My Pop Life #207 : How Great Thou Art – The Statler Brothers

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How Great Thou Art – The Statler Brothers

Then sings my soul, my saviour God, to thee

How great thou art, how great thou art

*

It’s a christian hymn.  I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when this song became part of my consciousness, but it was via my wife’s parents, in the 1990s, at a church, in London, of that I am certain.

I became the luckiest man on earth when I married Jenny Jules.  Not only because she is so special, the kind of person that pours forth light and love over whoever happens to be with her, but because that light & that love come from her parents who received me into their family as a son, and who have loved me ever since that moment.

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Thomas & Esther Jules

It may have been a christening service, Mollie & Pete’s wedding, Anthony’s wedding or possibly even a funeral.  I heard the choir singing it, and the congregation including Mrs Jules, Jenny’s Mum,  with her beautiful clear soprano.  The melody is superb and it has since become one of my favourite church hymns (I last wrote about hymns in My Pop Life #127).  Although I am an avowed atheist I don’t mind going to a christian service as long as the pastor doesn’t start moralising too heavily, as happened at one of the children’s christening services in the Stonebridge Church where Mr & Mrs Jules worshipped regularly.  Quite shocking judgemental crap about women who use assistance in getting pregnant as I recall, not from the regular priest, but it illustrated the dangers of christianity for me quite clearly.

However.

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The dashing young couple from St Lucia shortly after they met in London

The parents, (the parentals, The Rentals), Tom and Esther, both came to Britain by sea from St Lucia over 50 years ago and met each other in Paddington which had quite a decent St Lucian community in those days.  In the early days of my life with the Jules family, they lived in the shadow of Wembley Stadium in the London borough of Brent.   My wife Jenny is right in the middle of the brood, with two older sisters Dee & Mollie, plus one brother Jon and two younger sisters Mandy and Lucy.  If I start using nicknames now it will all get very confusing.   But my early nickname was Gens Blanc.  Said with a French accent please, because St Lucian patois is french at the root.  At least I think that was the name, it could have been Jean Blanc but that would have been slightly more weird. Or would it?

It didn’t really stick as a nickname longer than five years or so, after which I became Ralphie or as Mrs Jules would say it : Waffee.  I can tell that she loves me when she says it because she kind of sings it with a big smile on her face.   We call them a variety of names themselves but I’ll stick with Grandma & Grandad for now because since the little ones started to come along (around the time I joined the family) that’s what they have been.  So Tom and Esther = Grandad and Grandma.  They welcomed me with warmth and love from the very beginning, although I remember Grandad, at our wedding, laying an ancient father’s curse on the next two in line Mandy and Lucy with a warning to anyone who wanted to marry his two youngest that they were not available.

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Lucy, Mandy, Latifah, Jenny, Mollie, Dee.  

Grandma worked at Marks & Spencer for most of her working life which she enjoyed very much.  After retiring she started to enjoy making elaborate cakes, whether for special birthday occasions or weddings, or her famous and sacred black cake for Christmas, carefully wrapped in tinfoil and clingfilm to keep the treasure inside. Quite the best cake I have ever eaten.  Grandad was a drummer in St Lucia but gave that up as he made the crossing and spent his working life with London Transport as an engineer in the bus garage at Brent Cross.  Now retired, he still gets up every morning at 6am to make coffee and wake the various members of the family for work, including me when I stay over – tap tap on the door – “Ralphie ? Good morning.  Coffee.”  Bleary-eyed me : “Thank you Grandad”.  Then it is down the shop for the Daily Mirror – they are both socialists and republicans – and a good hour of checking the form of the horses that day, then to the Betting Shop for a small wager.  TV is a big favourite of them both too, Channel Four racing then re-runs of Dynasty or Bonanza or other 1980s shows. They bicker if they have an audience, making jokes at each other’s expense for our amusement.

