Singer-songwriter GARTH HEWITT speaks to James Attlee about townships, troubadours and troubled times. Right wing fundamentalists should read no further without seeking medical advice.
Garth Hewitt is a product of the '60s. The music that excited him in his youth and prodded him, like so many others in that era, to strap on an acoustic, not to mention doff a Donovan cap, was the music popularised during the so-called folk boom... Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, above all the young, nasal and nasty Bob Dylan. These artists in turn were drawing on a tradition of earlier American music and the romantic image of the hobo, the wandering musician who stood aside from the mainstream of life and commented from the sidelines, perhaps best exemplified this century by Woody Guthrie.
With his latest LP, far from making concessions to any current musical trends, Hewitt has been returning to those roots once more. A desire to tap into an authentic source musically prompted him to record in L.A. with Mark Heard who both produces and contributes down-home guitar, mandolin, accordion and dulcimer-guitar. The fiddle playing of Byron Berline particularly adds to the country-tinged folk feel of much of the album.
Garth explained some of the background to his collaboration with Heard.
"I was searching around musically for what would be right for this album. I recorded 'Scars' in Nashville and I was sort of heading back to certain roots but I didn't feel I'd gone quite far enough. Mark Heard is a musician I've always admired in that field and I knew he had a studio out in L.A. A friend contacted him and asked if he'd be interested in doing it. In fact, two people suggested that I use Mark and I felt 'this is right.' It suited the way I wanted to present the songs and, of course, he's very sympathetic to what I do. I've never recorded like this before - I put down my vocals, guitar and harmonica before everything else and I found it a really liberating way to work. It's song-orientated, the song dominates and everything else is built up around it. We had some very good players - I like the drum and bass sounds. We mixed the basses, we had some acoustic bass and some stand-up bass and a little bit of electric. The drummer was very sensitive and we had a great fiddle player."
It's been a long haul from the folk clubs and youth clubs of the North-East to studios in Nashville and L.A. Hewitt the young folkie was already a believer in those far-off days, but frustrated that there were no songs available that spoke about his faith in a meaningful way.
"At that time there was very little material around. If it was gospel it didn't relate to our culture, it was songs that spoke of the sweet bye and bye, if you know what I mean. So I started writing while I was still at University - I never thought this would be my career and I went from University to Theological College and was ordained as an Anglican priest and did three years in a parish."
He was not to stay in a dog collar for long (has he still got one at the back of his sock drawer we wonder?) The Church Pastoral Aid Society came to the rescue of the bemused parishioners (only joking) of St. Lukes, Maidstone and by providing financial support for the next seven years launched him on a full-time music career. At around the same time he became the first contemporary artist to sign to Word Record's Myrrh label in the UK. "It was an extraordinary moment for me when I went full-time because I wouldn't have done it on my own, but it was one of those moments of strong encouragement... As soon as it happened I realised this was what I should be doing, it was where I felt at ease and the way I found it easiest to communicate."
His relationship with Word has continued to this day, apart from a bizarre period in the late '70s when he had a contract with EMI, who attempted to turn him into a singles artist, and an even briefer stay with rock and roll label Magnum Force, who released one single. It wasn't until 1982 that the themes and direction that have formed much of his later work began to emerge.
"For some time I felt that I wanted to do an album that picked up the social implications of the gospel. I did a compilation album for Tear Fund in 1982 called 'Record Of The Weak' and it was a strange moment, it really redefined where I was heading. After that I did an album of fresh material called 'Road To Freedom'. Around that time I went on several journeys - one to India where I met Mother Teresa, one to Uganda at a very troubled and violent time and one into the black townships in South Africa where I realised the gospel's implications not only for social issues but for political issues as well. I sort of saw the seriousness of the world for many people and it made me in one sense - I hope - grow up. At the same time the concept of notes to the album The Amos Trust talks of its work supporting Garth in his role as a troubadour. To me the word has rather unfortunate hey-nonny-no associations - what would this man, who wears his glasses round his neck on a string in school-masterly fashion, look like in medieval costume I wonder? But to Garth the concept is obviously a valid one.
"We seem to have an idea that contemporary gospel started in the 1960s, but contemporary music that reflected the Christian message stretches back in this country to the sixth century, when Caedmon used the popular music of his day with the Celtic harp, reflecting something about his God and something about his world. When you come on to the Middle Ages there were troubadours around Francis of Assisi and they were commenting on the folly of a lot of what was going on - music was not the only medium they used to do that, of course. In this century I sort of see myself in the tradition of those who have either been gospel singers or protest singers and I like the thought of those two being combined.
"Woody Guthrie told stories in his songs from the struggling person's point of view and he also challenged the sort of society he lived in. The folk tradition of protest songs is not always rooted in Christianity and often isn't in fact, but when you get to the black gospel tradition, that's interesting because it's rooted in songs of liberation theology. If you look at negro spirituals, as they used to be called, they are really liberation theology in code." This last statement may seem a mite simplistic to black gospel aficionados, but the theory of the troubadour seems to have the merit of consistency at least. Garth's travels have taken him to many of the world's suffering nations, from Latin America to Africa, from Palestine to the Phillipines. Many of his songs describe the plight of those who the rest of us seem to have forgotten as the eye of the media focuses on a war or a famine elsewhere. My question to Garth was simply this: what does writing a song about a situation, however tragic - whether it be the fate of street children in Brazil or the rubbish tip scavengers of Manila - actually achieve?
