Billy Bragg – Jerusalem

Billy Bragg’s rendition of “Jerusalem” from the 1990 album The Internationale. Listen to the podcast on Test Dept. which includes some information on Bragg.

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

William Blake Jukebox is a collection of videos available on YouTube related to William Blake. View them all at http://www.youtube.com/user/WilliamBlakeJukebox.

Zoapod 6: Mark Stewart and the Mafia – Blake’s Jerusalem (Transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis Podcast 6. Unsurprisingly, considering its status as one of the most popular of Blake’s poems, the lines “And did those feet in ancient times”, more commonly known as “Jerusalem”, have inspired a huge number of versions. If that by Test Dept, the subject of my first podcast, is probably the most astonishing in its effect, the strangest – and in many ways most wonderful – is that produced by Mark Stewart and the Mafia in 1982.

2. Mark Stewart started his musical career with a post-punk band, the Pop Group, which formed in Bristol in 1978. After critical success but commercial failure, the Pop Group split in 1981 and Stewart began to collaborate with members working for the record label On-U Sound Records as Mark Stewart and the Mafia, specialising in a dub style that owed as much to punk and new wave as it did to more traditional artists such as Lee “Scratch” Perry. As well as working as a solo artist, Stewart has also made records with a variety of others since the 1980s, including Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Massive Attack, and Primal Scream. With such a lineage, it was inevitable that his rendition of the famous Blake/Parry hymn would be extremely unconventional.

3. “Jerusalem”, a double-A side single with “Liberty City” (and available now on the 2005 compilation, Kiss the Future), was Stewart’s second release after leaving the Pop Group. Dave Furgess (reviewing the 1985 album, As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade on Julian Cope’s Headheritage site [http://www.headheritage.co.uk/unsung/review/316]) describes Stewart as “one of the true giants of contemporary music”, being one of the main figures who virtually reinvented dub music. Many of the features of Stewart’s dub style, especially the stripped down drum and bass reggae backing and his beautifully discordant, pained vocals, feature on “Jerusalem”, which also mixes in ironic samples in a fashion that is exceptional on Stewart’s early work at least. After a sparse, extended introduction, the distant, distorted voice is a sharp blade, a sarcastic slice through the roar of jubilant crowds.

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4. Several features of this version of “Jerusalem” stand out. Once the listener is acclimatised to Stewart’s voice, the immediate recognition for anyone familiar with the hymn must be that he reverses Blake’s stanzas: each of the verses is sung or played in reverse order, creating a sense of England’s green and pleasant land turned upside down. His shriek at the end of that initial verse also introduces another element that is continued throughout the song, the segue into one of several samples that are scattered amidst it, bones of the carcase of the hymn’s twentieth century history and drawn from more familiar settings such as Last Night of the Proms and brass bands that marched up and down the country to its strains for more than half a century.

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5. The effect of these samples is fascinating, in that not only does Stewart’s detached, heavily edited voice indicate his distance from all their implications of familiar nationalism, but the two main sources of his samples themselves offer a mental fight for the song’s very DNA. Last Night of the Proms, of course, is most familiar to many listeners, and it is easy to imagine Stewart’s sneer of disgust as he spits out Blake’s words in the face of the rousing imperial values of Elgar’s bombastic arrangement of Parry’s original, simpler hymn. Yet it is hard not to listen to those brass bands without a pang of almost perverse nostalgia, which I am sure was not part of the singer’s intention when he recorded this song. Even in the mid-80s there was something more than a little kitsch about such obtuse wind instruments, that were most definitely an object of mockery for anyone interested in music in the period after punk rock. At the time, however, they at least had some immediate and vivid connection to a tradition – however invented – that linked workers in Britain to the collieries and manufacturies that were the backbone of England’s dark Satanic mills. Within two years of Stewart recording “Jerusalem”, the full-scale Thatcherite assault on that class was to begin in earnest and now, nearly thirty years later, they have no more connection to any vibrant past than Scottish kilts or Morris dancing. Perhaps Stewart did take sides, but in the early eighties it must have seemed to him that there was a plague on both of these houses, locked in a corporeal rather than mental war – a war in which one side most definitely lost.

