Morning Has Broken…

I came across this gorgeous picture of a dandelion at daybreak this morning. It reminded me of how, as a child I deeply connected with the song “Morning has Broken“. Most of us know the version by the British folk singer-songwriter Cat Stevens, who now calls himself Yusuf Islam and is now also an educator, philanthropist, and prominent convert to Islam. It is not unusual that songs are accredited to the artist who made them popular.

Most people don’t realize however, that the beautiful words to “Morning Has Broken” were penned by the English author Eleanor Farjeon who wrote children’s and fantasy stories and was both popular with children and adults. In 1931 she was commissioned by a local vicar who was compiling a new edition of the hymnbook “Songs of Praise. He asked Farjeon to write a poem to the melody of a traditional Gaelic tune, known as “Bunessan“composed in the Scottish Highlands. It actually shares the melody with the 19th century Christmas Carol “Child in the Manger”. The vicar wanted a hymn about creation, but not necessarily specifically Christian.

Here are her original lyrics:

Morning has Broken

Morning has broken,
Like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird;
Praise for the singing,
Praise for the morning,
Praise for them springing
Fresh from the Word.

Sweet the rain’s new fall,
Sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dewfall
On the first grass;
Praise for the sweetness,
Of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness
Where His feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight,
Mine is the morning,
Born of the one light
Eden saw play;
Praise with elation,
Praise every morning,
God’s re-creation
Of the new day.

With its rich imagery of rain, dewfall, sunlight, blackbirds, grass and “the wet garden”, the focus of the three verses is not so much the Creation as the Garden of Eden. I think that’s why so many people of different cultures connect with the song. It has a spiritual and uplifting message that is centered around gratitude that lies in praising the little things, the small wonders and beauty.

Cat Stevens recording of the song –that was included on his 1971 album Teaser and the Firecat – reached number six on the US pop chart and number one on the US easy listening chart in 1972. He has obviously always been a spiritual (and now religious person) which is perhaps why he was able to convey it emotionally so well and why the song became identified with Stevens.

Here are the lyrics to his version the song:

Morning Has Broken

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the Word.

Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where His feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light, Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God’s recreation of the new day

Since I was raised Methodist and attended a Quaker nursery, I can’t remember which version I heard first – the traditional hymn that is often sung in children’s services or the interpretation by Cat Stevens. I just remember lying on my bed in London, early in the morning with the song going around in my head and wishing that one day I would be able to write a song that would touch someone in a similar way that song always touched me.

We’ll see. My album The World I Am Livings In is so close to being finished and all of the songs are very personal. I just hope, one or the other tune will move you…

© Sharon Johnstone, Macro Dew Drops

Here’s a very personal playlist inspired by Morning has Broken

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Please support the arts! You can purchase my music and spoken word – which I hope you will. And if you find joy and inspiration in my words, and would like to provide additional support, please be lovely and consider a donation of your choosing – from anywhere between a $3 coffee and a nice dinner. I will deeply appreciate it.

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room abandoned building naked floorboards self-portrait

Eating the Darkness. Francesca Woodman’s Wallpaper

 

This morning, browsing through the New York Times, I reconnected with an American photographer, whose work I had only recently discovered. The article grabbed my attention and touched me because one of her pictures titled Vanishing Act, a nude half covering herself with peeling wallpaper (see below) had helped me complete my song, Eating the Darkness. To learn that over 120 of her works are being displayed at the prestigious Guggenheim in New York felt really exciting. The artist is Francesca Woodman, whose oeuvre mainly consists of quite unusual photographic self-portraits.

I love art photography and can easily lose myself scouring the internet like the library of Babel for pictures. That particular day I was compiling a collection of photos, mainly by female artists, a lot of them in black and white, many with a surrealistic approach and somewhat dramatic and staged effects. I didn’t have any specific motifs or topics in mind but just followed my instincts and mood. I downloaded quite a few pictures whose meaning especially struck or touched me on a very visceral level.

Sometimes I use these images to illustrate – or should I say underline my poema and songs – always taking great care of naming the artist. I agree with the contemporary visual artist Christian Marclay who in the context of creating The Clock, stated:

“If you make something good and interesting and not ridiculing someone or being offensive, the creators of the original material will like it.”

