Garth Hewitt: The globe-trotting troubadour in Bethlehem, Palestine

Saturday 17th November 2018

Paul Calvert of Radio Hayah spoke to singer, songwriter and author GARTH HEWITT

Garth Hewitt
Garth Hewitt

Veteran singer, songwriter, minister, author and political activist Garth Hewitt has been taking his message around the world for decades. The recent release and publication of a two CD, 31-song compilation and an in-depth book, Against The Grain: Choices On A Journey With Justice, are a neat summary of decades of tireless ministry. Recently, Garth was in Palestine where he was interviewed by Paul Calvert of Radio Hayah. Here's what he said.

Paul: I'm here in Bethlehem with singer/songwriter Garth Hewitt. Now, you have a huge number of albums, what got you first involved in music?

Garth: That is an interesting question. When I was in school, I started to play and sing and I got a little band together, a couple of bands. When I was at university I got my guitar playing to a level that I had a few chords up my sleeve and used to go and play. I was up in Durham and went and played at local folk clubs. But also I played at some of the Christian student organizations and so on and started to write songs in that situation, and then I had more and more opportunity for gigs and played at quite a lot of Christian events. At this point, I was invited to make an album, a guy called Norman Miller came up to me and said, 'Would you do an album'. It was for an organization called Hildenborough Hall, and they had a label called Breakthrough which sadly didn't break through. We had recorded an album and then went to Ian Hamilton who, with his father, was running Word Records. They released that album, 'The Lion And The Lamb'. That is how I got into the recording side of it. Music itself I simply had a love for and I found that I was writing songs. Then I was invited by a man called Tim Dudley Smith to go full time with a church organization called Church Pastoral Aids Society. Tim is actually a bishop but he is, I would say, a very significant hymn writer. He spotted me playing at an event. They actually salaried me to be a kind of contemporary gospel singer, which I did for quite a lot of years with them. That is what took me to the next level; that I had that chance was absolutely unexpected. I was actually a curate in a Parish and expected I would go on eventually to be a vicar but then I found that I had a different route.

Paul: How long have you been in the music industry?

Garth: That takes a bit of counting. I released my first album in 1973 and so I was recording and doing concerts from the late '60s, early '70s, and then it increased much more during the mid '70s. Occasionally I have done other things and thought I would do a little less music, but I get the sort of feeling that I am not doing what I should be doing, which seems to be interwoven with my vocation.

Paul: So are you classed now as legendary?

Garth: (Laughs) You know it's funny, I think as you get older that word has come out a bit whether you are legendary or not.

Paul: Your latest album is 'Against The Grain'. Tell us a little bit about that?

Garth: Yeah, it's an album and a book. The book is a memoir, I think they call them memoirs these days or autobiography. When I was talking with Ginger Dog, the record company, about doing the book, I was getting their advice because they've also worked with books before, so I said 'I'm writing a memoir'. It's quite hard to do a memoir compared to other books. They said, 'You need to do an album with it.' Then they asked, 'What's the title of the book going to be?' and I said, 'I'm wondering about Against The Grain', and they said 'If you call it Against The Grain we will release an album, in fact a double album.'

I recorded four or five new songs for the album specifically, plus there are three or four old tracks that hadn't been released on album before. One called "Mar Gregorious", which is about an archbishop who was taken hostage in the Syrian situation. Then I found some old demos and things, and one of them astounds me in terms of its relevance. It almost frightens me it's so powerful. It's called "We Don't Do Body Counts", which is a quote from an American general in the Iraq war. Then there's a couple that, at one time, could have been called country rock songs but actually are sort of Americana now. I recorded those years back when I had a band, and they are a really nice sound. They were taken off cassettes so the quality isn't great but the feel is rather fun.

Paul: Do you write songs to challenge people?