"I could perhaps best illustrate it by a couple of responses to it. When I was down in the Gaza strip and I gave a copy of the last album, which had a song on it called 'Where Is The Land Of Palestine,' to the guy heading up the medical work there, when he saw it he grabbed me, embraced me, kissed me on both cheeks and introduced me to everyone, because, he said 'we feel so forgotten, in these camps for 40 years. Artists are important to us because they're telling our story.' He was so thrilled.
I was in Mozambique recently - it's a terrible time at the moment for Mozambique, I've written a song about it on the album. Just as I was leaving the bishop who had invited me there said 'Your songs tell stories - will you tell our story as you go around?' That in a sense is all I can contribute - I can tell their story, I can ask people to get involved, I can ask them to pray, I can ask them to give. As a result I've met people in Third World situations who have said 'We're here because of going to a concert of yours.' They've gone out to do something to help. Sometimes it's just letting people know they're not forgotten - on the West Bank they feel utterly forgotten. Palestinians there said to me recently 'Why does John Major hate us? He obviously likes the Kurds, (it was the time of that concert for the Kurds which they watched on television) he likes the Kuwaitis but no-one cares about us - we've been invaded but who's coming to help us?' To have someone coming there at that time, singing to them, just being there when no other Westerners are around to speak of - for people to have the sense that somebody came, they understand something of our situation and they are going back and telling our story... At the same time when I'm at home in Britain or the United States I tell people 'There's a worldwide family. Suffer with those who suffer, rejoice with those who rejoice. Give to them where we can give, in economic terms or in terms of going; receive from them, because they have a lot to offer in terms of spirituality and in community life. Giving and receiving, that seems to me to be the role of the worldwide church."
If this all seems rather dry and polemical, Garth would claim that in concert, where songs are performed alongside humour and anecdote, laughter and hope are communicated as well as challenge. He's keen for Christians to get beyond the stage of making a mere emotional response to a TV programme, say, but to see their commitment to siding with the poor and oppressed as part of a continual lifestyle of obedience. He has little time for those sections of the church (including many evangelicals) who limit their Christianity to the realms of their personal relationship with God and consider politics a dirty word. "If you feel that Christianity is only about your personal relationship with Jesus and it stops there you have a very limited theology. It's quite a popular one - it's the theology of the 'me generation.' If Jesus forgives me, he makes me healthy, wealthy maybe - these are all the things we want as a materialistic society. But the gospels speak about the Kingdom of God, about a different way of life - it's not just a personal thing, you become part of a community with certain principles. If you say Jesus is Lord you cannot say He is not Lord of the political arena or of social areas. And you can't say that Jesus is interested in some political areas, as long as they are right wing, which is what some churches have done, especially in America! It seems to me that God is neither right-wing or left-wing, He's a God of justice - so if you line up with causes that are supporting the oppressor that seems to me to go against the Bible."
None of this has much to do with music, you might maintain - but with Garth Hewitt the music and the message are one. You can't have cuddly old Garth singing jolly tunes without the polemic I'm afraid. This gets up a lot of people's noses in the Christian music scene, where the rationale for song-writing is often somewhat different and where being a "trendy lefty" is slightly worse than being a health and wealth preacher with diamond teeth, a theme park and a white stretch limo. Never afraid to court controversy, I asked Garth, with his wide experience in the Middle East and his particular concern for the Palestinians, for his perspective on the Gulf War.
"I think the Gulf War has been a complete disaster. I watched with amazement the celebrations in America... OK, the objective of getting the Iraqis out of Kuwait has been achieved and the Kuwaitis are now back and able to carry on their torture and imprisonment without human rights and so on... The Allies said 'we have nothing against the Iraqi people, only against one man - but they killed 200,000 of the Iraqi people and missed the one man. When you are in that situation you realise that a pain has been created that will continue for centuries. The Crusades are still talked about out there, when a Christian army invaded the Middle East killing not only Moslems and Jews, but killing Christians too because they didn't realise Christians lived there! This is their history, and then suddenly here is another Christian army coming. It quite worried me because some of the Palestinians were quite optimistic because they said 'Now the Allies have dealt with Hussein they'll come and get Israel out of our territory" and I had to say 'It won't happen.'
I'm certainly not going to justify anything that Saddam Hussein has done to his own people or to the Kuwaitis, it's a horror story. But who built him up to be this horror story? We'd been arming him for years, we supported him and gave him that power."
As we were getting ready to leave, we were chatting in a light-hearted way about some of the idiosyncrasies of the church in Britain and I must have made a remark that sounded a little cynical, for he flashed a look at me and said with a grin "But I'm still an idealist." To see what this man has seen and not grown cynical is quite an achievement. Makes you think there might be something in this Christianity lark after all...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.