New Songs for Mr Blake

Musician and songwriter Mick Stannard is 69 years old and has, in his words, “been doing music most of that time, in bands and solo”. Ever since an operation meant singing was no longer possible, he’s been recording instrumental albums, but when he recently came across his forgotten copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience Mick wanted to set some of these poems to music — and asked Kate, his daughter, if she’d like to sing them. Their album, Visions of William Blake, was released earlier this year, and Mick and Kate Stannard now share their experience of working with Mr Blake.


Mick:

I think William Blake has been in my DNA for quite a long time. It feels as if Jerusalem has always been there. And of course it’s the same with The Tyger. Mind you, I’m only a beginner and don’t really know much about his ideas. My first musical influences were Vaughan Williams and traditional English folk; people like Shirley Collins and Sandy Denny. Finding out that artists like The Doors and Nick Drake were quoting him in their songs is probably what drew me to him. To be honest I never knew he was that big in ‘popular culture’.

I go mainly by instinct and to be honest I’ve taken a few liberties with the text of his poems (adding some words of my own and taking some of his out) so I’m not sure if a purist would necessarily approve!

Encounters with Blake

As far as Blake himself is concerned, I’m no expert or indeed scholar. Some years ago I went to an exhibition of his watercolours and it was like a kind of worship. The place was dark and each work shone out from its case like a little jewel. The detail in his paintings fascinated me. It was fantastic. That’s where I picked up Songs of Innocence and of Experience. This in turn (about thirty years later!) led me to the idea of setting these poems to music.

I guess it was pure chance. Kate and I had just finished an album, Welcome to Our World, and I was thinking about what to do next. I was looking in our bookcase for something (I can’t remember what it was) and just happened to come across the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Bingo! The more I delved into it, certain poems leapt out at me from the pages and I could hear the music straight away. With Visions of William Blake, it all seemed to make perfect sense. 

Visions of William Blake, by Mick and Kate Stannard

To take one example, I was amazed at how prescient the words to Holy Thursday are, speaking of poor folk living “in a rich and fruitful land”. I almost re-named our track Holy Food Bank Thursday. It seems that nothing much had changed since Blake’s day! Also I found the words to Earth’s Answer particularly powerful and The Lamb appealed to my sense of pastoral England. That’s where I tried to write music in the style of my hero, Vaughan Williams. Lots of strings, a harp and an oboe. Always an oboe for bucolic stuff!

A creative process

I don’t normally talk much about the creative process but I’ll have a bash. I’m basically a songwriter (of sorts) and love the challenge of writing lyrics and fitting them to music. Obviously with the ‘lyrics’ already taken care of by Mr Blake the process was a bit easier but no less of a challenge. I wasn’t aware which of his poems are well known and which others less so, and I think I chose the ones to have a go at by some kind of instinct — and of course those which appealed to me emotionally. They also had to scan pretty well and have a rhythm I could work with.

I’ve been listening to music for a long time and my influences are very diverse, stretching from traditional English folk to 60’s psychedelia, punk, new wave, classical, thrash metal and avant garde. So I guess my selection was in part dictated by my broad musical taste, which allowed me to devise a particular setting for each poem. Earth’s Answer for instance is very much influenced by Pink Floyd, whilst The Echoing Green is (hopefully) pure Vaughan Williams and strange to say, some of the music in The Door of Death now reminds me (in retrospect) of the last scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey … Where the hell did THAT come from?

Messing around with the texts may seem a bit sacrilegious but it was the only way I could make the finished songs work to my satisfaction. It was simply a case of composing the music and making the words fit even if I had to add or subtract some. I hope William wouldn’t have minded! The Garden of Love wasn’t long enough so I added quite a lot of extra lines, and in The Lamb I took Blake’s lead when he says in Auguries of Innocence “the lamb misused breeds public strife and yet forgives the butcher’s knife”, and wrote an additional verse with that in mind.

In Holy Thursday I saw a direct parallel between the times Blake talks about and today’s austerity Britain so I wrote a final verse about homelessness. I couldn’t possibly have done a different melody for Jerusalem as it already has the best ever tune so I just put in a bit of Brexit chaos at the end to reflect what’s currently happening in our green and pleasant land!

So, many reasons for changing the texts, I guess, and I think it occurred to me as I was going through the poems, kind of spontaneously. The process of making words and music fit is indeed pretty mysterious. That’s why when you hit on something special, it’s really exciting. I’ve no idea where it comes from. A higher place?