Garth: Challenging people is a part of art. We are sitting here in Banksy's hotel and I was just reading an article by Banksy where he quotes Eleanor Roosevelt about saying that art is to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable. So I think there is in art a tremendous responsibility to comfort people and that is where the spirituality of gospel music comes in very strongly. But there is also a side in music which is to challenge. You look around here. There are all these works by Banksy that are challenging. They have got a real political message. But they have humour. I think in music we have a responsibility to do the same thing. I used the phrase gospel singer on one album that I did. Normally to many people gospel music almost means a musical style. But I would use it in terms of the message of the Gospel. I hope that message is reflected in my albums and in my songs because if it does, they will be a two-edged sword. In other words, they will bring you hope and encouragement, but they will also challenge you. The song "Against The Grain" is about Jesus riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday where Jesus defines himself in terms of coming in from the opposite side of Jerusalem from where the war horses would have come in, where the empire came in. Jesus is saying 'No, this is the peace way and this Kingdom of God challenges all the empire.' So it's Jesus defining himself as this peacemaker in a very powerful way.

Paul: Who inspires or challenges you?

Garth: In my life I have been very fortunate that I have heard or met or seen people who are enormously significant. When I was a teenager, I went to hear Martin Luther King speak. Well, it was a life changer, because I saw that Christianity was picking up your responsibility to love God but also to love your neighbour. That feeds the social action and so on. I think Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a great inspiration as I saw what he was doing in South Africa. A Baptist Pastor in Nicaragua where the Amos Trust is working, he was a doctor who started a relief and development agency. He was a person who made visible the spirituality of Jesus and so he was a great inspiration. I think in the music sense, I would go back to Mahalia Jackson as a great inspiration. A woman who, with her music, was able to do something very special and yet she was quite a prophetic figure. She was the person who yelled at Martin Luther King, 'Tell them about the dream, Martin,' when he was preparing his speech. He wasn't going to include those words. These days I admire those who speak up. I like to see people reflecting the Gospel message. Sometimes the Christian Church is very reticent in speaking up on the challenges of the world around us. I mean, we are in an horrendous situation around the world at the moment, people are swinging right wing in an extreme and Fascist way, countries are having leaders who are truly awful, we are walking backwards. So this is a moment particularly to reflect that wonderful value of the Kingdom of Jesus and to speak up about it, not just to be polite as the Church but to be a prophetic voice.

Paul Calvert
Paul Calvert

Paul: Has Christian music changed over the years?

Garth: Yes. What happened particularly in Britain and to some extent in America was that worship music came in and it dominated because it sold more records. (Laughs) But I think what we lost was the story-telling Christian music. There was a very valuable time in the '70s and '80s where the story tellers were strong. For people who want to pick up justice issues like myself there has always been a mixed reaction. In the States a good friend of mine called Ken Medomar; amazing writer. He was thrown off his label in the States with the words "justice doesn't sell." I think that is the whole point. Prophets don't sell (laughs) but they speak the truth. I feel there was something valuable about that time and the story tellers. I don't know what Christian music is doing so much these days, I haven't heard so much in the States. I am sure there are people doing good things. But I would like to music have a greater commitment to issues of justice which I think reflects the whole heart of Jesus.

Paul: You published a book, Bethlehem Speaks, and a film, Bethlehem Hidden From View.

Garth: At one stage the Amos Trust and I were particularly trying to focus people's attention on what was happening over here with Palestine and Israel. Bethlehem is, of course, a very significant place for the Christian community. But most people don't know anything about it. Bethlehem Speaks is an interview with 16 different people from Bethlehem about the current situation of the occupation. Then I did a film called Bethlehem Hidden From View. I found when I talked about Bethlehem in my concerts people didn't realise there is a huge wall separating the place. About 87 per cent of Bethlehem's land has been taken by the Israelis. Bethlehem is a tiny little town now. So I thought I'd make a film about it. I interviewed some Jewish and Christian friends and made Bethlehem Hidden From View. It got a lot of plays in churches; it got some very interesting play on Muslim TV; it was played at a film festival in Malaysia; a Muslim festival played it. It did more than I expected.

Then I released an EP called 'Bethlehem, Palestine'. I have found that people who come to Bethlehem in coaches don't even know where they are. I've asked them, 'Where are you?' and they would answer, 'We're in Bethlehem in Israel.' I say, 'It's not in Israel, it's in Palestine,' and they are bewildered. I thought we have got to say where places are, so I did two EPs, 'Bethlehem, Palestine' and 'Gaza, Palestine'. On 'Bethlehem, Palestine' there's a song called "Bethlehem Hidden From View".

Paul: So is Bethlehem close to your heart?

