To honour the 100 year anniversary of Jerusalem (the song), from October 22nd to November 1st 2016 the BPT made a 125 mile pilgrimage from London to Sussex, the birthplace of Britain’s unofficial national anthem.
A Pilgrimage Collaboration Between:
The Blake Society (Honouring and Celebrating the work of William Blake)
Millican Backpacks (Making Britain’s best pilgrim packs)
Alastair Sawdays (Curators of accommodation in special places + purveyors of slow travel)
The British Pilgrimage Trust (That’s us! Renewing pilgrimage for all in Britain)
In the deepening dark, as the year’s end approaches, the BPT and friends are making a pilgrimage from central London to coastal Sussex, to honour the 100 year anniversary of the song ‘Jerusalem’ – “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times…”.
This song is the fruit of two people – William Blake, visionary poet and artist, and Hubert Parry, composer and director of the Royal College of Music. In 1804, Blake wrote the poem as part of his epic ‘Milton’. And in 1916, Parry set this poem to a rousing melody, designed to be sung by large groups of people.
Today, the resulting song has become a unifying anthem for all and any English cause – from cricket/rugby/football, to the Labour Party conference and Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, to anti-frackers and far-right nationalists, to the W.I., the Olympic games and the Royal Wedding, to churches and schools and mystics and comedians.
Jerusalem the song has become infused in the soul of England. It deserves a pilgrimage.
The centenary of this song’s creation is a momentous occasion, but it has rather slipped by during Brexitty wranglings. We’re so worried about whether we’re British or European, no-one is really talking (or singing) about being English.
So before the year is over, the BPT intends to honour this most English of songs in the best way we know – with a dedicated journey on foot – a pilgrimage.
To this end, we’re walking from London, where its two creators lived for most of their lives, to coastal Sussex, the place where both Blake and Parry were drawn to go when creating this song, just six miles (and 112 years) apart. What summoned these two Londoners to this almost identical spot to create this particular song? And what draws us there today? Toward this mystery we shall walk and sing…
We start at the graves of its creators, William Blake and Hubert Parry, in central London – and we walk toward the birthplace of the song in coastal Sussex. Our wholesome/holy places en route – where we’ll be singing Jerusalem – are landmarks connected to this song’s life-story, like the first place it was performed, or the building where it was commissioned. Often, these original buildings no longer exist. But that’s not the sort of mundane detail that can upset a Blakeian song pilgrimage.
We hope to discover how Jerusalem the song changes when sung in different places, and also how the song changes the places we sing it. We consider this an act of re-wilding, of releasing the song into its indigenous environment, the deep English interior.
We shall probably sing Jerusalem over 100 times – we anticipate a strange relationship with this song by the end, with the possibility of being ‘OJed’ (Over-Jerusalemed). But that’s the nature of a song – it’s like faery gold, the more often you give it away, the more closely you possess it.
Our other aims for this pilgrimage include delving for more tunes to other Blake poems. He is reputed to have sung most of his early poems, and is even said to have died singing. We know about his lyrics – but what were his melodies? No record of any tunes survive. Can we recall an echo of a few William Blake melodies on the winds of London/Surrey/Sussex?
And on the Parry front, we hope to adapt a new version of Parry’s great ‘I Was Glad’, the setting of Psalm 122 used for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, and William and Kate’s wedding. This lyric has been used for every coronation anthem in England since 1600. And it is also a Jerusalem song:
I was glad when they said unto me : We will go into the house of the Lord.
Our feet shall stand in thy gates : O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is built as a city : that is at unity in itself.
Also, as with any pilgrimage, each participant will bring their own intentions and motivations. The purpose of making pilgrimage is – in part – to discover why you’re making it.
But in summary, this will be a songful expedition to the English interior. It is a delving into the back-garden of nation, land and self. And it is a search for the spirit of England, ancient and modern, within a song and a journey on foot.
Also – we aim to support the Blake Society’s drive to fund William Blake’s memorial. His body lies in Bunhill Fields, in an unmarked grave – and this is no fitting rest for one of Britain’s most important and influential poet/artists. Please help the Blake Society raise the meagre £9000 required for a suitable monument, so people who love Blake’s work can go and pay their respects at his actual resting place.
And if you want to donate to the British Pilgrimage Trust (that’s us), you are also welcome to help out. We have big plans to rekindle the art of pilgrimage in Britain, and we need your assistance.
Our merry pilgrimage band – a core crew of 6, with sundry added guests – is made up of singers, composers, poets and illustrators. We’ll explain who is who in our video blog as we go. We have never sung this song together, or indeed ever even met together! But though currently all strangers, we hope to emerge as close peregrine companions as the miles and days progress.
We will be joined by all sorts of interesting folk as we walk. Are you one of them – for a mile, a day or a weekend? Drop us an email if so, and tell us what you have to offer to our pilgrimage to Jerusalem. We are unfortunately unable to welcome everyone who applies, at least on this particular pilgrimage, so please be as compelling as possible. Make your pitch here.
Don’t worry if you’re not religious. As with all modern British pilgrimage, this is open to all, so bring your own beliefs!
Our route is pretty wriggly. We think Blake would approve. If we were aiming to go the quick straight way, we’d probably take a train. But pilgrimage – the making of a journey on foot to holy places – allows a much deeper connection with the ultimate sources of inspiration for this song – Self, Other, Nature and God (s.o.n.g). And such connection is wholly our goal.
