Week 539: Birmingham Sunday, by Richard Fariña

I think Richard Fariña’s ‘Birmingham Sunday’ is one of the most quietly effective of all protest songs. It doesn’t rant or chant, and by comparison that great anthem of the sixties, ‘We Shall Overcome’, might have its heart in the right place but is a bit short on specifics. This song simply tells the story of four young girls, killed when members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, chiselling their names into the memory: Addie Mae Collins (14), Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14). Its melody comes from the traditional Scottish ballad, ‘I Once Loved A Lass’.

I first heard the song soon after its composition, sung by Joan Baez on the first (and for some time only) record that I owned. More recently, Tom Paxton and Anne Hills have done a version, but it is still Joan’s young beautiful voice that I hear in my head, as I heard it first on a sunlit autumn morning in 1964, playing it over and over in my student room above the ‘Eagle’ yard in Cambridge

Birmingham Sunday

Come round by my side and I’ll sing you a song
I’ll sing it so softly, it’ll do no one wrong
On Birmingham Sunday, the blood ran like wine
And the choirs kept singing of freedom

That cold autumn morning no eyes saw the sun
And Addie Mae Collins, her number was one
At an old Baptist church, there was no need to run
And the choirs kept singing of freedom.

The clouds they were gray and the autumn wind blew
And Denise McNair brought the number to two
The falcon of Death was a creature they knew
And the choirs kept singing of freedom

The church it was crowded but no one could see
That Cynthia Wesley’s dark number was three
Her prayers and her feelings would shame you and me
And the choirs kept singing of freedom.

Young Carol Robertson entered the door
And the number her killers had given was four
She asked for a blessing, but asked for no more
And the choirs kept singing of freedom.

On Birmingham Sunday a noise shook the ground
And people all over the earth turned around
For no one recalled a more cowardly sounds
And the choirs kept singing of freedom

The men in the forest, they asked it of me
How many blackberries grew in the blue sea
And I asked them right with a tear in my eye
How many dark ships in the forest

The Sunday has come and the Sunday has gone
And I can’t do much more than to sing you this song
I’ll sing it so softly, it’ll do no one wrong
And the choirs keep singing of freedom

Richard Fariña

Week 538: The Planter’s Daughter, by Austin Clarke

This is another of Austin Clarke’s beautifully musical short lyrics (see also week 278) that appears at first sight to be a simple enough poem about a woman loved and admired for her beauty, but which also carries certain overtones, to appreciate which requires a little knowledge of Irish history. The woman is the daughter of a ‘planter’: that is to say, a landowner brought in by the British and settled on land confiscated from the native Irish. The Plantation of Ulster, for example, began in 1606, after the defeat of the last Irish chieftains and acceptance of English rule, when vast tracts of land were given to immigrants, mainly from England and Scotland, who were required to be Protestant and English-speaking.

This practice naturally inspired envy and resentment among the dispossessed, as hinted at in the line ‘The house of the planter is known by the trees’ – that is to say, the wealthy immigrant could afford to screen his ‘big house’ with trees while the native Irish were left to farm the barren hillside. So the feelings of the local populace about the planter’s daughter are understandably ambivalent: they expect her to be standoffish, but it appears that she is not, and the men at least are awed by her beauty; the women gossip about her; but neither really know her in her remote and privileged life. In the fine closing image she is likened to Sunday, the day of the week reserved for worship, and thus seen as a being separate from their normal life of toil, and haloed as it were in her apartness.

So, I could be reading too much into a slight if melodious lyric, but I like to see this poem as a celebration of the way in which an appreciation of beauty, and a respect for innate goodness, can transcend even the chasm-wide class and political divisions of Irish society.

The Planter’s Daughter

When night stirred at sea
And the fire brought a crowd in,
They say that her beauty
Was music in mouth
And few in the candlelight
Thought her too proud,
For the house of the planter
Is known by the trees.
Men that had seen her
Drank deep and were silent,
The women were speaking
Wherever she went – 
As a bell that is rung
Or a wonder told shyly,
And O she was the Sunday
In every week.

Austin Clarke

Week 537: Gwladus Rhys, by W.J.Gruffydd

William John Gruffydd (1881-1954) was one of a generation of very fine Welsh-language poets in the early twentieth century, and was also a notable scholar, who did his best, for example, to hack a clear path through the tangled mythic undergrowth of the collection of mediaeval Welsh stories known as the ‘Mabinogion’. I think this is one of his best poems: a bleakly powerful portrait of a young woman trapped in what Gruffydd saw as the stultifying world of Welsh Nonconformism, with no outlet and no escape.

The translation that follows is my own. The poem contains terms with specific meanings in Welsh Methodism – Oedfa, Seiat, Dorcas – that are not easily translated; I have simply approximated these.

Note: ‘iaith y nef’, meaning the language of heaven: this is what the Welsh like to call their own language, contrasting it favourably with ‘the thin language’, English.

Gwladus Rhys

Seiat, Cwrdd Gweddi, Dorcas, a Chwrdd Plant;
A ’nhad drwy’r dydd a’r nos mor flin â’r gwynt
A’r gwynt drwy’r dydd a’r nos ym mrigau’r pin
O amgylch ty’r gweinidog. Ac ’roedd ’mam,
Wrth geisio dysgu iaith y nef, heb iaith
Ond son am Oedfa, Seiat, Cwrdd a Dorcas.

