Funeral Songs

A few years ago I found myself at the Crematorium. I was sharing the service with my predecessor Rev Dr Ken Newell. The family had chosen 3 songs. We started with a reverent Westlife attempt at You Raise Me Up. Soon it Pat Boone. Ken gives me a look and I say, “I used to do a radio show, leave this one with me!” 

So, this week, I found myself on BBC Radio Ulster talking about secular songs that I would have at my funeral. Mark Simpson was asking and my fellow interviewees were Michael Conlon, a humanist celebrant and Gaynor Kane, a poet.

For me it is always Deacon Blue’s Take Me To The Place. It has the catharsis, re-making Abide With Me as deep lament. Written for an actual funeral - Glasgow photographer Oscar Marzaroli’s.

Over the years I guess I’d have a few others. Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door seems like an ending before new beginnings; Brian Houston’s The Valley is a fine sign off to family and loved ones; and I could go back to Deacon Blue’s Riches, more a celebration of hopefulness that heaven will be all we had lived for on earth.  

Michael chose This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush, a song that has meant a lot to him in his life. Gaynor went for the Final Countdown as her coffin disappears, more a shock or fun tactic. 

For me, funerals are a triangle of sensitive relationships. The one who has passed away, their loved ones and me. Some such services are now called Thanksgivings as often as they are funerals. We are grieving a loss. We are remembering a life. If I am doing it, then we are putting both those things in the context of God and faith and eternity.

Those are all important things. Gaynor’s Final Countdown in some ways that new mix of celebrating a life and those first steps of grief’s long journey. It is the craic of the Irish wake sneaking into the funeral. 

I have not used songs other than hymns very often in services but I can see their poignancy and usefulness. Favourite songs can reveal a lot about a life. Michael’s choice of The Woman’s Work saying something of his admiration for mother and grandmother. 

One time I did use the secular song was when my friend Pat passed away. Pat was more Bowie than Church. I found myself in his home planning the funeral with his wife Gloria and daughter Alex arguing about what song Pat wanted. Space Oddity said Alex. Life On Mars said Gloria. Then Gloria added, “I remember him pointing out the question mark.” I was ten years old again. I saw that question mark on my RCA label of Life On Mars?

To play Life On Mars? as Pat’s coffin left the church seemed right. It seemed to meet the wishes of Pat and his family to play it. I then as the third side of the triangle pondered all the questions marks in the Bible. It worked a treat. BBC Radio 4 even picked it up for a programme on Life On Mars? 


Bright Blue Rose

"For all of you who must discover,
For all who seek to understand,
For having left the path of others
You'll find a very special hand.

And it is a holy thing, and it is a precious time
And it is the only way
Forget-me-nots among the snow, it's always been and so it goes
To ponder his death and his life eternally

One bright blue rose outlives all those
two thousand years, and still it goes
to ponder his death and his life eternally"

-      From Bright Blue Rose by Jimmy MacCarthy (and Mary Black and Christy Moore and…)


Jimmy MacCarthy is one of my favourite songwriters. The Cork man is probably better known for the songs that have been covered by a host of others – Christy Moore, Mary Black, Mary Coughlan to name but three – and it was probably Mary Black’s version of this that I heard first.

It immediately spoke to me spiritually and became a companion on the journey of discovering faith. It was very clear to me that the 2000 years reference was of Jesus. A friend then met MacCarthy in Dublin and asked him about the song. Jimmy replied “it’s a hymn.”

Indeed it is and how beautiful a hymn; the music, the poetry, the spiritual depth. It is a spectacular piece of songwriting. In his own book Ride On MacCarthy shares a story of illness, hospital, a faith healer and waking up on Easter Sunday reaching for his notepad. He writes, "I generally regard a chorus as a logical conclusion so, picking up my guitar, I sang the chorus which came to me spontaneously, put it on paper and said, “Yes, there is a God and thanks be to God.” He goes on to describe it as a mysterious piece and how anybody “will be glad when you sing it.”