6. The lack of warmth in Stewart’s voice, the absence of traditional pride and empathy, creates a distance which gives this particular version of “Jerusalem” its continuing power to shock. This is a statement of nation, but it is a Jeremiad, a warning of the disasters to come and a lamentation of the sordid state, prophesying its downfall in wickedness. Stewart as sarcastic seer divines a Britain rotten and yet through his thin, reedy voice comes flashes of strength. The desire to build Jerusalem ends with an agonised screech, but the demand to “Bring me my bow of burning gold” and declaration that he “will not cease from mental fight” are uttered with fierce determination.

7. If this sounds too grim, the hymn is not without a delightful humour, as when a keyboard, imitating a xylophone or glockenspiel, tinkles out the second verse of the Blake/Parry hymn.

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8. An added significance here is that the first and second verse are implicit throughout the song, indicated to the listener by instrumental samples. Stewart only sings the final two stanzas, and one immediate effect of this is to dechristianise the poem: we are no longer concerned with Christ’s putative visit to Britain. Instead, Stewart focuses entirely on the images of combat and building that constituted the conclusion of the poem. Towards the end of his own song, his words disintegrate into almost inchoate phrases, fragments of Blake’s original that function as a dissonant counterpoint to the original forceful and determined invocations, aware perhaps of the coming wars that would reshape Britain over the following decade, and that if his was a voice of prophecy then, as such, it must be without honour in its own country.

Blake’s Jerusalem: the hit parade

As I’ve been doing some work on Blake’s hymn Jerusalem for a while now, I thought I would record here some of the more unusual versions that have been released over the past few years. As with the post on William Blake’s music, this is a simple list with some comments on my part – and offered in no especial order. A few of them will resurface in podcasts with a more extended discussion.

  • Mark Stewart and the Mafia: My particular favourite, this version was released in 1982, combining samples of brass band/Last Night of the Proms renditions interleaved with the Mafia’s soothing dub and Stewart’s pained cackle as a Jeremiad for the nation. The most original version yet.

 

  • Test Dept: A close competitor after Stewart for me, this version was released on the album Pax Britannica in 1990, in time to coincide with the Poll Tax riots. The Blake-Parry hymn is broken in two and fused with the stentorian tones of Margaret Thatcher. You can hear my podcast on this version here.
  • Billy Bragg: Probably the version with which many listeners are most familiar, Bragg’s best version of Jerusalem is to be found on the album The Internationale, released at the same time as Test Dept’s. His voice, a piano, and probably the release which is closest in form and spirit to Parry’s original.
  • Soul Fire: A reggae rendition that was recorded in 2007, I know very little about this group, but their Jerusalem Dubwise version is one of the smoothest that you will ever hear.
  • Emerson, Lake and Palmer: At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, this is probably the most pompous release ever, which is a tough challenge ever since Elgar’s overblown arrangement in 1922. Included on the album Brain Salad Surgery, 1973, the fact that is for me almost unlistenable does not prevent it from being one of the most interesting versions.
  • Fat Les: The official song for Euro 2000, Jerusalem 2000 included a gay male voice choir singing along with Keith Allen, Alex James and Damien Hurst. The joke may have been funny for a nano-second, but the military-band percussion drummed up debates around what it meant to be English at the turn of the millennium.
  • Blake: Following on a theme from the latter, boy-band Blake offered the true-blue, Tory vision of England’s green and pleasant land on their debut album in 2007. I cannot listen to this except through gritted teeth, but it is an insight into the soul of middle England.
  • Gary Lucas: Apparently Lucas is the “thinking man’s guitar hero” according to the New Yorker. While I am somewhat agnostic on that particular line, his new album, Chase the Devil, due out in 2010 with Dean Bowman on vocals, certainly promises to offer a more thoughtful arrangement of Jerusalem than anything by boy-band Blake or Fat Les.
  • The Fall: The career of Mark E. Smith rises and, well, falls, but 1988’s I Am Kurious Oranj is a definite highlight. The Fall sing Jerusalem as something of a baggy monster, but Dog is Life/Jerusalem is far more compelling when rambled through by Smith than belted out with fake passion by many others.
  • Paul Robeson: When I hear Robeson’s deep, rich voice, I am willing to forget many sins committed against the Blake/Parry hymn; when I read about Robeson’s life, I realise that it is many of my own sins that are to be forgiven. Inspiring and beautiful, this was first released as a 7″ EP and then on the debut compilation Robeson in 1959.