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Grandad is a brilliant storyteller and dinner time (or lunchtime) is a family moment for a tale of something he saw, something that happened, always hilarious.  Such as the car which said, as he passed it “You are standing too close to this vehicle!  Please move away from this vehicle!”.  He loves that story.  He is incredibly fit for his age – he is into his 80s now – and doesn’t look a day over 55.  They’re both young for their years and completely family-centred, never happier than when the daughters bring their (now grown-up!) children and their children round.  Molly’s eldest Dominique has two beautiful children Tia & Kian, and two other daughters : my god-daughter Kimberley and Courtnie plus Robert whose birth I wrote about in My Pop Life #123.  Dee had Thomas, Jamie & Jordan and now  Thomas & Scarlett in turn have Skye & Lua.  Generations!  Brother Jon has three children but a schism in that marriage means that they are rarely seen.

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Grandad and Grandma can often be found listening to various kinds of music, let’s see : Jim Reeves is a favourite, Al Green and Perry Como; more left-field is Mexican-American tejano and country musician Freddy Fender;  their religious music, and then St Lucian and Trinidadian quadrille and soca – Caribbean dance music derived from calypso.  Downstairs in the kitchen the radio is on all day, tuned to Smooth FM usually, and that part of family life is deeply familiar to me !

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Waffee and Grandma

Grandad & Grandma are both Catholic and deeply involved with their local church, singing in the choir, organising the collection and other behind-the-scenes stuff.  When they are in St Lucia where they have built a house in the village of Mon Repos, there is a church just down the road and we all went there one Christmas to listen to the Filipino priest sermonise us with love.  In 2007 in fact I decided not to go to the Christmas morning service because I’d done it once and not really enjoyed it.  Everyone knew I wasn’t a christian so it wasn’t too rude to swerve.

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Extended family in Mon Repos, St Lucia

But my god-daughter Chloe was with us that year, and she wanted to talk to me about it.  She was 13 and wasn’t at all sure if she believed in God.  I think she was being polite and had already decided that she didn’t to be honest.  Her Mum Maureen was going, so was Jenny, Mandy, Lucy, Robbie, Dee, Jamie, Jordan, Thomas, Scarlett, Grandad and Grandma.  I wasn’t, and Chloe decided bravely to join me in sitting it out.  I had realised at around 8 or 9 years old that I didn’t believe in the stories I was being told by the vicar or anyone else and when it was time for me to go to Big School in Lewes aged 11, I took the opportunity to drop Sunday school finally.

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Chloe in St Lucia Christmas 2007

But christian music is something else entirely.  I’m a believer.  From the gospel of The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ Oh Happy Day (My Pop Life #199) to Sam Cooke, Al Green, Paul Robeson, Monteverdi or Bach (My Pop Life #76) it is some of the most moving and uplifting music you can find.  I bought Gavin Bryar’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet in 1993 when we lived in West Hollywood and much to Jenny’s dismay played that tramp singing his faith every day for a couple of months.  When I was looking online for a version of How Great Thou Art I was astounded to find thousands of different renditions, according to Wikipedia there are 1700 recorded songs at least.  Which puts it up there with Hoagy Carmichael’s Star Dust or The Beatles’ Yesterday.

It’s a relatively new song : composed as a poem in 1885 by Swedish Pastor Carl Boberg, it travelled via Estonia and Russia to then be translated into English by missionary Stuart Hine who added two verses of his own.  The melody is either Russian or Swedish depending on who you read.  It became popular in the 1960s when evangelical preacher Billy Graham used it at his giant tent meetings and has since been covered by all and anyone, from Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn to Gladys Knight, Al Green and most famously Elvis Presley who made his 2nd gospel LP in 1967 and called it How Great Thou Art.

I chose The Statler Brothers out of the dozens that I’ve listened to today (it’s proper work this blogging y’know!) because it approximates most closely to the version I hear in my head.  Not too slow, like Mahalia Jackson or Elvis. Not a solo voice (as beautifully as Tammy Wynette or Gladys Knight sing it).  Not too many gimmicks or personal touches.  Not over-produced.  Just a lovely four part harmony delivered straight by a country gospel quartet who often backed Johnny Cash.  But so many to choose from….  The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  Mahalia Jackson.  Pentatonix.  Carrie Underwood.  Alan Jackson.  Dolly Parton.  Donna Summer.  Charlie Daniels.  Johnny Cash.  Willie Nelson….Some of these are attached so feel free to let me know your favourite in the comments below this blog.

