Trigger warning! I am the sort of geek who actually cares about schisms among subtypes of subtypes of Calvinism in the 1800s (believe it or not, this was important for things like ending slavery and the future of US higher education) as well as which factions of the left have the best understanding of how Gramsci related to Lenin.
I can be equally … let’s just say “passionately idiosyncratic” … about fine points of music, such as whose spins on Bob Dylan lyrics miss the point, and by extension how such songs should be sung.
All this mirrors 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 lyric “Lord of the Dance,” set to the tune of “Simple Gifts”—which drives me crazy because I am barely interested in this song at all except for being repelled by most versions, although I do love his lyric for this tune that is about George Fox, who founded the Quakers. Another 5% of Carter’s reputation is based on “Crow on the Cradle.” This is not among his best, but was covered in the 1960s by Joni Mitchell (just released, where sadly she credits it to Ewan MacColl) and Judy Collins. (By the way, down a separate rabbit track, we could pursue MacColl’s “Ballad of the Carpenter” as a worthy companion to my reflections below about what makes a good song about Jesus.)
That leaves only 5% percent of the oxygen in the room 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 enough to understand it inside and out, and in the process forming strong opinions about it.
Here is my version of the song. It builds on Carter but by now may be nearly half mine after additions, subtractions, and revisions. It’s as if Carter’s original started out as the ancestor of both a beagle and a sheepdog, but now has become two different breeds of song.
Here are my lyrics. I never sing all of them but rather pick and choose for specific occasions, including for this recording.
Let’s compare this to the original. Here are the original lyrics and a nice reflection. It’s easy to find YouTube recordings. If the original form were not commendable, I would not be writing this now. It is beautiful in sound and structure, and is just the right length.
Things I Want Less Of
But problems arise. In Carter’s chorus, where I currently have people singing with angels about promoting peace and fighting Babylon, Carter says “God above, Man below, holy is the name I know.” During the 1980s when I learned this, it was an obvious deal-breaker to sing “Man below.” But simply substituting “God above, we below” did not satisfy, because there is a deeper question—related to switching out “mankind” for “humans” but more thorny—about whether to problematize God imagined as “Father” or “King.”
This is tricky since sometimes there are solid reasons to extend hierarchical imagery. After all, we could posit that Carter’s image, “King of Creation,” might pass muster if we alternate it with something else powerful like “Mother Earth Goddess.” We might also recall Martin Niemöller being jailed by Adolph Hitler for preaching a sermon called “God is My Führer”—his point being “my leader is God (not Hitler!)” Similar logic sometimes makes sense for pushing back against abusive males (“God is my father, and I take my orders from Jesus!”) or for having a “master” if “you cannot serve two masters, both God and mammon.”
This is all fine—sometimes—yet we know perfectly well that “King” and “Mother Earth” don’t express the same things at a visceral level, and also that if we merely split the difference and say “God,” the undertow stays masculine (I don’t solve this latter problem but do decenter it slightly.) Meanwhile, although songs commonly switch between “Lord,” “King,” and “Father” we do not extend this interchangeability to “God the Führer,” “Boss,” “Generalissimo” or “Slave master.” If we have to slow down to ponder whether we should do so in this one case, we are probably not caught up in the music but instead distracted.
Thus the challengegoes beyond simply working around “Man” and “King”—easily done by avoiding “Man” and swapping in “the power that rules creation.” It extends to rethinking the controlling imagery.
For Carter, humans are “below” (paired with mother earth?) and a male God is based up in the sky. The first person of the Trinity (whatever we call him/her/it if we don’t want to say “Father”) is the power of the universe, active on infinite planets. Jesus is the so-called “Cosmic Christ” mystically identical with this sky-God. In this theology the concrete human Jesus tends to dissolve into an abstract quality of “Christ-ness,” similar to how some Christians conceive the third person of the Trinity (often called the Holy Spirit). This is largely straight-ahead Anglican trinitarian theology, despite infusing some Quaker spirituality into the sound.
