Trigger warning! I am the sort of geek who actually cares both about schisms among subtypes within subtypes of Calvinists (Presbyterian and Congregationalist) in the antebellum US (which mattered for things like ending slavery and the ongoing curricula of US liberal arts colleges) as well as which factions of the academic left have a correct understanding of how Antonio Gramsci related to Vladimir Lenin.
And I can become equally … well, let’s just say “passionately idiosyncratic” … when it comes to fine points of music, such as whose spins on Bob Dylan or Bob Marley lyrics miss the point, and by extension how such songs should be sung today.
All this feeds into my obsessions (theological, political, and musical) with the song on deck today: “Every Star Shall Sing a Carol” by the British songwriter Sydney Carter.
90% of Carter’s reputation is based on his “Lord of the Dance” lyric, set to the tune better known as “Simple Gifts”—and this drives me crazy because am barely interested in this song at all, except that many versions of it strike me as off-putting but I do like a similar Carter song about George Fox, the founder of Quakerism. Another 5% of Carter’s reputation is based on “Crow on the Cradle” which was covered in the 1960s by Joni Mitchell (just released here, attributed to Ewan MacColl) and Judy Collins. It’s pretty good but not among his top five. (By the way, MacColl’s “Ballad of the Carpenter” is a worthy companion to my reflection today, although it leads down a separate rabbit track.)
That leaves only 5% percent for all of Carter’s best songs put together—including “Every Star” which has long been one of my favorite Christmas songs. This is my geek’s reflection, based on singing it long enough to understand it inside and out and form strong opinions about it.
Here is my version. As I will explain, it builds on Carter but by now it might be around half mine after additions, subtractions, and revisions–like something that started out as the ancestor of both a sheepdog and and a beagle and now is two different breeds of song.
Here are my lyrics if you want to follow along.
Every star shall sing a carol
Every rock on every shore
Greet the dawn of new beginnings
Sing of hope for all who mourn
Glory to god, peace on earth; Hear the angels’ song.
When the powers that rule creation
Had a cradle on this earth
Holy was the human body,
Holy was the human birth
Who can tell what other bodies
God may hallow for a home?
Here today we welcome Jesus
Brother of our blood and bone
Blessed are the poor in spirit
Blessed are the ones who cry
Blessed those who thirst for justice
Soon their tears will turn to joy
Wolf will no more kill the rabbit
No more homeless in our streets
We will beat our swords to plowshares
Till the soil and plant good seed .
Babylon the great is fallen
Mighty tree bearing bitter fruit
Now the riders are approaching
Now the axe is laid to the roots
Every star and every planet
Every creature great and small
Sing with us the angel chorus
Sing of hope and grace for all
Glory to god, peace on earth; Hear the angels’ song.
Let’s compare this to the original. Here are the lyrics and a nice reflection. You can easily find YouTube versions if you are inclined. If this form of the song were not excellent, I would not be writing now. It is beautiful in sound and structure, and is just the right length. (I never sing all the verses I’ve written at the same time, and in fact the above version sets aside two good verses. Often I cut more.)
But two immediate problems arise with Carter. Note how in his chorus, where I have angels promoting peace and fighting Babylon, he says “God above, Man below, holy is the name I know.” It was an obvious deal-breaker to sing “Man below” in the 1980s when I first learned this, and substituting “God above, we below” did not satisfy me. Related to switching out “mankind” and “brotherhood” for “humans” and “unity” but far more controversial, there is also a question about how much to problematize God being imagined as “Father” or “Lord.” At times there can be good reasons to extend such hierarchical imagery. For example, one could use the words “Jesus is Lord” to express an idea that led Adolph Hitler to put the preacher Martin Niemöller in jail. He preached a sermon called “God is My Führer”—that is, “my leader is God (not you!).” The same logic can work for resisting abusive men (“God is my father, and I take my wifely orders from Jesus!”), as well as for choosing “masters” given that “you cannot serve both God and mammon.”
Relatedly one might posit that “King of Creation” and “Mother Earth Goddess” could possibly express related thoughts, and maybe we could alternate…
…except we know perfectly well that these don’t express the same thing at a visceral level. Their associations are quite different. (Try switching “Our Father in Heaven” to “Mother Earth” to begin what is called “The Lord’s Prayer.”) People commonly switch between “Lord,” “King,” and “Father”—but we rarely extend such interchangeability to “God the Führer,” “Boss,” “Generalissimo” or “Slave master.” Or if we have paused to consider whether we should, probably we are getting distracted rather than caught up in the music.
