Hearing and listening

by Richard on May 30, 2005

And did those feet in ancient times
Walk upon England’s mountain’s green?

Blake’s Jerusalem is sung with patriotic fervour, despite the fact that William Blake did not intend his original poem that way would be horrified at this appropriation of it. But the combination of a stirring tune by Parry and the words about England’s green and pleasant land make the patriotic association pretty well inevitable - provide, that is, you don’t actually listen to what the words say! There is a gap between what Blake meant and what most of us hear when the hymn is sung.

There are other examples of this. You remember when Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA was adopted in a certain election campaign? Some can even listen to This Land and admire the fervour of its patriotism. Which is a shame — it really doesn’t have any, at least in the conventional flag-waving sense. Similarly, when Irish band Stiff Little Fingers sang (yelled!) White Noise they delighted skinheads and appalled woolly liberals with the overt racism of its lyrics (I invite the easily offended not to be too hasty here)

Rastus is a nigger.
Thug mugger junkie
Black golly gob.
Big horny monkey.
Pimp pusher coon.
Grinning piccaninnies
Send him home soon. Back to the trees.

Black wogs, black wogs.
Face don’t fitBlack wog, black wogs.
Ain’t no Brit.

You can see why the skinheads loved it, and why those of a more liberal persuasion were horrified. But you can only take this as racist if you don’t listen to the rest of the song, remembering that those singing (yelling) are Irish

Stick together we’ll all be white me and you
The only colours we need are red, right and blue.

Paddy is a moron. Spud thick Mick.
Breeds like a rabbit.
Thinks with his pick.
Anything floors him if he can’ fight or drink it.
Round them up in Ulster.
Tow it out and sink it.

Green wogs. Green wogs.
Face don’t fit.Green wogs.
Green wogs. Ain’t no Brit.

If the victim ain’t a soldier why should we care?
Irish bodies don’t count. Life’s cheaper over there.

Green wogs. Green wogs. Face don’t fit.
Green wogs. Green wogs. Ain’t no Brit
Green wogs. Green wogs. Get ‘em boys.
Green wogs. Green wogs. Turn up the white noise.

(I predict that Andrew Careaga will be the one to spot the accidental-on-purpose amendment I’ve introduced here. I’m a sensitive soul really)

It isn’t just song lyrics. John Wesley’s (in)famous formula “Gain all you can / Save all you can / Give all you can” was quoted by Mrs Thatcher more than once as proof that Wesley would have approved her brand of capitalism, though I doubt she ever bothered to read any deeper to find out what Wesley might have really meant. (In this case, it was Wesley’s own fault but that doesn’t affect my argument here). She took the words as affirmation of her position and used them accordingly. If they hadn’t seemed so amenable, no doubt she would have just ignored them.

But we all do that to an extent. Every preacher I know speaks of occasions when it has been obvious that the sermon they preached was not the one the congregation heard. Unless we stay “alert and watchful”, it is easy to listen to others knowing it advance what they’re going to say and judging it accordingly for good or ill. I’ve even — believe it or not! — seen people react to blog entries this way. Really listening is hard work sometimes, especially when we have to hold our prejudices in check to do it. But the song lyrics show us it’s going to be essential to mutual understanding.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }


Wood 05.30.05 at 7:50 am

Good stuff. Technically, I should point out that Blake’s poem is the Prelude to Milton -Jerusalem is the name of the tune.


John 05.30.05 at 8:55 pm

Richard, I cannot seriously believe that you are advocating such a ludicrous position. The flimsy front drum brake on the Royal Enfield makes it a death trap! Instead of blowing two hundred on a replacement kit, why not spend your money on a more reliable and better-designed bike? Insist on dual disk brakes, fuel inejction, and for God’s sake — a liquid cooled engine.


Richard 06.01.05 at 11:50 am

It mght just be that not quite with it after my breeak, John, but I confess you’ve lost me completely!
Wood - does the word “pedant” mean anything to you at all? ;)

Update: Arf arf John :) I must be slow today!


Eugene 06.02.05 at 3:10 am

I have to agree with you Richard. My greatest problem is those who quote Bible verses (of which I was one) and not give any thought to what the original authorial intent of it was. Or people who preach on one Bible verse and that’s their entire sermon. They merely scratched the surface and worse still like Maggie the Iron Lady think that Wesley is backing her. Of course in defense of Maggie she is a Methodist herself and I imagine she had some grounding and deeper knowledge of Wesley meant.



Richard 06.02.05 at 9:37 am

Sadly, your defence of Lady T is not sustainable Eugene. She knew the slogan, but it was clear that she had never read the sermon it came from.

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