True, Carter nuances this nicely with his God in a cradle to signal that “holy is the human birth” and a Jesus who is “brother of our blood and bone”—parts that I underline. He also offers a pointedly non-exclusivist Jesus, ruling out any notion that “we” have the “real Lord” while others do not, even if they live on other planets.
Nevertheless, at the end of day, Carter’s God up in the sky and his Cosmic Christ living on several planets is not a theology I can fully get behind, although much of this lyric is lovely and I appreciate what it is trying to do. I suppose that for some this will make my version inferior, because I’m not very trinitarian by orthodox standards. However, others may like my version better for the exact same reason. (The church where I often attend rarely even uses the so-called “Lord’s Prayer,” much less orthodox creeds, to avoid red flags less acute than what Carter offers.) My so-called “low Christology” echoes Carter’s Quaker instincts to stress Jesus as “our blood and bone”—although also as teacher and role model in profound senses that should not be sneered at as trinitarians tend to do.
The key point is that it’s not enough to evade knee-jerk reactions to “Man below,” nor to end up distracted by a semi-King in the sky (“hmm, should we give that a pass this time?”) plus “cosmic-ness” (yikes, does that even make sense?) I want my own positive version to rally behind.
Less Fake Joy, More Social Justice
I can’t rally behind it unless it passes two bars. First is my kill-joy approach to fake Christmas cheer. Most sentimental Christmas songs don’t cheer me up but make me even more depressed and/or newly enraged. I viscerally hate statements about being joyful that one hears in churches—the type of assertions-meet-instructions that feel forced and infused with positive thinking—when they do not ring true. Although the prosperity gospel is the paradigmatic offender, this problem is pervasive, not least at Christmas. For example, many versions of “Joy to the World”—featuring “the Lord” ruling in a notably hierarchal way over “his” highly feminized earth who is “receiving her King”—ring false like this. Such songs put me into a foul mood before the end of Christmas services, making me run to my car and turn up something dark and bitter to a high volume.
Second, I need to hear about earthly social conflicts alongside cosmic harmonies–not because all songs must always do this, but in order to ring true with the topic we are supposedly singing about. Remember how I threatened to bring Gramsci into this reflection? If we can’t—when considering Christmas songs and by extension what to say about Jesus more generally—relate the topic to its context of Roman occupation and slavery, its themes of imperial taxation, and the centrality of people singing about peace and deliverance, we miss something primary and essential. Likewise, if we can’t connect a story about being “born in a stable since there was no room at the inn” to homelessness and inadequate medical care—if the take-away is positive thinking about kids in angel outfits while the “tidings of peace” are abstract and depoliticized—then we miss something basic to what makes these stories worth caring about. It’s not that one interpretation of one Bible story is decisive by itself, but rather that this story leads, by extension, toward questions about what sorts of Christianity are worth affiliating with at all. If the politics are lacking and the music doesn’t ring true, Christian participation may not be worth our precious time.
On both fronts, I was drawn to the promise of “Every Star”—which is higher than most hymns—yet it only got me halfway to where I wanted to go.
So little by little, I started adding things: ecological ideas, a “lion will lie down with lamb” verse evoking Isaiah the prophet (with rabbits, wolves, and by implication dog-eat-dog capitalism), a “blessed are the peacemakers” verse, and singing about the fall of Babylon. (Yes, that’s all highly relevant to Christmas, although I was not taught about that as a kid and I probably would have left Christianity long ago if I had not later learned about this range of things.) My latter verse evokes Bob Dylan and Bob Marley as well as John the Baptist and John the Revelator, with a hope that a wide range of listeners might see how the nuances resonate together.
My revised refrain changes three things with one stroke—the “Man” problem, the “Cosmic Christ in the sky” mixed bag, and the way that the tune has over time come to strike me as rather repetitive (this also led me to alternate tunes in my verses). The chorus echoes Carter’s tune, but with angels and people singing together: “Glory to god, peace on earth.”
If you like my new millennium peace version of “Every Star Shall Sing a Carol” and have ideas about how to get it out more widely, please let me know. I hope to record it better before long, but for now the above will have to suffice.
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