back to my musical roots

Normally when people talk about their musical “influences” or getting back to their musical roots, they refer to that time in their early to mid teens when they discovered the music that would define their musical tastes – the first time they heard Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” or sat stoned listening to “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones. The more cultured among us may go back to the musicians who influenced the musicians that influenced them; the Miles Davises, the Bachs, the Woody Guthries.

But I’m talking about real roots music, the music you listened to before any other; I’m talking children’s music. Last night I went to a show by my childhood favourite musician, Franciscus Henri.

Now before you get all giggly (because yes, I did go by myself), he wasn’t doing children’s music on this particular occasion. Nonetheless this was for me a pilgrimmage back to someone who was a significant early influence on me. In fact, as I journalled a couple of weeks back, listening to one of his cassettes was one of the events that renewed my passion for music, particularly of the live variety. So there was no way I was going to miss him playing a show only 5 minutes’ drive away.

franciscus henri

He’s probably better known nowadays in children’s circles as Mister Whiskers, but back in the days of the “Saturday Club” at Monash University’s Alexander Theatre, he was still known as Franciscus Henri; an exotic enough name to retain as a stage persona, if you ask me, but whatever. Earlier this year his passion for the music and poetry of Sydney Carter (perhaps best known for his song “Lord of the Dance“, which it should be noted has nothing whatsoever to do with Michael Flatley) inspired him to record a whole bunch of them to CD, and he’s now touring (if you could call five shows in seven months “touring”) on the strength of that recording.

The whole thing struck me as being like the emerging church movement for the generations before gen x. Largely, Sydney Carter’s religious work centres on the idea that doubt and questioning is a good in and of itself. As reported in his obituary in The Guardian, “With irony— though never with bitterness— Sydney satirised every form of self-righteous faith; to be without doubt was, to him, the ultimate in godless pride.” So he frequently parodied or questioned the religious status quo, particularly with reference to established Christianity. As such, I gained the distinct impression that he wrote more about what he questioned than what he stood for, and as such, perhaps had a lot more to offer than he ever realised (in both senses of the word). His views are probably best expressed in his poem ‘The Interview’:

So what do you believe in?
Nothing fixed or final
All the while I travel is a miracle
I doubt and yet I walk upon the water.
That is impossible
I know it is
Improbability is all you can expect
The natural is super natural
Where are you going next?
Like you I ask that question
I can only travel with the music
I am full of curiosity.

I confess that I find that kind of “comfortable-with-uncertainty” worldview attractive, but in the end it strikes me as lazy rather than realistic, unsatisfying instead of comfortable. The easiest thing in the world is to claim there are no answers; one therefore never needs to do the hard work of looking.

I liked this poem though, entitled “Anonymous”, and although I’m not sure I agree with it entirely, it certainly gives me food for thought.

Forget my name is Jesus
From now on I am anonymous
Do not trust the people who
Hang me like a millstone
around your neck
Do not look at me
but what I am pointing at
The Jesus who keeps saying saying
“I am Jesus, look at me,
there is no substitute”
is an imposter.
Do not trust the Christian
cult of personality,
I came to turn you on
and not to turn you off
To make you free
and not to tie you up.
My yoke was easy
and my burden light
Until they made
salvation copyright,
And all in the name of Jesus
so forget my name
was ever Jesus
I am anonymous.

I don’t think that’s the whole thing, but that’s all I could find of it. I think it had another part to it that questioned whether Jesus (or Christ) had only been born once, and therefore in a similar but less cringeworthy way to “What if God Was One of Us?”, wonders whether Christ is actually as much in those we meet everyday, and our response to them therefore equally important.

There was also the following very moving anti-war song, which has apparently been covered by Jackson Browne. Performed like a lullabye, the words have a profoundly jarring effect:

Crow on the Cradle

The sheep’s in the meadow
The cow’s in the corn
Now is the time for a child to be born
He’ll laugh at the moon
And cry for the sun
And if it’s a boy he’ll carry a gun
Sang the crow on the cradle

And if it should be that this baby’s a girl
Never you mind if her hair doesn’t curl
With rings on her fingers
And bells on her toes
And a bomber above her wherever she goes
Sang the crow on the cradle

The crow on the cradle
The black and the white
Somebody’s baby is born for a fight
The crow on the cradle
The white and the black
Somebody’s baby is not coming back
Sang the crow on the cradle

Your mother and father will sweat and they’ll slave
To build you a coffin and dig you a grave
Hush-a-bye little one, never you weep
For we’ve got a toy that can put you to sleep
Sang the crow on the cradle

Bring me my gun, and I’ll shoot that bird dead
That’s what your mother and father once said
The crow on the cradle, what can we do
Ah, this is a thing that I’ll leave up to you
Sang the crow on the cradle
Sang the crow on the cradle

He sang it in such a way that the jarring words were accentuated, which gave an element of drama to the whole thing that was palpable.

Anyway, I’m still kind of digesting the experience. It was unlike any other live gig I’ve been to, probably since the Saturday Club – more theatre than I am used to, perhaps in many ways more intimate and soul baring, but also a little more grown-up, or purportedly so.