Blakean Music

While the appearances of Blake in cinema are relatively rare (see previous Zoamorphosis posts on William Blake and Film and Cannibalising Blake), the subject of William Blake and music is an extremely rich one.

From the early twentieth century onwards Blake has been an incredible inspiration to a vast number of composers and groups. Plenty of these will be returned to in future posts, but this represents a Top 10 – in no particular order – of some of the figures who have engaged most fruitfully with Blake.

  • Hubert Parry: While there had been some musical interest in Blake’s verse prior to Parry, it was his setting of the lines from Milton to music in “Jerusalem” that established Blake’s poetry in the minds of many. Parry himself encouraged its adoption as the anthem of the Women’s Suffrage League, although it was Elgar’s arrangement in 1922 that made it a work of nationalist jingoism.
  • Benjamin Britten: Britten worked with Blake’s poetry several times, such as in Serenade, A Charm of Lullabies, and, most significantly, Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. The final version is usually reckoned one of his most sombre pieces.
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams: Williams was commissioned to compose music for the 1958 film, The Vision of William Blake and, after his death, recordings were released as Ten Blake Songs, demonstrating Williams’s harmony stripped to its essential features.
  • Virgil Thompson: Just before Williams began work on his film score, Virgil Thompson created a marvellous series of arrangements based on Blake’s poetry called Five Songs from William Blake, using several of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience as the basis of his collection.
  • William Bolcom: Blakes Songs, this time all of them, were also the source of inspiration for Bolcom, who completed his setting of them to music in 1984, and a 2005 recording won three Grammy Awards, including Best Classical Album.
  • Dmitri Smirnov: Smirnov, born in Minsk, has been resident in Britain since 1991, apparently because it allows him to feel closer to Blake, the source for many of his compositions, including an opera, Tiriel, a ballet, Blake’s Pictures, and the beautiful The Lamentations of Thel.
  • Mike Westbrook: Crossing over from classical to other musical forms, Mike Westbrook has engaged several times with Blake’s works, most notably in his score for Adrian Mitchell’s 1971 play, Tyger. A letter collection, Glad Day, has been performed several times since.
  • Jah Wobble: Wobble may have made his name with post-punk bands such as P.I.L., but he was also always willing to entertain the divine visions of another Londoner, most notably on the album The Inspiration of William Blake, which includes selections of Auguries of Innocence and Tyger, Tyger, mixed in with Wobble’s own original compositions.
  • Ulver: Last but by no means least, the Norwegian progressive/metal band Ulver (whose name means “Wolves”) produced one of the most original albums ever to have been influenced by Blake in the form of Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It stumped their fans at the time, but has been a stalwart favourite of many Blakeans ever since.
  • The William Blakes: The most recent ones here, the William Blakes are a Danish pop and rock band, whose music doesn’t especially reference Blake (for example on the album “Wayne Coyne”), but whose name is testimony to the impact of the Romantic artist and poet as still remaining some cachet for any young bands who want to indicate a certain rebellious vision.

This list barely scratches the surface of Blake’s reception in music, and I have not myself even fully begun to explore the range of composers – classical and popular – who occasionally dip in and out of Blake’s verse. However, this list above provides a good starting point for anyone seeking for some of the more substantial fruits of his inspiration.

The Last of England: Jarman’s Blakean vision

Another rather sombre anniversary today: Derek Jarman, artist, writer and film maker, died on February 19, 1994, from an AIDS-related illness aged 52, one of the few openly-gay artists in the UK at the time.

