I was at a gig on Friday night (uncharacteristically) and ended up in a bizarrely moving headspace. Middle age allows a level of hindsight that, while making one feel old, is multi-layered and full of echoes. (I look forward to the scope of hindsight of old age!)
The artist playing was Ian White – an influential Christian musician in the 80s. The event was in support of his current project: “The Inspiration Orchestra” – primarily providing musical enrichment activities for disabled people.
It is a long time since I first listened to “Psalms Volume 1”. I don’t think I was an Ian White fan as such, but the music and lyrics of his reworking of the Psalms was part of my teenage backdrop. We had a few Ian White cassettes and listened to them a lot, and sang along with them a lot. More than I realised at the time, apparently.
I remember enjoying “Jonah” from the “Philippi” album – where he managed to squeeze the whole of the story of Jonah into one song – with the music and words depicting the dramatic story in dramatic form.
“Word of God to Jonah, son of Amittai
Go and tell the Ninevites, change your ways or die…”
It’s a very energetic song, with a lot of guitar skills in evidence. Similarly percussive and engaging was “Philippi” where he put Silas and Paul’s prison experience to music, complete with earthquake. I spent many happy hours trying to learn to play Philippi on my guitar with my Ian White book of sheet music. I think I had to retune the guitar so that pretty much every string was a D to start with. I don’t know if that was cheating.
Neither “Jonah” nor “Philippi” got a rendition on Friday night – but I still went back in time to hear them anyway. Who knows, I might even dust off my acoustic guitar and see how I get on.
Most of the songs for which Ian White is known are the Psalms reworked. Granted, he had excellent source material. The resultant songs, because of their reworking, allowed the Psalms themselves into my mind and heart. I wonder how many people there are – across the world – who, like me, when they are reading the Psalms, come across a phrase or lyric and suddenly it comes alive with the melody and we remember that the Psalms were songs to be sung. Likewise, when circumstances give rise to a feeling echoed in the Psalms, it is very often brought to mind with Ian White’s expression of the words.
What if, in the early 80s, he hadn’t picked up his guitar and had a go at basing a song on a Psalm?
In the pandemic, when we were first allowed back into the church building – it was an Ian White melody that my brain landed on for this Psalm: “Let us go… to the house…. Of the Lord… Let us go… to the house…. Of the Lord… I rejoiced with those who said to me Let us go to the house of the Lord…” So, on Friday, it was great to hear this song played live in a post pandemic busy venue “where the people of God go up and praise the Name of the Lord.”
What I thought was interesting was that, while all these thoughts were going through my head about the songs written 40 years ago by this guy with a guitar, there were perhaps a hundred other people there who may well be having a similar long-range, life echoey moment. And then, there’s the fact that for decades, he toured the world, singing all these songs he wrote and people, like me, the world over, listened to their cassettes on repeat and all of these fragments of the Scriptures made their way into our lives and long term memories. And they are still there.
And the cross is still there…
…is another of his songs. This one was odd, as even although it is an Ian White song, I don’t have it filed in my subconscious under “Ian White”. I was in the Billy Graham choir at Parkhead in 1991 (I think that’s when it was). I was in 6th year at school and went to choir rehearsals somewhere in Shawlands (I think) and learned the alto parts to some completely brilliant hymns and songs. (These alto lines have proved very useful in the years since!) At the Billy Graham events, all the choirs from across the city got together in our self-coloured shirts and blouses and, in our multitude, gave it laldy over Glasgow. On the album that came out after the events – “Life Has Meaning” – there were a lot of our choir pieces and a lot of other solos from the event including “The Cross is Still There”. It was interesting to hear, 40 years later, Ian talk about writing the song. And again, I thought about the memories it brought back for me and then multiplying the memories sparked by that song for others.
While I was sitting at the event seeing the songs and associations and memories start to weave together in my memory, Ian White spoke about his new project.
He works with adults with disabilities and provides them opportunities to be creative and to contribute musically individually and in groups. The creativity has also moved into art work and photography and he has found ways to allow the creativity of this group to be seen, heard and celebrated. He shared clips of individuals playing, ensembles performing and art work being created. He has a vision of how to grow the work and how to further value these individuals and their work. And he presented this project with a lot of passion and a lot of energy.
The last song was a new one about the importance of the small things in life. There were many small examples given of things that might not seem important but in fact are more profoundly important to people than we might ever know.
The whole thing made me think about people’s creativity and creative work. Much as I don’t think I particularly follow film or music or fashion or art… there are pieces of work that have been important in my make-up, that I have been caught up with for a time, and that have stayed with me. I might have thought the list would be “Fawlty Towers”, “Back to the Future”, “A-ha” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” – but, it turns out that the songs of Ian White are in there somewhere.
And, if the songs of Ian White, containing massive swathes of the Scriptures are rolling around my subconscious, how many other minds and memories are similarly blessed? Before influencers were even a thing, Ian White was an influencer of hundreds and thousands of people, getting the Word of God on to cassettes and into the airwaves and settling in minds and enriching lives, meaning that those words are there when life requires them.
I was wanting to round off this post with a quote from the Psalms. But there are literally too many great quotes in the Psalms; I can’t choose.
If you have got this far, please open a Bible halfway and see what Psalm is in front of you and see how the human experiences we know today are depicted there and how God is faithful and unchanging. And maybe you want to rework one into a song…