When I hear it, particularly in a live setting whether, Christy Moore, Frances Black or Caroline Orr in Fitzroy it always moves me spiritually. I close my eyes and find myself pondering the mysteries of God and that death and life of Jesus. Every time it makes me feel touched in my soul. Healed. Refreshed. Forgiven. At peace.



“And no matter where I roam
I will find my way back home
I will always return to the Lord

In the gentle evening breeze
By the whispering shady trees
I will find my sanctuary in the Lord

I was headed for a fall
Then I saw the writing on the wall
Like a full force gale, I was lifted up again
I was lifted up again by the Lord”

        From Full Force Gale by Van Morrison

As the barometer, by the front door, drops to "stormy" and we hear the wind blowing a gale outside, rain lashing against our windows I often drawn to this Van Morrison hymn.

Released originally on Van’s Into The Music record, Elvis Costello and the Voice Squad’s version on the Van Morrison tribute album No Prima Donna heightened the spirituality of the piece. 

It was that version that was used to make it into a choir introit to my installation service in Fitzroy in November 2009. We have used it on occasion since, no more appropriately than in the Sunday service the day before Van's 70th birthday. 

Full Force Gale is a simple song of trust and dependency. It is a song of belief that God will draw us back and lift us up in the image of the Spirit as a full force gale. The strength of the Spirit blowing through our souls will bring life.

The Old Testament Hebrew word ruah and the New Testament Greek word pneuma mean wind but are the words used for the Holy Spirit. The image of the Holy Spirit is of a wind that blows through, sometimes gentle and refreshing, other times like a hurricane or full force gale.

The image of the full force gale in the life of a follower of Jesus that I love most is found in John chapter 3 where Jesus is talking to Nicodemus. In verse 8 we read, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” 

Now, first of all, let us note that the wind that blows here is not the Holy Spirit but the one born of the Spirit. As we listen to the wind, hopefully from the safety of our homes, let us ask if the image we have of followers of Jesus is one of such power and energy and unpredictable force. If not, the Church needs to ask, why not?

If I go back to the sentiment of Van Morrison's song then my prayer is that those of us who feel that our lives are a little lost and directionless might find the full force gale of the Spirit itself lifting us up and returning us home. 


A disclaimer. I hate Eurovision. Apologies to my daughters but the songs all blur into a big quagmire of blancmange. Note my use of French! Tonight is no different. Lots of Capaldi and Sheeran wannabes.
In the end who could argue with a Ukraine winning part from the UK. Typical. You get your first good song in a generation and Russian invade a country that everybody loves! It does ask questions of the panel and public votes. All that time for votes that make little difference in the end.
There is more wrong with Eurovision than that I would suggest BUT then a moment to surmise... last year's winners, Maneskin, spoke of Elvis and did the intro to a song that they seem to have done for an Elvis movie. 
Suddenly, we were back in the real world. Oh we were dreaming. We were hoping. Maybe even against all the odds but hoping all the same.
Of course I love Elvis. Elvis was the first musician that I ever wrote about. An essay in Year 9 English had me attempting to unpack Jailhouse Rock!
However, my grown up self has struggled to find too many Elvis songs of social transformation. In The Ghetto is my favourite. Next to that is If I Can Dream. we are back to Maneskin. 
Consider the war in Ukraine, the shadow of which is cast across Eastern Europe to Turin tonight. 
Hear Elvis: -
We're lost in a cloud
With too much rain
We're trapped in a world
That's troubled with pain
But as long as a man
Has the strength to dream
He can redeem his soul and fly
Written by Walter Earl Brown and Influenced by Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream Speech from 1963 this is Elvis's Imagine. As Lennon. imagined a better world, so Elvis sings:
There must be peace and understanding sometime
Strong winds of promise that will blow away the doubt and fear
If I can dream of a warmer sun
Where hope keeps shining on everyone
Tell me why, oh why, oh why won't that sun appear
It's a prayer. Prayers are crammed with dreams and hopes for a better tomorrow. On a night that for me had too much crass and kitsch the King Of Rock N Roll sneaked in to give something more substantial.
For Ukraine tonight. If we can all dream. 