Kate:

Dad has always been interested in poetry, so I’ve been aware of William Blake among others for some time. Dad even used to write silly poems for me when I was young to make me laugh, and has always been creative. However I wasn’t very familiar with William Blake’s poetry before we started the album, and I didn’t know about his artwork either! But it’s been a really interesting project to work on together, and fun exploring both the light-hearted and the more sinister.

The poems and songs are all so different. I feel like I take on a different persona for each song on Visions of William Blake, and in a way sing as a different person. I think of them in a very separate way.

Usually we sit down and Dad gives me the poem to read through. I try to visualise and interpret the words quietly on my own, and then Dad plays me the music he’s recorded so far in headphones. Whilst the music is playing, I carry on visualising scenes or images and think about the words and then we go from there. We talk about what kind of tone of voice will work. For example, on Earth’s Answer the inspiration for my reading of the words was Gandalf from Lord of the Rings!

For me, with A Poison Tree it’s the storytelling of the poem. The scene I picture by the end of the poem is both chilling and beautiful, and it’s interesting (to me anyway) how peaceful it is, despite the hatred.

Visions of William Blake for the 21st century

I’ve been surprised at how many people my age and younger know of Blake, and have relatives who have studied his work or have a real interest.

I found it very interesting on first looking at Finding Blake to discover that the website and its users want to ‘re-imagine William Blake for the 21st century’. This very much articulated to me what I felt like we had also been doing with the album, whilst unaware at first of the Finding Blake site. By putting Blake’s words to music in 2019, and particularly for myself as someone who didn’t know very much about him before, I felt like I was in a sense ‘finding’ Blake.

To me, some of his poems are still very relevant now in 2019. For instance, like Dad has mentioned, the ideas behind Holy Thursday are still an issue now and it very much feels like nothing has changed in all these years. That poem could have been written in the 21st century.

Mick:

Blake seems to have had a larger influence on people’s general way of thinking than I had ever imagined. I think this new Extinction Rebellion movement which is currently growing is something that Blake would have enthusiastically espoused. Also, areas of mysticism and spirituality, something I had never considered.


Notes

Mick Stannard and his daughter Kate have been recording music together for about a year. Mick has been playing for longer than he cares to remember and has many influences ranging from The Velvet Underground to Vaughan Williams. He has recorded ten solo albums and three with Kate, Visions of William Blake being one. Kate has a degree in photography and is currently working for a cancer charity in London. She also designed the cover art for all the albums.

Kate and Mick Stannard

Visions of William Blake by Mick and Kate Stannard features twelve of William Blake’s poems: The Garden of Love; A Poison Tree; Auguries of Innocence; The Tiger; The Echoing Green; The Sick Rose; The Lamb; Earth’s Answer; Holy Thursday; The Door of Death; The Angel; Jerusalem. It’s available on Spotify, where you can also find their previous albums, and also available at Amazon as a download. You can buy the CD of Visions of William Blake direct from Mick: email him at mstannm[at]ntlworld[dot]com for details.

You can also discover another version of A Poison Tree in A Pocketful of Riches: Adapting Blake to Song, Joseph Andrew Thompson’s post about Astralingua’s own adaptation of Blake’s poems. And Strange Mystery Flower from Roger Arias describes his own Blakean musical adaptation.

Blakefest 2018

With Bognor Regis gearing up for its annual Blake-inspired arts festival tomorrow, Blakefest director Rachel Searle shares just a few of the highlights. Blakefest has become a unique cultural experience by the sea, featuring international art, poetry, political discussion panels. As Rachel says, "in all honesty, it's very pleasingly different and eclectic in its approach, and perfectly mirrors the creative magpie approach, showcasing the whole spectrum of art forms."

The presence of William Blake as a resident in my hometown of Felpham has always been a catalyst for me wanting to create a cultural legacy in Bognor, that both honours him but also celebrates new art and contemporary visionary artists, as well as bringing in artists that embrace his rebel spirit and political resistance. We are really excited by the acts we’ve managed to secure this year and the breadth of the programming.

BlakeFest, part of the Big Blake Project, has its roots in Blake’s vision of Beulah, perhaps best understood as a window on earth into heaven itself: In Felpham, Blake penned “Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates” and the words to Jerusalem. In the “spirit of Blake’s poetic genius”, BlakeFest is a synthesis of original music, poetry and audio-visual art and includes talks on issues of ‘the imagination’ and social justice. Our over-riding aim for BlakeFest is to be an agent of regeneration in Bognor Regis through the exploration and celebration of William Blake.