Pe beth oedd im i’w wneuthur, Gwladus Rhys,
Merch hynaf y Parchedig Thomas Rhys,
Gweinidog Horeb ar y Rhos? Pa beth
Ond mynych flin ddyheu, a diflas droi
Fy llygaid draw ac yma dros y waun,
A chodi’r bore i ddymuno nos,
A throsi drwy’r nos hir, dan ddisgwyl bore?
A’r gaeaf, O fy Nuw, wrth dynnu’r llen
Dros y ffenestri bedwar yn y pnawn,
A chlywed gwynt yn gwyno ym mrigau’r pîn,
A gwrando ar ymddiddan ’nhad a ’mam!

Rhyw ddiwrnod fe ddaeth Rhywun tua’r ty,
A theimlais Rywbeth rhyfedd yn fy nghalon:
Nid oedd y gwynt yn cwyno yn y pîn,
A mwyach nid oedd raid i’m llygaid droi
Yma ac acw dros y waun. Daeth chwa
Rhyw awel hyfryd o’r gororau pell.

Mi dynnais innau’r llenni dros y ffenestr,
Heb ateb gair i flinder oer fy nhad,
A gwrando ‘mam yn adrodd hanes hir
Cymdeithas Ddirwest Merched Gwynedd: yna
Heb air wrth neb eis allan drwy yr eira,
Pan oedd y gwynt yn cwyno drwy y pîn,
A hithau’n noson Seiat a Chwrdd Dorcas.

Am hynny, deithiwr, yma ’rwyf yn gorwedd
Wrth dalcen Capel Horeb, – Gwladus Rhys,
Yn ddeg ar hugain oed, a ’nhad a ’mam
Yn pasio heibio i’r Seiat ac i’r Cwrdd,
Cyfarfod Gweddi, Dorcas, a phwyllgorau
Cymdeithas Ddirwest Merched Gwynedd; yma
Yn nyffryn angof, am nod oedd y chwa
A glywswn unwaith o’r gororau pell
Ond swn y gwynt yn cwyno yn y pîn.


Gladys Rhys

Prayer meetings, services, the Sunday School;
And father day and night, cross as the wind
And day and night wind in the pine-tree tops
Around the manse. And mother, trying to learn
The language of heaven, and yet having no words
But those of church stuff, service, Sisterhood.

What was I to do then, Gladys Rhys,
The Reverend Thomas Rhys’s eldest daughter,
Minister of Horeb upon Rhos?
What but in weary longing turn my eyes
Now this way, now that, across the moor
And wake up in the morning, wanting night,
And lie throughout the long night, wanting day?
And winter, oh my God, to draw the curtains
At four in the afternoon across the windows,
And hear the wind lamenting in the pines
And listen to my father and my mother.

One day Someone came towards the house
And I felt Something strange within my heart:
Not the wind lamenting in the pines,
And now I did not have to turn my eyes
This way and that across the moor. There came
A breath of some sweet air from far horizons.

I pulled the curtains back across the window
Not answering my father’s cold displeasure,
Hearing my mother telling some long tale
About her Temperance Society: then
Without a word I went out through the snow
When the wind was lamenting in the pines,
And this a night of prayer and Sisterhood.

Traveller, so it is that here I lie
Beside the Chapel at Horeb – Gladys Rhys,
Thirty years old, and father and mother passing
On their way to their conventions and assemblies,
To prayers, Sisterhood, committee meetings
Of North Wales Temperance Society; here
In the valley of oblivion, because
The air that once I felt from far horizons
Was only the wind lamenting in the pines.

Week 536: The Horses, by Edwin Muir

It is a little odd now to think that when it was first published back in the early nineteen-fifties this poem probably seemed quite cutting edge and daring in its vision of a world after nuclear war. That was a time when apocalyptic visions were much in vogue, and the poem has a certain kinship with such prose works as Nevil Shute’s ‘On The Beach’, Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘The Birds’ and some of John Wyndham’s books. All worthy stuff and good reads in their day, but now a little dated, a little decorous – it’s not that the future has necessarily got any less apocalyptic, more that visions of it have got a lot nastier, as, for example, in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. I think few now would take the line, as Muir does, ‘OK, that’s the end of civilisation as we knew it, but never mind, we can just go back to horse-drawn ploughs and be the better for it’. But this ties in with Muir’s perpetual yearning for a vanished agrarian Eden such as he knew in his Orkney boyhood. If his vision comes across now as dated and impracticable, and if it seems rather quaint that the humble tractor should be seen as the archetype of the evil Machine (shades of R.S.Thomas!), then I guess that such is the risk poets take when they try to build on the shifting sands of current affairs and current technology. Yet for all that I think the poem is interesting not just as a period piece but for a quality of wistful innocence that still has power to move.

The Horses

Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
‘They’ll moulder away and be like other loam.’
We make our oxen drag our rusty ploughs,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers’ land.
                                         And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half-a-dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our ploughs and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

Edwin Muir (1952)