by Nicholas Williams - First published in The
Independent, 17 March 2004
The words and music of these songs have assisted the rites of passage at countless baptisms, weddings and funerals. They have been consistently rated amongst the most frequently performed songs in British schools, and have been translated into languages as diverse as Spanish, Norwegian and Chinese. Above all - the ultimate accolade, perhaps, for any songwriter, though unhelpful to one like Carter whose living came entirely from his own music - they have frequently been mistaken as traditional material.
"Lord of the Dance", perhaps his best-loved and indeed most characteristic creation, has proved especially susceptible to reinterpretation on these grounds. Ever since Carter began singing "I danced in the morning / When the world was begun, / And I danced in the moon / And the stars and the sun" to audiences in the early 1960s, the song has sunk deeper into the national psyche. Now included in every kind of Christian denominational hymnbook, it is often, quite wrongly, considered to exist in the public domain, and therefore to be open to shameless plunder and adaptation by a variety of special interest groups from pagans to professional Celts.
Though this in itself suggests a remarkable universal appeal, how Carter came to write songs of such plasticity both in music and theological content is not so easily explained. Like many women and men of his generation, he was a late developer artistically, the Second World War having interrupted the formative years of his twenties and early thirties.
As a schoolboy in north London in the 1920s he had enjoyed community singing at Montem Street School, Islington, and later, singing hymns in chapel at Christ's Hospital, Horsham. As an undergraduate reading Modern History at Balliol College, Oxford, he wrote poetry and dreamt of becoming a film director, but instead ended up a schoolmaster at Frensham Heights in Surrey until the advent of hostilities, when he joined the Friends' Ambulance Unit.
It was while serving with them in Greece that his first definitive encounter with folk music occurred, an event he later defined as more or less influencing everything he did subsequently. All the same, the effect of its stimulus was slow and subtle rather than immediate.
In the post-war years Carter worked for the British Council and broadcast for the BBC World Service, while also immersing himself in the world of folksong and dance that was focused on Cecil Sharp House, the London headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. At the same time, writing songs at the request of Donald Swann, who was in need of additional revue material, Carter discovered not only a new talent, but also one that - as a singer at least - he could himself develop and which, indeed, could provide him with an income.
The quantity of songs that followed - he once estimated the total number he had written to be in excess of 500 - covered a diversity of subjects, styles and genres from the satirical to the deadly serious and from music for churches to pub, cabaret and revue. Some were of their time. Things have certainly moved on since "The Vicar is a Beatnik" (1969) was topical, though it may yet again be revived in some future wave of retro. Others, like "My Last Cigarette", featured on the 1962 album Putting Out the Dustbin and fruit of a popular collaboration with Sheila Hancock, remain fondly remembered classics of their period.
Common to them all, however, was Carter's inimitable humour and outlook on life, coupled with a musical style whose origins lay as much in a performing style as in melodic mannerisms. Writing in 1969, he explained that "songs should be learned the way you learn to make an omelette or drive a car". And he went on to say of his own music:
Nor indeed were Carter's religious songs, though throughout the 1960s his reputation had grown steadily through his work on ABC TV's Hallelujah series and its sequel Don't Just Sit There, through recordings such as the 1966 album Lord of the Dance, and through his association with leading contemporary artists from the folk scene including Martin Carthy, Nadia Cattouse, Rolf Harris, Maddy Prior (later to collaborate with Carter on the 1981 album Lovely in the Dances), Marian Segal and Jeremy Taylor. In addition, he had embarked on an enduring partnership with the publishers Stainer & Bell, who were bringing out his songs and poetry.
Even so, in the sphere where today he is most fondly remembered, that of religious music, he remained a marginal figure, though a number of his lyrics, including "One More Step" and "Come All You Makers" were written in response to specific liturgical requests. Many in the church establishment frowned upon his radical statements of faith and doubt. The song "Friday Morning", for example, written from the perspective of the unrepentant thief and containing the line "It's God they ought to crucify / Instead of you and me . . .", prompted thousands of letters of complaint both in Britain and America, as well as calls from Enoch Powell and the Daily Mirror that it should be banned.
Such issues, however, went to the heart of Carter's identity, without possibility of compromise. The style was the man, and the songs the accurate reflection of his search for religious meaning. He had experienced some kind of private conversion at the age of 13, and was confirmed two years later. Both experiences he later regarded as a form of rape by the Christian society of the time. And, although he will be buried according to the rite of the Church of England, thereafter it was to the Quakers that he often turned as a spiritual home. In fact, Carter's openness to religious truth makes talks of religious categories rather superfluous, which was indeed a major irritation for the early critics of the open-minded, non-credal statements of his songs.
That two of his most popular lyrics, "One More Step" and "Travel On", should invoke the concept of journey was indeed no coincidence. In this voyaging faith of interrogatives, the creed lay in the question mark, often of a Zen-like paradox. In 1974, he wrote:
Such an approach, quite without post-modern irony, and uttered with the Blakeian candour of a man asking questions of himself, has brought comfort and inspiration to many similarly beset by uncertainty over the years. Moreover, the seismic upheaval in religious attitudes both here and abroad since the 1960s has brought Carter's approach in from the cold, his open-ended faith now in tune with the multifarious nature of contemporary Christianity, and pertinent to contexts of public worship such as school assemblies.
The music, too, is no less attuned to the Zeitgeist. Movement again is the key. It is no coincidence that he chose to describe his songs as "carols", reviving the medieval sense of a seasonal religious song that is danced. Music for him was above all a physical thing, a felt process of creation through voice and act preceding any notation. The American Shakers were a source of inspiration, with a transcendental sense of the link between creation, life, faith and the dance behind all dances.
Carter himself continued dancing to a ripe age before succumbing to the frailties of time, though still writing and talking about religion inimitably until Alzheimer's cruelly clouded his last years. Yet, though the personality was elsewhere, his own words and tunes remained lodged in his memory to the end.
Friends and colleagues will remember Sydney Carter as a tall, virile figure, slightly stooping, a compelling if idiosyncratic performer, and in private, in the company of his second wife, Leela Nair, no less entertaining and stimulating, and liable to burst into song at the slightest provocation.