Soundtrack of my Life: “Blake’s Jerusalem” by Billy Bragg

Here we are, on a Sunday morn, watching football instead of being in church. I don’t often go to church- being  single parent, I usually spend my Sunday doing various pieces of housework that need more than ten seconds of concentration and sleeping. Saturdays often belong to various appointments and groceries.

I grew up with very religious parents who became more fundamentalist Christian when my mother became ill, and my father went full on scary Christianist after my mother’s death. I remember loving church when I was little. We had a fantastic pastor who would let me have the communion wafers even though I had not been confirmed ( I was four). Being in the Lutheran church, Sunday School was full of music and art. Children time at the front during the service was always fun- the pastor we had was excellent with kids. And the Nativity play every year was great. I was always an angel. The dark side of this was that I felt like my parents piousness and my natural way of being and self were at odds. I was not particularly obedient nor was I particularly quiet. I was curious and opinionated. I wanted to do things and travel to wonderful places and see art and buildings. My parents were both very conservative in both temperament and world view. I was more of a free spirit and kinda hippie like. My father could not abide this behaviour, and over time, his attempts to break my spirit and turn me into a “proper” girl would take its toll. I had my first panic attack at six, and I continue to have them on occasion to this day. In my quest for parental approval that never came, I would eventually become bulimic (my mother would tell me constantly I was becoming fat), depressed ( I was convinced my parents hated me), and self-destructive ( one suicide attempt, one shoplifitng charge at 13, lots of drugs, lots of sex, lots of running away, two very dangerous and abusive relationships, one very unhappy and lonely relationship, lots of cigarettes. Why fight a losing battle?). I was kept on a short leash by my parents as a result of my acting out, which meant I spent all my time alone in my room listening to music and reading books. It took leaving home and years of therapy to get me to the point where I could even be in the same room with my father without having a panic attack during or after the visit. My mother’s death just made things worse. My father would become involved with someone else almost immediately after, and before anyone noticed, my family fractured completely. We barely talk to each other, the four of us. I adore my brothers, and I know that we would do anything for each other. But we never communicate. My brothers both became avowed atheists. I was angry at God for years- my mother was in tremendous amounts of pain for nearly a decade, and I felt like my father blamed me for her illness because I wasn’t good enough in God’s eyes. But I could never dismiss him outright. I am more my mother’s daughter than I sometimes care to admit.

I feel comfort in the routine and customs of the Lutheran service. It makes me feel closer to my mother, a woman of deep faith and understanding with enormous patience. I am not a regular churchgoer- my life is so busy and my insomnia so consuming that Sundays are often the only day I sleep in.  But I try to hit the important days- and this year I went to Ash Wednesday services for the first time (that I can recall).

What des this have to do with Billy Bragg and a song called “Blake’s Jerusalem”. My mother was raised Anglican. The long and complicated history of religion in my mother’s family sometimes gives me good chuckle. “Jerusalem” is a poem by William Blake, everyone’s favourite British eccentric poet, that was largely ignored until Sir Hubert Parry added music in 1916. Apocryphal stories about Jesus visiting Glastonbury are told by many an English religious man, and Blake, inspired by the Felpham countryside and the encroaching Industrial Revolution mills, wrote a brief  piece. “And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green?” “And was Jerusalem builded here among these dark Satanic mills?” It was turned into a unoffical national anthem in the 20th century- Republican writers favour it as the song they would choose as an actual national anthem if the monarchy was abolished.

Billy Bragg, modern-day troubadour, on his 1990 album The Internationale, covered and rewrote several left-wing protest songs. In the middle is a straight cover of “Blake’s Jerusalem” (as he labelled it on the album sleeve). Amidst the overt politics of the rest of the record, he went sweet, quiet, and contemplative. A beautiful song is treated tenderly and respectfully by a rabble-rouser. How can one ignore that?


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