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Vanishing Act (Space2) 1976

These collections of images trigger my own creativity by directing me towards a topic, which has already been slumbering in my sub-conscience. They act like teasers or “dream catchers” or even as surfaces for my own emotional projections. Traditionally, this is actually known as Ekphrasis, which means “description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art whereby the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. It is used to convey the deeper symbolism of the corporeal art form by means of a separate medium. Often ekphrastic writing is rhetorical in nature and symbolic of a greater meaning.

Inspiration for Conveying Feelings into Song Lyrics

In this particular situation it must have all run together and I was both deeply touched and inspired by a photograph of Woodman’s which not only helped me to get unstuck but ended up delivering a (poetic) line for a song. I had been playing around on the piano and working on a song called “Eating the Darkness” (click on the title to read the lyrics). I wanted to capture feelings of loneliness and despair,  staged in the isolation of an apartment or room. These are the first verses and the beginning of a chorus:

I turn the key and stare into a
long, dark corridor
I see the furniture – untouched and cold,
the emptiness starts to unfold.

Dust has settled with no delay
upon my absence, during the day
while everything’s / just frozen in its place
from when I left at twenty past eight

Like with a lot of my songs I went through a strange process: There is an initial spark, the idea or inspiration but still a lot of work to be done. It’s like being in labour with pains and horrible cramps burgeoning into anxiety. But when you summon up that energy and determination to push, you give birth to something that almost immediately takes on a magical life of its own. If you can’t activate that courage to face all of those feelings, it dies.

How to Convey the Gnawing Emotion of Feeling Invisible?

Alas, in the chorus I felt there was a strong image missing. I kept getting stuck. Even playing the melody over and over again wasn’t helping. I felt that the song per se was strong and authentic because it had emerged very spontaneously out of the depth of my guts like from a dark turquoise deep sea cavern. But I wanted to explore and express a feeling of hopelessness, set in that room. How could I convey  that sometimes gnawing emotion of not being relevant, of feeling invisible? Suddenly this photograph entered my mind. It just presented itself. So I opened up my laptop and fished it out of my pictures folder. “Fading into the wallpaper”, I thought. And suddenly the chorus was complete:

And I sit here eating the darkness
and the darkness eats at me
I am fading into the wallpaper
on the second floor apartment number two-o-three

Who Is Francesca Woodman?

Prior to finding that photograph I hadn’t heard of the artist Francesca Woodman before. Of course her name, derived from the same source as mine, caught my attention. But it was after having completed writing the song, that I suddenly wondered where and in which stage of her life I would find her. I set out to contact her. Not only did I want to share my work but also thank her for the inspiration.

It only took a few seconds on Google and I was starring at the ugly word – suicide. Unexpectedly, I just hit the wall. No pun intended.

After this initial shock I knew that my highly sensitive side, also my dark side had intuitively picked up on the tragedy of her death through that picture. Which is ultimately, exactly why my writing had become fluent again. But all the same, suddenly questions started rolling in. Had she perhaps felt that she had exhausted her artistic reservoir with nothing left to say? Had she lived “too fast”? Was she was able to express these feelings so well, which many people fighting depression are plagued by, because she suffered too? Was this why the photograph had had such a deep impact on me?

But did I really want to speculate about her reason to end her life?

I decided to distance myself. I suddenly felt eerily close to the topic, almost intrusive like a voyeur so I began to reclaim my song, take it for what it was and record it.

Images Full of Self-expression, Texture and Sense of Composition

Weeks later and after seeing the article in the newspaper I finally went online to look at more of Woodman’s work. A lot of it I hadn’t seen before and am in awe of her self-expression, use of textural elements and sense of composition. Her open and almost Victorian sense of Romanticism maybe “girlish”, like some critics say, but it is also very exposing. Some of the pictures are in a square vintage style format, reminding me of Instagram with which I photograph and experiment almost daily. I find many of Woodman’s pictures playful as well as incredibly mature. After all at 22 she left an extensive catalogue of over 800 photographs behind.

