymn in question is an old gospel song.  Whenever I use that word at All Souls, it’s usually met with laughter and I’m not sure why.  Do people think the music itself is invalid?  Are the players not real musicians?  Or have the Brits never really heard bluegrass and aren’t entirely sure what I’m talking about (not an isolated incident)?  Well, if any of these are true, I intend to remedy the situation by letting you hear some of this music.

This first installment is technically not bluegrass but rather a familiar Cole Porter tune sung by Dolly Parton.  This is from her album Little Sparrow and for this one she pulled together some of the best bluegrass players on the planet to be her band.  Consider this an appetizer.

I Get A Kick Out Of You

As always, I’d really appreciate your comments.

Have a great weekend.

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“Everybody wants to know why I sing…”

A number of weeks ago I was asked to give a short talk to the All Souls choir open rehearsal on the subject of why we sing.  I was given three minutes, took five, and found that I would have been happy to go on much longer.  I think that singing can be one of those things that, as Christians, we just do without always thinking about why.  Here’s why I sing and why I think you should too.

The title of this post is a quotation from a classic B.B. King song in which he says that everyone wants to know why he sings the blues.  He then goes on to outline, in verse after verse, the injustices suffered by African-Americans from slavery all the way to contemporary issues around welfare and education.  With each picture of injustice he comes back to, “… and everybody wants to know…” making the question sound ignorant and patronising.  Another song, written by white songwriters but embraced by, and strongly associated with, the African-American community, is “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” (my favourite version being Marvin Gaye’s).  This song includes the lyric, “I sing because I’m happy.  I sing because I’m free.  His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me”.

So some people sing to grieve over injustice and others sing because they are happy and have found great consolation.  Which should it be?  I suggest both.  Singing seems to be one of the ways that human beings express themselves – whatever they are feeling.  There appears to be something very human about singing.  I’m no sociologist or anthropologist but I don’t know of a culture in the world that does not sing (There may be some so feel free to correct me on this point).  All cultures express themselves through singing.  It may be highly structured or very “primitive” but we, we humans, sing.

Could it be that singing has something to do with God, in whose image we are created?  An intriguing verse in the Old Testament writing of Zephaniah (3:17) says:

The LORD your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.”

Another translation has that last line as, “He will exult over you with loud singing.”  Did you know that God sang?!?  Did you know that his people are somehow the reason for His singing?  I don’t claim to know exactly what this verse means but it fires my imagination.  And I suspect that this is a glimpse into why human beings sing.

But why do we sing; we at All Souls or we who are followers of Jesus?

Singing is communal.  It is something that we do together as the gathered people of God.  It has been said that the human voice is the only instrument that God created directly.    As we gather together to use that instrument (however well or badly) in praise to Him, He is honoured.  His people using His gift for His glory.

We also sing to proclaim the truth about who God is and the truth about who we are.  Ephesians 5:19-20 tells us to, “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  As we sing we declare our faith to our gathered community the church, to our surrounding community, and also to ourselves.  Most of us occasionally (often?) need reminding what and why we believe and our singing is a (not the) way in which we do that.

Singing also has the power to be transformational.  As we proclaim truth, including our ideals about who we ought to be or want to be in light of who God is, we hold these things before our eyes and they serve as a goal for us to strive toward.  Who among us doesn’t wake up some mornings with songs going through our minds.  I think this can be a grace from God reminding us of what we’ve been singing; again, holding our ideals before us even days after we’ve sung them.  And with many of our songs, what we sing is often direct quotations of, or allusions to, Scripture which itself is transformational.

One last reason we sing has little to do with us as individuals.  I’m more and more convinced that often we are singing for others.  Have you read any Winnie the Pooh stories?  There is one story about Pooh going to Piglet’s house and eating so much “hunny” that he gets stuck in the door as he is trying to leave.  Try as they might, Pooh’s friends cannot free him and he is stuck there for days.  At one point he asks Piglet to read him “… a Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness?”  Well you and I have a Sustaining Book that tells a Sustaining Story and as we turn parts of it into music we sing Sustaining Songs.  Piglet’s Sustaining Book may have been enjoyable and edifying to Piglet but it was for Pooh.  In our congregation(s), there are many people who are carrying pain and grief that we may never know about.  As we sing our Sustaining Songs, we may be built up and encouraged ourselves (and it is entirely right that we are) but sometimes we’re lifting our voices for those who can’t lift their own.  We’re declaring faith for those who are just barely holding onto theirs.  We’re speaking the transforming truth of God over people who fear that nothing can change their situation.  So let us not allow ourselves to ever have the attitude that we won’t sing a particular song because what it expresses isn’t what we are feeling on the day.  It could be that God, in His goodness and compassion, has prompted His church to sing that song for the sake of one person who needs to sing it, or for it to be sung on their behalf.

So let’s be singers!  Let us sing and make music, never forgetting to be thankful people.  And whatever we do, let’s do it in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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