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So in fact I may have heard it earlier in my life when I was around 10 or 11 in the late 60s without knowing what it was.  Maybe.  It is an amazing song and brings tears unbidden to my eyes, but it only became a favourite via Mrs Jules.  She would sing it gently to herself while bustling around the kitchen cooking some pemé & acqua (coconut tamale & chilli fish fritters) for Good Friday, or her famous chicken (when I ate chicken!), yam, dashin, plantain, rice & peas, bwa-pain if we were lucky – breadfruit, which grows in their garden in St Lucia along with avocados and bananas.  She has cooked me, and the whole family of course, many many fine meals.  Made with love. You can taste it to be sure.  They fill their house with love and laughter and gentle humour.  They are like my mum and dad and I love them both very much and thank them forever for allowing me to marry their beautiful daughter.  How great they are indeed.

The Statler Brothers :

Carrie Underwood & Vince Gill :

Elvis Presley live in 1972 :

The Vocal Majority (extraordinary) :

the brilliant Tammy Wynette :

Alan Jackson :

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My Pop Life #170 : Make You Feel My Love – Adele

Make You Feel My Love   –   Adele

…there is nothing that I wouldn’t do…

It was Jenny who first connected this song to Delilah Rose – you couldn’t escape it in that first year of her life, on the radio, the TV,  all over the place, the beautiful baby child all together in our experience.  What is also extraordinary is that Make You Feel My Love was released on the day that she was born.

2 days old

My god-daughter Delilah-Rose was born on January 28th 2008 at The Royal Sussex County Hospital, just a few yards from our house in Brighton.  What a precious gift.  Her mother Millie was the first of our friends and family to move down to Brighton after we’d taken the plunge and left the metropolis in 1996.   Like Jenny and I, she was childless.  Our situation is complex and multi-layered, Millie’s was simple so she decided to do something about it and found Rupert, who also wanted children, but not a relationship.   I think she was very brave, and very inspired.  The resulting child, a beautiful girl, is a blessing to us all.

2 weeks old

We’d had a busy winter, as usual.  I’d finished my first play since 1990 – the hilarious and biting tale of a punk band reforming to make a credit-card commercial called The Dysfunkshonalz which played at The Bush in West London.  Written by Mike Packer, it re-introduced me to the joy and terror of being onstage, and the joy and terror of learning the guitar, which I had to play in the show, and I’ll write about it at a later date.  Then (pre-cat days!) we went to St Lucia with half the family for Christmas.  Jenny’s parents have a house there in the village of Mon Repos and some of us stayed there, some down the road in the beautiful Foxgrove Hotel.  I will blog that trip later too, it was amazing.

 

family gathering in St Lucia early 2008

Jenny left St Lucia earlier than I since she had to start rehearsals at The Almeida : Harold Pinter‘s The Homecoming,  an exciting production which had Jenny playing the first Ruth who wasn’t white (with Harold’s blessing) with Ken Cranham (mentioned here many times because of our musical connection), Neil Dudgeon, Nigel Lindsay, Tony O’Donnell and Danny Dyer completing the cast.  Michael Attenborough directed.

The last week of January 2008 Jenny was in the middle of Tech Week for The Homecoming,  which means work is from 10a.m. to 11p.m. and she stays in London at her parents, all back from St Lucia by now, and travels to Islington from there.  I am at home, preparing for an audition with Richard Curtis.

Then came Delilah-Rose.

Millie had workmen in her house finishing the loft, so after a night on the ward to make sure everything was fine, she and her new baby girl came to ours and stayed in our bed upstairs in the bedroom of love.  I think I must have been on the sofabed downstairs because of Chaz, Millie’s birth partner, sleeping in The Green Room.   So Delilah-Rose’s first house aged 2 days old was our house.  I was in love with her from day one, and eight years later (nearly nine!!) I still am.  She is my delight.  I am, of course, Uncle Ralph.

2 months old

Six months later Millie christened Delilah-Rose in her local church.  The godparents pledged to nurture the child in the ways of righteousness and so on.