The Background Story: William Blake and Hubert Parry – Two Men, One Song
William Blake was a Londoner. During his life, he had the reputation of being an undesirable semi-madman. His radical and stridently outspoken views on politics, Christianity and art caused him a life of poverty and relative loneliness – except for a few extremely close allies and of course his wife Catherine, his greatest supporter.
Like most of Blake’s works, during his life very few people read the poem ‘Milton’. His work sold extremely poorly. The extravagance of Blake’s engraving and the perfectionism of his colouring, as well as his refusal to follow artistic fashion, meant that Catherine his wife literally served him empty plates for supper on many occasions. But for Blake, things of the vegetative world were secondary, mere reflections of the higher truth of the imaginative realms.
William Blake lived in London his entire life – except for three brief years, when he accepted an invitation to borrow a house down in Felpham, in coastal Sussex. It was here that Blake began to write ‘Milton’, whose prologue contained the well-loved lyric we so often sing today.
112 years after this, in 1916, Hubert Parry, director of the Royal College of Music and a high-Establishment personality, accepted a request to set this poem (with very minor alterations) to melody.
The request was from the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, on behalf of Britain’s new World War One Propaganda Bureau at Wellington House. Many literary figures were getting involved in the war-effort, and Bridges was looking for a way to increase morale for a movement called ‘Fight for Right’, a semi-spiritual semi-jingoistic subscription fund designed to encourage enlistment in the army at a time when recruitment numbers were dropping (in all senses).
Parry agreed, though with reservations. He was a pro-European, and loved Wagner above all other music. Like Blake, he believed that the future of England was in Europe, and art and music were a cultural heritage that could and should bypass national political borders.
One of the alterations made to the poem/song lyric was to change ‘these Satanic mills’ to ‘those Satanic mills’ – which distanced and historicised them. This made sense for a propaganda song, as with the mechanised death of gas, barbed wire, machine guns and heavy artillery, it would have been rather easy to assume that the war-effort itself was a satanic mill, chewing up the grist of common humanity into horrid broken pulp. And that would certainly not have helped recruitment numbers.
The song was written, and loved, but the Fight for Right movement was ended abruptly soon after – not because of its failure, or the song’s inability to inspire morale, but because in March 1916 conscription was introduced for all single men aged 18-40 – and in May 1916, this was extended to all married men too. So the song was simply no longer required.
Hubert Parry withdrew it from the Propaganda Bureau, and granted its copyright to the NUWSS – the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. These were NOT the ‘Suffragettes’, who were led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her bodyguard of jiu-jitsu trained fighters – but their more peaceable big sisters, who were working toward solutions based in legislation rather than militancy and disruption. Though of course, the entire effort was a successful tag-team…
In 1928, Jerusalem was granted to the W.I., who inherited much of the Suffrage movement’s property when voting rights for women were achieved. The copyright ran out in 1967, and the song has since then been used by almost everyone.
It is tempting to imagine that Blake and Parry, the one being a staunch hermit-like artist, and the other a high-society Baronet, were diametrically opposed figures. But they were not – they shared much in common in their outlooks. Both were, as mentioned, pro-Europeans. As Blake wrote from Felpham:
“Now I hope to see the Great Works of Art, as they are so near to Felpham, Paris being scarce further off than London. But I hope that France & England will henceforth be as One Country and their Arts One, & that you will Ere long be erecting Monuments In Paris – Emblems of Peace.”
Parry and Blake were also both proto-feminists. Blake was a staunch admirer and defender of Mary Woolstencraft, even when details of her personal life were revealed after her death, that showed the unconventionality of her love-life. To Blake, this was nothing to be ashamed of. Following ones’ bodily impulse and energy was righteous.
Also, both were anti-slavery – though this was less of a cause for Parry, as slavery had already been banned in England by the time of his birth. But for Blake, slavery – both of poor English chimney-sweeps as well as distant Caribbean Africans – was a real concern. His artwork was used for the abolition movement, and depicted in savage reality the punitive treatment of slaves who rebelled and fought to win their freedom.
Also, both were Christians – though Blake was a radical version who abhorred the established Church of England, and whose version of Jesus would be very likely unrecognisable to anyone who currently considers themselves to share his religion.
Jesus “is the only God … and so am I and so are you” wrote Blake, in one of his simpler statements.
But against this, Hubert Parry was no simple conservative, born with a silver spoon. As his daughter Dorothea wrote in 1956:
“This fantastic legend about my father … that he was conventional, a conservative squire, a sportsman, a churchman, and with no “strange friend” … My father was the most naturally unconventional man I have known. He was a Radical, with a very strong bias against Conservatism … He was a free-thinker and did not go to my christening. He never shot, not because he was against blood-sports, but felt out of touch and ill at ease in the company of those who enjoyed shooting parties. His friends, apart from his schoolfriends, were mostly in the artistic and literary world … He was an ascetic and spent nothing on himself. The puritanical vein in him is considered by some to spoil his music, as tending to lack of colour. Far from its being an advantage to be the son of a Gloucestershire squire, my father’s early life was a fight against prejudice. His father thought music unsuitable as a profession, and the critics of music in the mid-nineteenth century showed no mercy to anyone they considered privileged. My father was sensitive, and suffered from bouts of deep depression. The extraordinary misinterpretation of him that exists should not persist.”
We hope to do our part in undoing such a misinterpretation.