The William Blake Blog

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: the "thinking man's guitar hero" according to the New Yorker, Lucas performed with Captain Beefheart before forming his own band, Gods and Monsters, in 1989. 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.