Christening :   Me, Jen, Delilah Rose & Millie, Lawrence, Betty, Chaz

6 months old, St Luke’s Church

*

January 28th 2008 was also when Adele’s first album ‘19‘ was released.  Adele had been at the Brit School in Croydon, (same as my sister Lucy, and Amy Winehouse), graduating in 2006 and releasing a self-penned song on MySpace (remember those days?) which earned her a record deal with XL.    I bought the LP on the strength of the single Chasing Pavements but soon found this incredible song, written by Bob Dylan, which towers over the other songs in its simplicity and depth.  I’m not saying that Adele isn’t a strong songwriter – she is, and her 2nd LP ‘21‘ would bear that out even more than her great debut, but Make You Feel My Love is simply an outstanding piece of songwriting.  Covered by many artists, from Billy Joel to Bryan Ferry, Garth Brooks to Rebecca Ferguson, this version stands out as the best, revealing the young woman who was soon to be the most successful singer in the world, and one of the most successful of all time.  Pretty astonishing.

I love Bryan Ferry‘s version too, but my relationship with Bryan is eternal and faintly obsessive.   No one can sing the word “avenue” quite like Bryan.   Bob Dylan’s original, on the 1997 LP Time Out Of Mind is raw and instinctively unsentimental for reasons only Bob (and his millions of fans) will understand.  The greatest living songwriter perhaps, with a throwaway song that is held up and revered by so many, and spawns a thousand karaoke, Britain’s Got Talent, X-Factor covers.  Which has been enough to put many people off the song.  There is such a thing as over-exposure, but the best songs can deal with that.  This is one of those.

In the years that followed Adele’s success became simply extraordinary with Grammys, Oscars, Golden Globes and massive sales figures which have put her in the Guinness Book Of Records.  Over the same period Delilah-Rose has grown to be a simply delightful child, thoughtful, bright, helpful and affectionate, with all credit due to Millie.  Delilah does have a relationship with her Dad Rupert, and his extended family, but Millie is there every day.  When we lived in Brighton (and sometimes when I’m back) the phone will ring at 4pm or so and it will be Millie stuck in traffic and Uncle Ralph can you collect Delilah-Rose from school?  Some mornings I’m round there at 8 to take her to school because Mills has to drive to Norfolk or Chichester or Essex for a meeting.

10 & a half months old with Mimi

The first time I spent a long time with my god-daughter was Christmas Eve 2009.   I went over at 8a.m.   Millie gave me house keys and rushed out, not before pointing out critical areas such as nappies, food and favourite toys.  As the door closed Delilah and I looked at each other.  I remember thinking :  OK.  I have twelve hours with this child who isn’t quite two years old.  Now what ?   I decided to sit on the floor with her.  She immediately went to her toy box and one by one, pulled out a toy and showed it to me, naming it.  This took almost two hours!  After that we were firm friends.  We went into town to see Father Christmas in Churchill Square but she was a little young for that.  Mills eventually got home at about 9pm.  I’d changed nappies, made food, comforted, played and hugged – a perfectly normal day for any parent but a pretty special one for me.   I’ve had many more since then.

4 + 3/4 years old playing Snow White

you eyeballing me boy ?  (last week : 8 + 1/2 yrs old)

Moving to New York in 2014 was particularly hard for Delilah and I.  We saw each other every week.  Suddenly I wasn’t there.  I am still in her life though, and she is in my heart.  Only last week I was sitting on her bed reading her a story before she went to sleep.  Precious moments.  But it is exactly these moments that I have sacrificed in the move to Brooklyn, chasing the pension pot, the adventure and the fantasy of never growing old.  I miss my friends, my football team, my band, my family.  But mainly I miss the little ones, in particular Skye, and my god-daughters Delilah-Rose and Chloe.

Skye is 2, Delilah Rose is 8 

Millie bought the album “19” too, and one afternoon Jenny was round there, holding the baby girl in her arms as Milly was upstairs.  She must have been three months old.  This song Make You Feel My Love came on the stereo, and Jenny made a silent promise to herself and to the child, that she would keep for all of her life.