Like the American photographer and filmmaker Cindy Sherman, whose work consists primarily of photographic self-portraits, depicting herself in many different contexts and as various imagined characters, Woodman used herself as a model. I love the anecdote that when she was asked by a friend why she obsessively photographed herself, (who perhaps found it oddly narcissistic), she replied:

It’s a matter of convenience, I am always available.”

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper fireplace empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, House #4 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman polka dot dress peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Polka Dots 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman body print black shoes woman floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Untitled 1976

Eating the Darkness. Desolate & Abandoned Interiors

And indeed, some images have got the features of a self-portrait. But what strikes me most is the textural quality of the settings, in which Woodman stages her photographs. They are diametrically opposed to the smoothness of her young and flawless body. Frequently, the interiors are empty rooms, decaying with peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster and flaking paintwork.

The wallpaper also puts the identity of Woodman in a state of flux in two ways – by physically hiding her and by forcing into your mind the very literal and paradigmatic image of a second skin. It joins neatly with the idea of a shifting identity, rather than Woodman presenting herself as a whole. She transforms before us, not into another human being or character, but simply into the wall.  ~ Victoria O’Rourke, photographer

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house woman self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, 1976

These rooms look desolate and possess a strong notion of abandonment. They are very similar to the atmosphere of space I wanted to create in my song without using lengthy descriptions.

Wandering rooms like in quarantine
I’m starring at the clock, on elasticated time
brain waves flickering, mercury mind
like a black’n white TV in 1969

Perhaps that was exactly why I had distanced myself after the initial encounter. I had peeped in to then virtually slam the book shut again. It was just too painful to see her body in contrast with the diminishing interior. Moreover fearless easiness and eagerness, revealing a form of self-exploration, stand out against the ugly environment. I didn’t want anyone else to have experienced this ugliness of depression. I had felt protective and at the same time helpless!

Another sensation that arose however, is gratitude. Suddenly, I felt fortunate that I had connected with this picture through my own story. Not though a biographical prism – the dramatic notion of an artist’s suicide. It can sometimes be difficult to push past these layers of fragmented knowledge and prejudice. Especially in an era of information overload, fake news even, and constant accessibility per Dr. Google.

Only when “absorbing” art in an almost meditative state, is it possible to retrieve what lies beneath these layers and connect with our own authentic thoughts and feelings.

This is exactly what I feel she did in her work, she tried to expose herself and be literally as naked as possible. We will never know whether this specific image, the wallpaper  was created to express a loss of self-worth. That may have been what I personally projected onto it. I am grateful that a fellow artist gave me something to connect with, almost like a piece of her soul. Because isn’t that what every person who creates seeks to achieve? We want to touch or inspire someone and almost live on through our work. Francesca Woodman definitely hasn’t faded into the wallpaper.

Thank you for reading!

You are welcome to share any thoughts in the comment box below.

– Frances Livings

Buy your copy of Eating The Darkness here:

 

If you found joy or inspiration in this post  

 

You can also watch The Documentary The Woodmans here:

Songs of the Soul Frances Livings Musical Poetry Zane Musa Saxophone

Songs of the Soul ~ Musical Poetry and its Inspirations

 

Saxophone player writer tree struck by lightning grey clouds songs of the soul

 

One Sunday, on one of my searches to find a retreat, I paid the Self Realization Center in Los Angeles a visit. I had been working for some days on poetry and needed to relax and quieten my monkey mind. Besides that, I was slightly stuck and needed some inspiration. The Self Realization Center was dedicated in the 1950’s to the Indian Yogi and meditation guru Paramahansa Yogananda. It is an outdoor oasis with a large lake and a shrine that welcomes visitors of all religious denominations.

Tucked away from the famous Sunset Boulevard, the ten-acre site is only a quarter of a mile from the Pacific Ocean. The natural spring-fed lake is home to a variety of flora and fauna. There are swans, ducks and a vast amount of large, colourful Koi fish and trees and flowers from around the world.