Thus the challenge of this song goes beyond a workaround for “Man” and “King of Heaven”—which I did by avoiding the first problem and singing “the power that rules creation” in the second case. It extends to rethinking the concept undergirding the whole song. For Carter, humans are “below” (paired with mother earth?), a male God is based somewhere up in the sky, and God is the power of the universe, active on infinite planets. Jesus is the so-called “Cosmic Christ” mystically identical with this God—similar to how some Christians conceive the third person of the Trinity (and to my mind this latter conception is a little better, with Jesus playing a slightly different role.) If that is too geeky for you, let it go, but this is straight-ahead Anglican trinitarian theology, despite infusing a fair amount Quaker spirituality into the sound.
Carter nuances this well with his God in a cradle to show that “holy is the human birth”—a thought extended by Jesus as “brother of our blood and bone.” Carter also offers a pointedly less exclusivist conception of Jesus, compared to most hymns, rejecting any background assumption that “we” the singers have the “real Lord” and everyone else doesn’t.
Nevertheless, at the end of day, Carter’s God up in the sky and his Cosmic Christ living on numerous planets is not a theology I can fully get behind, even though much of this lyric is lovely and I appreciate what it tries to do. I suppose that for some this will make my version inferior to Carter’s, because I’m not very trinitarian by orthodox Protestant standards—although probably others will like mine better for the same reason. I have what is called a “low Christology” that echoes Carter’s Quaker instincts and emphasizes Jesus as “brother of our blood and bone”—although also as a teacher and role model in profound senses that are not to be sneered at in the ways that orthodox trinitarians often sneer. Unpacking these ideas would make this essay intolerably long and geeky, so I will leave it at that.
The point at hand is that I do not want my lyric solely to evade knee-jerk reactions to “Man,” and not simply to steer around excessive claims about Jesus’s “Führer-ness” (“Hmm, can we salvage it as positive in this case?) or “cosmic-ness” (“Yikes, does that make any sense?”) when these are distracting at best. I want my own positive version to get behind.
At this point I came up against two further challenges. First was my general kill-joy approach to fake Christmas cheer. Often I am repelled by sentimental Christmas songs—they don’t cheer me up when I’m depressed, but rather make me even more depressed and/or newly enraged. I viscerally hate many of the claims about being joyful that one hears in churches—assertions and instructions of the type that feel forced and infused with positive thinking—at least when they do not ring true to me. The prosperity gospel is the paradigmatic offender, and many of my friends love to hate it, but this is a far more widespread problem. Many versions of “Joy to the World”—with “the Lord” relating in a notably hierarchal way to “his” feminized earth who is “receiving her King”—have rung false to me like this, despite the song’s virtues at its best. All too often it has put me in foul mood at the end of Christmas services, making me run to my car and turn up something darker to a high volume.
Second, I need to hear more about social conflict alongside cosmic harmonies. Remember how I threatened to bring Gramsci into this reflection, as if to guarantee that it won’t be fit for dinner conversation? Here again my rambling could become intolerably geeky. Suffice it to say that if we can’t—when considering the Christmas story—relate its context of Roman occupation and slavery to its words about imperial taxation and singing about peace and deliverance, then we have missed something primary and essential. Likewise, if we can’t connect a story about being “born in a stable because there was no room at the inn” to inadequate medical care and homelessness—if it is all positive thinking about cute kids in angel outfits and the only “tidings of peace” we notice are abstract and depoliticized—then we are missing a central component of what makes this story worth caring about. We are failing to add two plus two, or perhaps adding two plus two but ending up with a negative number.
Therefore, while I still love the original “Every Star” more than most Christmas songs, it only gets me halfway to where I want to go. Little by little, I started adding ecological themes, a “lion will lie down with lamb” verse evoking Isaiah the prophet (with rabbits, wolves, and by implication dog-eat-dog capitalism for Wisconsin), a “blessed are the peacemakers” verse, and angels proclaiming the fall of Babylon. The Babylon verse evokes Dylan and Marley songs as well as John the Baptist and John the Revelator, with a hope that many kinds of listeners might “get” some part of the nuance.
In the chorus that is the new focal point, I tried fix three things with one stroke—the “Man” problem, the “Cosmic Jesus in the sky” issue, plus the fact that Carter’s tune has gradually come to strike me as difficult to sing well and slightly repetitive. I used a tune that echoes Carter’s, but with the angels and people singing together: “Glory to god, peace on earth.”
If you like “Every Star Shall Sing a Carol (New Millennium Peace Version),” and you have ideas about how to get it out a little more widely, please let me know. I hope to record it better one day soon, but for now the above will have to suffice.
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