He is most widely known for films such as Jubilee (1977-8) and Caravaggio (1986), and the strongest influences on his style and content were Elizabethan figures such as Shakespeare, Marlowe and the magician, John Dee, yet Jarman also saw himself as a “Blakean leveller” and the leap from Renaissance England to Romantic artist was not such a hard one to make. Contemporaries and early critics of Blake saw his early works such as Poetical Sketches as a revival of Elizabethan poetry in contrast to the then-dominant Augustan style, and Blake himself was immersed in the worlds of Milton and English radicals of the Civil War and Interregnum.

A friend of mine, Mark Douglas, drew my attention to an obituary that appeared in Art Monthly after Jarman’s death, in which Roger Cook wrote:

When I think of Derek I think of William Blake’s fiery youthful giant Albion, incandescent with energy as represented in Blake’s engraving known as Glad Day or The Dance of Albion. Like Blake, he identified the ecstasy of human sexuality with freedom and protested its bondage. It was this that made him so passionate and open.

Jarman had a fascination with England that is perhaps the strongest link between his work and that of Blake’s. In The Last of England, the book published from diaries written at the time he was making the film of that name, Jarman lamented how through the film Chariots of Fire reduced Blake’s vision to “some muscular Christianism and jingo, crypto-faggy Cambridge stuff set to William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ – a minor poet who wrote this popular football hymn”. The sarcasm and bitterness in those words, with their deprecatory reference to Blake as a “minor poet”, are a jaundiced reflection on the success of what he saw as jingoism compared to his own, more complex view of England’s green and pleasant land. His more passionate view about the Romantic artist was summed up in a note to Jubilee:

“all those who secretly work against the tyranny of Marxists fascists trade unionists maoists capitalists socialists etc… who have conspired together to destroy the diversity and holiness of each life in the name of materialism… For William Blake.”

Events, exhibitions, releases February 2010

A number of new exhibitions and releases for 2010 demonstrate the continuing influence of William Blake in a variety of arts and formats.

One of the biggest events for the new year is the Chris Ofili exhibition at Tate Britain, but Blake is also present in the work of a number of other artists whose work has recently gone on display.

The Spanish conceptualist sculptor, Jaume Plensa, who in 1996 created Blake in Gateshead, a laser installation for the Baltic Centre of Contemporary Art, recently unveiled a new collection at the Nasher Sculpture Center. One piece, Twenty-nine Palms, is a curtain of stainless steel letters that spell out passages from some of Plensa’s favourite poets, including Blake as well as Charles Baudelaire and Emily Dickinson. The exhibition, Jaume Plensa: Genus and Species, runs until May 2.

At the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a retrospective of the work of Paul Nash shows how the landscapes created by the artist betweeen 1911 and 1946 were influenced by Blake as well as Samuel Palmer, Nash seeking to forge his own idiosyncratic symbolic language in the style of the Romantic artist. Paul Nash: The Elements is open between February 10 and May 9. It is also possible to see some of Blake’s own work at the Picture of Us? Identity in British Art exhibition that is currently on at the Graves Gallery in Sheffield.

Beyond the visual arts, Blake has had a role to play in a number of new musical releases. The country singer John Goodspeed’s new album, A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C), compares Blake to Muddy Waters, while the third album by Midlake, The Courage of Others, cites Blake as a poetic influence. That influence is more than passing for the Danish group The William Blakes, who have released two albums and are becoming increasingly popular in Scandinavia where they are currently on tour.

One extremely significant event is Jez Butterworth’s new play, Jerusalem, currently showing at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London after its transfer from the Royal Court. Jerusalem deals with often-neglected, alternative forms of Englishness, and stars Mark Rylance as a drug-addled gipsy, Rooster Byron. Throughout the play, Blake is an important lodestone for the forgotten aspects of this often cynical green and pleasant land, and runs until April 24.

Perhaps the strangest influence of all, however, is the appearance of some of Blake’s visual ideas in the new game from Electronic Arts, Dante’s Inferno. Aiming to take gamers to Dante’s view of hell, a book of the game indicates clearly that Blake, along with Auguste Rodin and Gustave Doré, was one of the inspirations for the game design.