Like many landmarks in Los Angeles, its origins can be traced back to the movie industry. Like in the early 1920s, when the famous film studio Inceville shot silent movies on site of the Lake Shrine Temple. A few years later, the real-estate magnate Alphonzo Bell, Sr. bought the land. The surrounding hillsides were hydraulically graded to fill the canyon and make it level for future development. When these activities were stopped short, a large basin was left in the can­yon. It soon filled with water from nearby springs creating Lake Santa Ynez — the only natural spring-fed lake within the city limits of Los Angeles.

The grounds include a Court of Religions honouring the five principal religions of the world. A very special relic, a portion of Mahatma Ghandhi’s ashes, can also be found here. They are entombed in a small stone memorial on the north side of the lake. I could definitely detect a slight whiff of esoteric haughtiness in the air and it was obvious that a lot of money was sunk into the upkeep of the grounds. That said, I highly appreciated that this oasis was open to the general public. Unlike many areas of lush and precious green you see when driving around in Los Angeles – like the Veteran’s park in West L.A., the country clubs in Bel Air or Hancock Park. They are all gated and completely restricted to the members of those elite clubs or organisations.

Songs of the Soul – by Yogananda?

After walking in the gardens, I had a look in the small gift shop. To my surprise, displayed in one of the glass cabinets was a small publication of poems by the founder, Paramahansa Yogananda  titled Songs of the Soul. I lifted it carefully from the case, I flicked through it and learnt, that it had been first published in 1923. Book cover Songs of the Soul

It had exactly the same title as one of the first pieces I had written shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 2005 and that I had been editing. I had no idea that this publication existed. Yogananda had also written most of these approximately 200 short poems during his early years in the United States, which I thought was interesting. But perhaps impressions come more easily to paper when we are in foreign situations. We are then especially vulnerable and therefore receptive for new experiences. Many artists in exile – which is exactly how I experienced Los Angeles – have found comfort and support in expressing their inner emotions in a creative way.

But unlike this book, presented in its showcase, my poem Songs of the Soul was unpublished. Perhaps because I somehow sensed that something was still missing. I just didn’t quite know what. Moved by this coincidence, and surrounded by so much beauty and spirituality, I decided to revisit the piece at home, where I discovered some other interesting similarities.

Religious Experiences in Nature

Yogananda describes in his poems, his deep and religious experiences in nature. Some of them depict his memories of his motherland India and profound impressions new friends and acquaintances had made on him. But most of all, his pieces are of spiritual nature, praising God. My poem, Songs of the Soul isn’t of religious nature at all, and at the very least about worshipping any kind of God. But it is, in a similar way, about encountering a form of deep spirituality – namely in music.

grey sky, dark clouds, tree being struck by lightning songs of the soulThus, I could translate Yogananda’s short foreword, “Love is the song of the soul, singing to God” into the sentiment “Music is the song of the soul, singing to its listener”. Inspiring the first drafts of my poem had been two very intense musical experiences that I had virtually channeled. From very pure and real impressions the piece had basically written itself. But suddenly I felt that words weren’t enough and wanted to make the translation of these experiences more viable.

That is when I decided to make live recordings of three poems; of Songs of the Soul, ‘The Maliciousness of Words’ and ‘During the Hours’ and release them as an EP. To support and interpret the atmosphere of each unique piece, I chose three of Los Angeles’ finest jazz musicians. I had seen and heard them many times and felt that not only their instruments but even their personalities suited each individual poem. You can read about that here in my post, My goal was to capture complete performances, of both the reading and the solo instrument, rather than the usual studio procedure of assembling tracks for endless overdubbing and editing.

 

Finally – In the Studio Recording Songs of the Soul

The recording sessions took place in November 2009 at the studio of Nolan Shaheed in Pasadena. The musicians had not heard or read the poems prior to their studio arrival. I wanted them to respond as if they were at a live jazz gig, improvising on the spot which was exactly where I saw their greatness. Each piece was recorded live, with the individual instrument in dialogue with my recital of the poem: The atmosphere was electric and invariably my concept was achieved within two to three takes.

The Maliciousness of Words is a fun piece which deals with the characteristics and moods of individual words. I chose the jazz pianist Brandon Coleman because of his humour and his ability to convey such easiness which enabled him to fully compliment the poem.