Garth: Yes, very much and the places round here, the communities. Places like Beit Sahour, the shepherd's field area and so on. I have a lot of friends and I suppose this is the place I have written most about both in songs and in books. I put together a double album called 'Songs From The Fifth Gospel'. I see people look a little strangely at me, 'He's written a fifth gospel?' But it is actually picking up the words of Saint Jerome who lived in Bethlehem in about the fourth century. He talked about the Holy Land being the fifth gospel, casting like a light on the other gospels and the communities of the Holy Land as well. So I put together all the songs that I had written that related to the situation. Wisam Salsaa, the director of the Walled Off Hotel, Banksy's hotel, asked me if I would put together the songs I had written and I thought okay, we will do that, we'll do a CD. But it turned out to be a double album as I had written so many songs on the situation here, and I included songs that would be suitable for people on a pilgrimage.

Paul: Christians have left Bethlehem. What is your message to those who have stayed?

Garth: The situation for the Palestinians has never been worse. Last year with the Amos Trust, people walked all the way from London to Palestine and we ended in St Georges Anglican cathedral in Jerusalem because we were apologizing for the Balfour Declaration. The Balfour Declaration talked of giving a homeland to the Jewish people but it said it wouldn't upset the non-Jewish community that were here. Obviously that part has been ignored and the suffering of the Palestinians has been terrible. The Christian community here is almost unrecognised by the Christian community around the world even though there are such names as Jerusalem and Bethlehem and so on. It has been very important to tell that story and to come here regularly so that they sense that there is support coming from around the world. We have brought many, many groups just so they can walk on the ground and see the holy sites.

What would I say to the people who are here in Bethlehem? Well, I would like to say one of the ways you inspire me is the way you've stayed here witnessing to the world for centuries. It's a lot to ask of people when the Israelis are using such a brutal occupation. But I would certainly say we'd like to maintain our friendship and support for them and campaign to change our governments' minds. I mean, the British government has caused a huge problem. Last year Theresa May said, "I'm proud of the Balfour declaration." Palestinians were furious. This caused the Nakba for them - a catastrophe, that word means. Why didn't she say something about the catastrophe that was done to the Palestinians, do something about it? It would be easy to do, it's not the hardest thing in the world. Politicians have failed and that is very sad; but the people who I think haven't failed are those here in Bethlehem and other parts of the West Bank and Gaza who are committed to non-violence, committed to creative resistance, created to show there is a better way forward. To those people I want to say thank you, you're showing the world there is a better way to deal with things, it isn't just violence and guns.

Paul: Do you see a lot of potential here in Bethlehem?

Garth: Yes. Bethlehem is a place where a little event happened once with a baby being born. It transformed the world, or large sections of the world. I believe the witness of non-violence that comes out of Bethlehem, the witness of creative resistance that comes out of Bethlehem, all of that is a message to the world. But they need support because the pressure is so strong. It's easy for us to not even think about these thing because we're not pressurised with occupation and issues that are so every day in our lives. But I'm afraid I feel the world is changing, we may well find these kind of things ourselves. But Bethlehem has stood firm and shown good news for the poor and oppressed and forgotten; Bethlehem is a place of hope.

Paul: Finally, what is your prayer for Bethlehem?

Garth: The Prince of Peace was born in Bethlehem. I would like the prayer to be that peace will come with justice. You can't get to peace without justice and the beautiful character of a generous and loving God. I would like to see that brought as a reality here and that will mean some repentance. Israel taking that 87 per cent of the land and so on, don't do that, there is a better way. There is a better way where people can love their neighbours as themselves, which is there in the Jewish scriptures, we pick it up as Christians. So my prayer would be let's live out the values of the Prince of Peace, let's draw on the reminder to love God and to love our neighbour as ourself, let's bring some hope and healing, let's make sure that religion doesn't divide, violence doesn't divide. Let's make sure that we, whatever the cost, are committed to the way of a God who is generosity, who is mercy. Pope Francis wrote the book The Name Of God Is Mercy. I like that. I think there will be a song with that title. We really need to discover the character of God, the mercy, the generosity, the love and live that way. My prayer would be for Bethlehem who's witnessed to this through 2000 years, keep witnessing and let that be a visible reality in our time. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Paul Calvert
Paul CalvertPaul Calvert is from Carlisle in Cumbria working as a Journalist in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. He is also a radio presenter with a documentary show.


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