Before the main programme

While the main programme starts tomorrow, there is a question-time style panel debate tonight. Building Jerusalem is a public meeting, being held as part of BlakeFest 2018 at Chichester University, involving talks and a panel discussion exploring the relevance of William Blake’s poem/hymn Jerusalem, and wider philosophy, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Britain’s potential role in finding a solution to it. The event is an inter-faith and truth-seeking initiative and there will be no promotion of ideological or religious views that favour one faction of humanity over others. 

Building Jerusalem was inspired by the community poem – ‘We’ll Do It’ – crafted by Stella Bahin during her time as BlakeFest’s Poet-in-Residence. For me,’We’ll Do It’ reveals the heartbeat of Blake’s Jerusalem in the people of Bognor Regis today. With Blake’s own visions of both Beulah and Jerusalem, the idea of an inclusive inter-faith panel discussion emerged. This was followed by a sobering trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank. The highlight of the trip was meeting Dareen Tatour who used her precious last hours of freedom to give us a tour of her beloved Nazereth.”

Blakefest: music, poetry and talks

Our daytime programme starts at midday on Saturday with local and national talent. And the South Downs Poetry Festival has converged with Blakefest this year, curated by local bard Barry Smith — placing jazz and poetry alongside each other, weaving in and out of the musical acts throughout the day.

In keeping with Blake’s anti-establishment spirit of personal freedom, the acclaimed 1970s pop icon Lene Lovich headlines in the evening, with second headliner the All Things Must Pass Orchestra; led by Alex Eberhart, this is a celebration of the music of visionary Beatle, George Harrison. 

Mikey B Georgeson has been a major mover and shaker with BlakeFest, in capacities ranging from musician, exhibition curator, speaker and generally inspiring those around him. This year, he brings his Silent Disco, an art installation called An Actual Occasion and then performing as Mr Solo: an eclectic range of original, very individual, material taking inspiration from Bowie, the Beatles and Blake. A riveting and highly eloquent performer, this promises to be another highlight of BlakeFest 2018.

Vincent Gray will be unveiling and available to discuss an exciting possible sculpture for Bognor Regis, Albion Rose. Vincent recently completed a Keats sculpture now permanently installed in Eastgate Square, in Chichester.

The evening event at the Alexandra Theatre is being opened by a talk on Blake and the 60s by the accessible and scholarly Tobias Churton. The internationally-recognised and respected Churton, a very erudite orator, will be shedding light on Blake’s enduring contribution to our culture, focusing on the resurgence of his popular influence through the 1960s which still resonates across the arts, philosophically and spiritually.

Jamie Leeming will headline an afternoon set of live music sessions. He’ll also be accompanying the Southdown Festival Poets, culminating in Sasha Dugdale’s vocalising of Catherine Blake. Joy: Poetry & Jazz features Sasha Dugdale, Niall McDevitt, Naomi Foyle, Barry Smith and Jamie. The genre-crossing compositions of Jamie Leeming — with strong roots in the jazz tradition, but with folk-influenced imagery and textures  — meet the Blake-inspired words of South Downs poets!

Ciaran O’Driscoll and Margaret Farrelly with John Davies (aka Shedman) can be trusted to bring their lyrical Celtic music and humour to the afternoon. Probably the biggest contemporary name in Irish literature, Ciaran has won several awards and formally recognised by the Irish Arts Council as making an outstanding contribution to art and literature.

Alongside the wonderful musical lineup, free Silent Disco and performance poetry, there will be a graffiti art exhibition and bitesize talks on: Graffiti, Ginsberg and Blake; Blake and the Divided Brain; Female Revolutionary Figures

There is also an event in William and Catherine Blakes’ Cottage on Sunday and a guided walk.

Bognor Regis is a town poised at the brink of regeneration following similar projects in Margate, Hastings and Liverpool, with proposals including a major ‘William Blake Theatre’ — channelling local culture and arts to enrich their current heritage and touristic allure.


Notes

BlakeFest 2018 is taking place over the weekend 14th-16th September with the main focus being the all-day Live Music Festival on Saturday 15th at The Regis Centre/Alexandra Theatre from noon onwards. The Fringe Events on Friday and Sunday have limited numbers and payable separately.

The event is sponsored by Chichester University & Chichester Observer

You can find more information and booking details at the Blakefest website. This video shows events from last year’s festival.

 

Another Jerusalem

Finding Blake welcomes back artist, musician, illustrator, songwriter and poet Salli Hipkiss, with a new poem – Another Jerusalem – and her account of the inspiration for this work in dream, and in the work and wisdom of Blake and other thinkers and writers.

Another Jerusalem 

I dreamed I danced beside a wall with unknown friends, maybe three.  
No music played but still within we heard a call and danced, beside a wall. 

The dream went on, the second night a bigger crowd was there. 
No words were passed but all were light of foot and many smiles were shared.  

Night three the crowd was bigger still, all dancing while the wall stood soft 
Somehow, though limestone made and marked where countless hands had pressed  

And whispered truths and prayers and dreams and curses...  
This time we chose freedom from speech and danced our stories.  

The next night still the party grew: all silent dancers, full of smiles. 
I woke in wonder that such vivid smiling people could be conjured just by dream. 

Where we have walls, where speech brings argument, disharmony: 
Bring only inner music. 
Bring no words. 
But dance with wild abandon  
Become friends with unknown dreamers 
Belong to all nations Come barefoot 
And dance. 

Salli Hipkiss © 6th April 2018. All rights reserved.

Writing an introduction to this poem seems a little out of place in some ways, suggesting as it does a move beyond words! However, a little placing in context might appeal to some people, so here goes…

Some acts of creation take years to come to fruition, and some, happily, come along almost effortlessly, and so it was with this poem. It really was inspired by a vivid dream that unfolded pretty much as the poem tells!

However, reflecting on the dream and writing the poem as a response, I found myself recalling real walls that exist or have existed or are sadly being proposed in current times. 

In April this year the Dalai Lama published a book for young people called A Call For Revolution. In it he presents the idea of a revolution of compassion. He remembers being present in 1989 as the Berlin Wall was dismantled by the young people of East and West Germany. He says:

“I feel very emotional thinking back to the moment when I arrived, candle in hand, at the site where the wall had been breached.  The jubilant crowd lifted me up onto the rubble. It was an extraordinary moment and I felt the breath of peace and freedom exhaling throughout the world.”

Inspired by such positive, peaceful, collective actions, through the book he calls for young people today to commit to a Charter of Universal Responsibility that actively leads to peace and the dissolution of constructed divisions, whether physical or ideological. 

Finding a common ground

Writing in the 13th-century the Persian poet and Sufi mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī wrote the beautiful lines:

Out beyond 
Ideas of right doing 
And wrong doing: 
There is a field, 
I’ll meet you there.

I am intrigued by places that allow people to find ‘common ground’, or where they are at least able to put aside differences and meet with open hearts. The wall in my dream was not a specific place, but more a feeling for this kind of inclusive space. 

While reflecting on the dream, the wall that kept coming back into my mind was the Western Wall in Jerusalem, also known as the Wailing Wall, Kotel, or in Arabic as Ḥā’iṭ al-Burāq. I decided therefore to title the poem Another Jerusalem, reflecting both on modern-day Jerusalem and William Blake’s poem of the same name, and the famous song Jerusalem, which is based on text from Blake’s poem Milton

The Western Wall has deep meaning and history for Jews, Christians and Muslims and the Jerusalem walls are listed, along with the Old City of Jerusalem, on the UNESCO World Heritage Site List. As one of the ‘status quo of the Holy Land’ sites it is a place of pilgrimage for all and now forms a fragile meeting point of cultures and religions, rather than a physical division.

The idea that a wall, originally designed to divide, to keep some in and others out, might inadvertently become a meeting point, resonated with the theme I had taken from the dream.  There are also many meeting points between different religions and ideologies that become evident when we look for similarities rather than differences.

Writing in the 18th-century, Blake boldly illustrated the aphorism: “All Religions Are One.”

‘All Religions Are One’, by William Blake 1788
Public Domain: Wikipedia

This recalls for me another lovely poem by Rumi:

Spring overall. But inside us
There is another unity.
Behind each eye
One glowing weather.
Every forest branch moves differently
In the breeze, but as they sway
They connect at the roots.

In our increasingly multi-cultural societies it feels as if we could possibly be closer than at any other time in history to realising that we are all part of one big family tree: that we all “connect at the roots”.  In the way of this is a clinging to a simplistic world-view that divides people into ‘Us and Them’.

In Jerusalem, The Emanation of The Giant Albion Blake describes:

…two contraries which are called Qualities and with
Which every substance is clothed, (they) name them good and evil
From them they make an abstract…

The italics on ‘Qualities’ are my own, for although this is the usual transcription, I can’t help wondering if the word Blake might have had in mind was ‘Dualities, which also fits with the general flow of his ideas. ‘Dualities’, polarising notions of good and evil, lead too easily to concepts of ‘Us and Them’.

A short distance away from Jerusalem today the Israel and Palestine conflict remains unresolved. A new wall is being proposed along the Mexico and USA border, to many people’s dismay. Surely at this time humanity needs to be putting its creative energy into moving beyond the kind of divisive ‘abstract’ thinking that Blake was exploring: thinking which can too easily make an ‘evil’ out of a ‘contrary’.

The Dalai Lama has written:

“In November 2015 after the Paris terrorist attacks, I faced up to the failure of religion. Every religion persists in cultivating that which divides us, instead of uniting us around what brings us together… There is an urgent need to go beyond religion. It is possible to live without religion, but can one live without love and compassion? The answer is no.”

A creative force for peace

In Jerusalem, The Emanation of The Giant Albion Blake talks of: “Striving with systems to deliver individuals from their systems”

There seems to me something generous in Blake’s forging of his personal mythology or ‘system’, in his rejection of the oppressive qualities of religious doctrine, and his own unique interpretation of Christianity. His personal striving for freedom of creative imagination paves the way for others to follow their own paths, leading to a multiplicity of visions: a route that in turn leads perhaps to unity and universality through diversity.

Blake writes :

I must make a system, or be enslav’d by another Man’s,
I will not Reason and Compare: my business is to create.

Creativity is such a powerful force for peace. Indeed peace is often found more easily when adversaries focus on a joint creative or collaborative project, rather than on the ‘serious business’ (usually through talking) of creating peace itself. Similarly peace of mind or even happiness usually elude us when we focus on them as ends in themselves, but ‘find us’ when we focus on positive external endeavours, especially those that benefit other people rather than just ourselves.

Thus, maybe it is all our ‘business to create’. To make our own ‘systems’ but to recognise they are our own and to therefore recognise that others’ ‘systems’ are theirs and equally valid. This moves beyond tolerance somehow and becomes refreshingly immediate and both inclusive and expansive.   

At my most optimistic, I like to consider that perhaps even the controversial current proposal to build a wall between Mexico and the USA might inadvertently act as a meeting point, pulling many individuals and nations together in voicing their common feeling that the wall shouldn’t be built, and that those seeking refuge across borders all around the world should be helped rather than punished.

The voice of compassion

In Blake’s Jerusalem, The Emanation of The Giant Albion his feminine figure of Jerusalem:

…stretchd her hand toward the Moon & spoke
Why should Punishment Weave the Veil with Iron Wheels of War
When Forgiveness might it Weave with Wings of Cherubim…

I think Blake was ahead of his time in giving Jerusalem a feminine character and attributing to her the voice of compassion. Writing in 2017 the Dalai Lama says:

“I have a dream: Women will become national leaders… I call upon the next generation of young women to be the mothers of the Revolution of Compassion that this century so desperately needs.”

Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 2, copy E.
Relief etching with watercolour additions.
William Blake
Public Domain: The William Blake Archive

As I write these lines, the full moon is just rising over the birch trees close to my house, reminding me again how connected we all are over time and space and across differences in ideology: connected by our views of the same night skies and illuminating celestial bodies and through the tapestries of our dreams.

I can’t claim to hold company with any of the great poets, writers, thinkers and leaders I recall here, but in its humble way I hope my poem Another Jerusalem, adds another voice to the gentle but urgent call for unity, inclusivity and compassion, rather than duality and antagonism, alongside the recognition that it is all ‘our business to create’, in order to achieve a lasting dance of peace. 


Notes

Salli Hipkiss is a poet, writer, artist, songwriter, and singer who for fifteen years has worked freelance as a creative practitioner and teacher/advocate of arts and sustainability, recently alongside being a full-time home-schooling Mum. Salli’s creative work has moved between art, music, illustration, songwriting, poetry, novel-writing and more.  She is passionate about human creativity and individual flourishing, and about environmental sustainability and regeneration, and is curious about how the two areas can be symbiotic, leading to a holistic vision of wellbeing. Some of her portfolio can be explored on her website: www.sallihipkiss.com

You can read about Blake’s poemJerusalem, The Emanation of The Giant Albion at this Wikipedia page and hear recordings of the poem on the Blake Society’s site.

Check out our More Resources page for further sources of Blake poems and art.