During the Hours, which I also chose as the album title, is an ode to a loved one. It features the violinist Paul Cartwright whose gift in creating lyrical melodies with strong narratives complimented the romantic and scenographic notion of this piece.

Songs of the Soul Zane Musa saxophone for Frances Livings' musical poetryFor Songs of the Soul I found the perfect match in Zane Musa on tenor saxophone. Zane is unique for blending middle Eastern melodies with intricate jazz improvisation. He is an incredible live performer so I was proud that I was able to capture that side of his playing as well.

With my reading and his playing I had finally completed the piece ‘Songs of the Soul’. It mirrors musically, technically and emotionally the highs and lows of musical performance and the conflicts of creative angst I tried to capture.

I realized that during that tranquil Sunday, whilst gazing lazily at Koi fish, I hadn’t been closer to God but perhaps to myself and I was emotionally receptive for what needed to be done.

Listen to the piece and download it here:
Songs of the Soul

Exposed in the idle spotlight
awkward and unfashioned
almost uncongenial
bleak and inhospitable
transparent paper swaying
languidly waiting
lost, but no frustration
life, does it feel alien?

But then you strip down to the bone
start slashing at my flesh
emotions bluntly plundered
and torn out of my chest
as your songs of the soul
impatiently unfold
revealing dark obsessions
that violently evolve

Slave to your instrument
the bridge to each sentiment
the culprit of insanity!
or the medium of lucidity?
A lover lost in rapture
in haunting ecstasy
distilling good and evil
to disturbing melodies

That are darker than the darkest
side of a blood-shot moon
your notes a lake of indigo
spreading through the room

Longer than the longest
Arab caravan
drying my insides
winding through the desert sands

And sweeter than the sweetest
mistresses’ delight
sugar dusted lokum
in the heat of a vibrant night

Oh and softer than the softest
warm summer‘s breeze
ling’ring in the shadows
of ancient Cyprus trees

Steeper than the steepest
spiral stairway
as you climb to higher higher –
and your body folds in labour
bearing sighing melodies

Pain and passion synchronized
comprising unborn, old and wise
Songs of the soul
oh, in torment they are born.

(c) Frances Livings 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Did you enjoy this post? If so, why not…

white coffee cup café au lait chocolate cake
© Frances Livings

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Here are some other artists who have explored “Songs of the Soul” in a variety of ways:

This video shows the two Swiss musicians Adesh (Sitar) and his wife Ajita (Tabla) performing as part of the “Songs of the Soul” concert tour in Zurich. The concert was commemorating the musical legacy of spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy who inspired thousands of people with his mantric melodies.

Another interesting find is a trailer for the documentary “Sacred Sounds: Music of the World, Songs of the Soul”. It explores the idea of sacred music. It asks, how it is used as a communicator with and in celebration of God? Why is it shared by almost every culture and faith in the world? Through dynamic musical performances, interviews with artists and religious figures, director Carmine Cervi breaks down cultural, political, and religious barriers to bring us to an understanding of faith through music.

More than a dozen artists from Islamic, Christian, and Jewish traditions appear. Noa is a renowned Israeli singer bringing her message of Middle East peace to the Arab world; Sheikh Yassin, an Egyptian singer of religious hymns; Avay-e-Douste, an Iranian female quartet improvising songs in the Radif system; the Aissawas of Fez, a religious brotherhood performing Sufi ceremonial music famous for its trance-inducing ability; and Liz McComb, an American gospel singer who transmits her passion in a performance of intensity and emotion.

Sacred Sounds takes place against the exotic backdrop of Fez, a millennium-old city of twisting alleys and covered bazaars, bright-tile mosques and crumbling palaces. Busy souks, bundle-laden donkeys, and the call to prayer that flows from the city’s pervasive loud speakers contribute to a sensual, mystical experience in Morocco’s centre.

Also, recently this is a groundbreaking documentary on the science of Yoga Meditation and the life of Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian Swami who came to America from India in 1920 to bring Yoga to the west, was released. This is the trailer to the film: