Saturday 23 May 2009


Brighton Corn Exchange, 20th May

I have to admit being initially befuddled by the programme notes, and their mention of the 1651 album Cast A Bell. I mean, I know Tabor’s been singing folk a while now – but surely not that long! It turns out 1651 is the name of her current backing band in their own right. But like many misreadings, perhaps my mistake was telling. Throughout her career, Tabor largely eschewed the ‘electric folk’ fusion favoured by so many of her Sixties contemporaries for something more traditionalist. 1651, for example, consist of an all-acoustic accordian, double bass and alternately a piano or violin. Those there only to shout “Judas!” must be sorely disappointed.

Of course the retro approach often feels like a fool’s errand. You feel some try so hard to preserve folk music they stick it behind glass, put it where it’s unable to breathe. But Tabor thankfully avoids the traps of reverentialism. Like a compass driven through the pages of a book, she seems able to transcend the divisions of time or chronology. She speaks of an acquaintance coming across an old ballad, and enthusing it may have been as early as Napoleonic – only to find it to be Norman. At the same time she’s quite willing to sing contemporary songs, even closing the night with Save The Last Dance For Me.

There’s more to it, however, than simply choice of material. In an unusually perceptive mood, Wikipedia commented “June tends to be adventurous in a way that avoids modernism.” It might be illuminating to compare her to Sandy Denny, the other great contender for great British female folk singer, against whose voice Tabor’s is as different as night from day. On Fairport’s Come All Ye, for example, Denny throws herself into the song; warm, effusive, unreserved. The opening number here, though also about a Saturday night dance, is stately rather than stomping, reflective rather than euphoric.

Perhaps the secret of Tabor’s success is in combining folk with the chanteuse tradition, and finding it a closer fit than might be supposed. Like Lotte Lenya you sense not emotion expressed so much as held back, creeping through the cracks like light around a closed door. This sense of seeing only the emotion’s shadow paradoxically makes its expression all the more powerful – as if you saw the full light you’d be blinded. What you glean of Tabor’s personality from the gig would seem to confirm this, a combination of doomed romanticism with no-nonsense Northern-ness.

Tabor also excels in finding subject matter to suit her voice. While everyone thinks of folk as something communitarian, her tastes are much more solitary; with stark black ballads her stock-in-trade. (She didn’t even join in the closing singalong to the Daughters of Albion night at last year’s Festival.) The fact that she seems tapped into an almost limitless supply of such songs, both traditional and contemporary, suggests such perceptions of folk, however widespread, may be no more than stereotypes. People in times past may have liked to cut a rug, but their worldview also included a fatalism that we tend to overlook.

1651 (the band, not the year) gave her a suitably sparse backing, allowing her voice the space to linger. In the evening’s undoubted highlight, a medley of gypsy songs, there were points when they were hardly playing at all. As ever, a true artist will recognise when the best thing to do is nothing.

Perhaps the evening’s only flaw was Tabor falling into the folk habit of talking too much between (or even during) songs. Some kind of context and explanation is of course desirable, especially for the songs sung in foreign languages. But you also wondered at points if she was trying to counter the often sombre tone of her music with some more uplifting chat, something about it felt compensatory. There’s a point where the songs really have to be left to speak for themselves.

I suspect this in-concert film (recent but with a larger backing band and different set-list) might not be on YouTube long, so if the screen below is blank you’ve already missed it. If it’s still there, however, note there are also further instalments.

Sunday 17 May 2009



God is here and there and everywhere
And his eyes, his eyes are watching you
- Junior Byles

It’s been a while since we had a Bible Study Class around here. So let’s get this story straight from the start...

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void... and the Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1, 1-3)

We all got that? In Genesis, God pre-exists form and substance, a pretty strong hint that what we’re talking about here is an insubstantial deity. The reference to “the Spirit of God” could of course mean God sends out his Spirit, not necessarily that he is one, but it still creates an association. Looking back at the Old Testament through the prism of the New (or for that matter all those old school assemblies), this is the sort of God we expect to encounter by opening the Bible.

Except of course for that other famous line from Genesis, so good they tell us twice; “God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him.” (Genesis 1, 27-28) A pedant might wonder, if man (a creature of form) is in God’s image how can God precede form? Perhaps by ‘image’ something less literal is meant, ‘God created something unlike the birds, something more akin to himself, complete with consciousness and free will’. Perhaps its that we’re supposed to be born with immortal souls.But from there things get slipperier...

“The man and his wife heard the sound of The Lord God walking in the garden... and hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” (Genesis 3, 8-10)

Excuse me, walking in the garden? Unable to see someone because they’re hiding behind a tree? Has our all-knowing deity somehow become a Park Keeper, who can be avoiding by expediently ducking into the shrubbery? In fact the story of man’s disobedience relies upon God not being an omnipotent spirit. During creation, God knows exactly what he is doing – he says what he will make and then he makes it. (A theologian would probably insist his words cause it to be made, but the effect is the same.) But if God has foreknowledge of man’s disobedience, or (more strongly still) if he in any way makes man in order for him to disobey, things change quite fundamentally. If grabbing the apple isn’t a cosmic accident, if it stops being man’s fault but becomes God’s wish, the very point of the story of the Fall collapses. Whether God goes form Sunday strolls or not, here he needs to lack omnipotence. So are we talking about two separate conceptions of God, sandwiched between one set of covers? And, assuming the Good Book ain’t big enough for the both of them, when does the God-of-Spirit finally expel the anthropomorphised big guy?

The short answers are ‘yes’ and ‘awhile’. In fact the Spiritual Father all but vanishes for a good chunk of Genesis. In the Babel story for example, “the Lord came down to see the city and tower which mortal men had built” (11, 5-6) There’s also Genesis 18, where Abraham pleads to God for Sodom. Of course God may merely be taking on physical form to appear to Abraham. (He appears, after all, as a stranger). But he is not only characterised, at times we’re even told what he’s thinking! (17-18) As Abraham presses his case for the circumstances in which Sodom might be saved, the implication is that he is not teasing out God’s intention so much as plea-bargaining with him. God here is not all-knowing and inscrutable, but subject to being swayed by oratory. Here he has been made in man’s image, he weighs up options just as we would. (None of which makes any practical difference. The angels merely let Abraham’s in-laws go before smiting the rest of Sodom, rendering the whole argument redundant. But it still signifies a perception of God.)

The pivot-point comes at an inauspicious moment, during the itself-inauspicious story of Jacob. If Jacob is considered much at all, it tends to be either for his vision of the ladder to heaven (28, 10-12) or his wrestling match with God (32, 22-32) – two scenes which seem incidental to the main thrust of his story. (The Ciro Ferri painting above does depict the moment I'll go on to describe, but fails to capture its signifcance.) Indeed, when we first read of him he seems a throwback even compared to the rest of Genesis. Born ‘smooth’, a classic trickster figure, he cheats his brother Esau out of his inheritance not even at the Lord’s instigation but at his mother’s. (Genesis 27) Fleering Esau, he then encounters Laban who proves much more his match.

But all changes when Jacob makes his agreement with Laban in Genesis 31/32, 43-2. (Which even Wikpedia’s summary refers to only as “a pact to preserve the peace between them.”) Up to now their relations have been highly ambiguous, alternating between a warm family relationship and trying to trick one another. It occurs to both that their common interest lies in suing for peace, but how can this agreement be kept when one is no longer in the other’s sight. Their answer is to build a cairn, which they call Witness or Watch-Tower.

“This cairn is witness and the pillar is witness: I for my part will not pass beyond this cairn to your side, and you for your part will not pass beyond this cairn and this pillar to my side and do an injury, otherwise the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor will judge between us.” (31, 51-53)

So far everything has been an action replay of an earlier oath sworn between Jacob’s father Isaac and Abimelech, in Genesis 26. But there his foes back off after recognising that the strength of the Lord is behind him. (“Swear that you will do us no harm, now that the Lord has blessed you.” 26, 29) Even with Jacob, ‘you stay your side, I stay mine’ is part of the resolution. But what about that second clause? Here God does not weigh in on one side, but acts as an arbiter over the affairs of men. (“May the Lord watch between you and me, when we are parted from each other’s sight.” 31, 49) He is specifically called upon to do what man cannot, act as an invisible omnipotent judge. You cannot cheat on your deal because you cannot hide yourself from him – no matter how thick the shrubbery. All this is invoked in the image of the cairn as a watchtower. After here the phrase “wicked in the Lord’s sight” will enter proceedings (for example 38, 7), and draw it’s meaning from this image.

It might even be possible to argue that it is not just the Spiritual God of the Old Testament who arrives fully here, perhaps the roots of the New Testament are being placed too. In the Old Testament, God is tribal – forever looking out for the interests of the Hebrews. In a book fixated with paternity he is not literally the All-Father, the patriarch who came even before Noah and Abraham, for he is specified as the creator of all there is (Hebrew and others alike). But the distinction between the two is fuzzy at best, and often entirely obscured. What he promises to Jacob during the vision of the ladder is typical:

“I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. The land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendents. They shall be countless as the dust upon the earth, and you shall spread far and wide, to north and south, to east and west. All the families of the earth shall pray to be blessed as you and your descendants are blessed.” (28, 13-14)
(In other words: “I am the creator of all there is. But, out of all the world, I favour your tribe above all others. Because I say so.”)

He even warns Jacob to flee Laban, while warning Laban off harming him. Yet significantly it is Laban not Jacob who suggests the pact given above, while the Cairn of Witness is specifically named in both Hebrew and Aramaic. (31, 46) (Despite God “confounding” our language earlier in Genesis, references to actual language barriers are about as rare as in any fantasy novel – something which makes this detail stand out.) The fact that Laban is already established as much nearer Joseph’s match, in contrast to the gullible Esau, would seem to come into force here.

There’s perhaps a remorselessness to the logic. There’s a natural conceptual link between an insubstantial deity and an ominipotent one, and from there a universalised one. Unlike the rest of us, God is not trapped in one place at one time. So, as soon as God ceases to become a Tribal Father, as soon as it becones necessary for him to be invoked in bargains between the Hebrew and other races, the conception of him as the property of the Hebrews becomes eroded. He’s no longer the symbolic head of a warrior nation, whose neighbours are ‘others’, fodder for conquest or at best potential trespassers who need warning off. For they have now become potential trading partners, with whom we need concepts in common and mutually agreed sets of rules. Our relations with them are now by necessity ongoing.

Perhaps the root of this has already been laid. JM Roberts calls the Covenant between Hebrew and God (Genesis 15) “a master idea. Israel was assured that if it did something, then something desirable would follow.” Traditionally in myth, such covenants are made to be broken and lead to a Fall. (They ‘explain’ why we face death, disease and all the rest of it.) Of course this happens in the Pentateuch all the time. But it is not the only thing that happens, in Moses’ Exodus in particular punishment for the errant is often contrasted with reward for the devout. And once man’s relationship with God has become a contract, how long before that becomes the defining model in his relations with other men? The road would not be straight or even. But these are the first footfalls upon the path where he will become both omnipotent and universal – the God not of warring tribes but the great trading powers.

Postscript 1:
I’ve thrown up this theory without considering much how it sits with historical Bible study. In the widely recognised Documentary Hypothesis, researchers into Genesis usually distinguish between the two primary sources ‘J’ (for God-known-as-Jahweh) and ‘E’ (God-as-Elohim), with one of the signifiers whether God appears directly (‘J’) or via dreams and signs (‘E’). (Other sources, who were incorporated later and whose impact upon Genesis is more minor, need not concern us here.) In which case Jacob switches from a ‘J’ (trickster) to an ‘E’ (pact-maker.) (See this site for a breakdown which would confirm this.)

But the Documentary Hypothesis rests upon the two sources being stitched together as a pact in itself, between the then-separate Hebrew kingdoms of Israel (‘E’) and Judea (‘J’). Differences between the two sources, though as fundamental as the very name of God, are therefore glossed over. (This can even lead to formal redundancy. We get the story of creation twice, in Genesis 1 and 2, so neither group need miss out.) The aim was to smooth things over, not draw attention to the cracks and joins. But my argument rests upon a change which occurs within Jacob, an intentional juxtaposition, a new concept which is introduced in order to finalise a storyline. This isn’t something the Documentary Hypothesis conventionally allows.

PostScript 2:
It seems obvious that, in Britain at least, we now live in a post-Christian society. Of course people, groups and even Prime Ministers might choose to remain Christians, but we are no longer institutionally Christian. So perhaps it’s time we started taking that ‘post’ as something other than a synonym for ‘anti’. It’s like we’ve become locked in a debate where both sides see the Bible as an arms dump, which they rummage through for ammunition. (One context-free quote makes the whole thing sound a warlike cult, another all peace and love. As the saying goes ‘text without context is pretext’.) We need to start reading it as we would any other historical document, historically and holistically.

Christians might want to consider these two conceptions of God moralistically, which they are fully entitled to do. (Though frankly, it all sounds more like celestial CCTV to me.) But I tend to regard moralism as a means to avoid asking material questions, and so am more concerned with how things work historically. If man makes God in his image, it must surely follow that as society changes it will update him.