Christmas Playlist 21

This is my 2021 Christmas Playlist. It is downbeat little collection with a little joy late on. The first few songs set the scene of a broken dark world. We then look at what Jesus might bring. Then the baby is born. Finally we see the subversive impact he makes.



(from Archives Vol 2)



(from If We Make It Through December)



(from Mercy Now )



(from Blood Oranges In The Snow)



(from single)



(from single)



(from A Very Blue Rock Christmas)



(from Blood Oranges In The Snow)



(from Night Divine)



(from Midwinter Graces)



(from Dark Mark Does Christmas 2020)



(from O Come All Ye Faithful)



(from Child)



(from Upon A Winter's Night)



(from Celtish Christmas Vol 2)



(from You'll Know It's Christmas)



(from 5 Holiday Favourites EP)






(from Songs For Christmas)



(from The Bells Of Dublin)



(from Christmas)



(from 5 Holiday Favourites EP)













Happy Xmas

What a generous and thoughtful gesture. Yoko Ono and her son Sean Lennon have donated 50 limited edition 12" vinyl records of Happy Xmas (War Is Over) to charities and independent record shops across the UK so that those chosen can raise funds at a time of real need as a result of Coronavirus. A Christmas like generosity and grace.

These 12” acetates were hand-cut on the lathe at Abbey Road Studios by mastering engineer Alex Wharton. and use Sean Ono Lennon's Ultimate mix. Each record is stickered and numbered out of 50 and includes a machine-printed signature from Yoko.

I wish I could afford one but hope that I can't. I hope that all of the organisation benefiting will make thousands of funds from the gift.

This song is the first Christmas song I ever remember hearing on the radio. I started listening to pop radio in 1972 when I was 11 and got my first record player for Christmas. It was in the UK top 5 at that time.

In the midst of The Osmonds and glam rock it might also be the first healthy song I ever got into! The Vietnam angle passed me by as an eleven year old but I knew that there was a great declaration of love for humanity in this song.

For me though at that stage, and I guess as a result ever since, the lines that dug deep into my being were the first lines: -

“And so this is Christmas and what have we done
Another year over, a new one just begun.

In the thirty nine years since, whether hearing the song by accident on the radio or in some mall or by intention as I carefully put together the family Christmas playlist, these lines are my way into Advent. As I look forward to the light invading the earth in the birth of the baby who would change it all I use John Lennon’s line to audit my life. As another year is cast away, twelve months used up, I always ask what have I done?

What use did I make of the blessing of life? What have I done in my own life to make it into a better husband, father, friend and minister? What have I done to make my Church and my city a better place? I usually find some highlights and impressions made. I know also that some confession needs said and a seeking of a better year in the twelve months that beckon.

John and Yoko’s song wanted literally to change the world and came on the back of their Billboard campaign to rally the American people to choose to end the Vietnam War. It was part of that naive period of their lives where they thought they could imagine a world and it would happen as they cut their hair, lay in bed for a week or released pop singles.

In some ways though they were of course onto something. We as Christians believe that Jesus came to change everything but that we must make the choice that he invites us to make to follow him into the revolution; a revolution that caused the political and religious leaders of his day to want to kill him, his revolution so subverted their status quo. To be part of the subversion, that would bring all that John and Yoko dreamed of in this song, we need to want it to be so.  

What have we done... what do we want to do... Happy Christmas!


Maybe Now Baby

Two massive songs. Both ever on the radio. Both with most controversial of grammatical irks. Both favourites when I am realigning myself to my vocation… particularly those irks. 

The Killers song Human has that strange line, “are we human or are we dancer”. Years before it was Deacon Blue’s Real Gone Kid and “Maybe now baby (maybe now baby)/I’ll do what I should have did”. 

Both lines seem a little bit askew. They seem to be breaking grammatical rules. Yet, that is what I was so drawn to poetry for. Even at Primary school I loved the playing with words that coloured them outside the lines of grammar.

Of course they work. Give me another line from those two most popular songs and by two most popular bands. Playing loose with language and you leave memorable lines. 

Best of all, by seeming coincidence, both songs speak to me of vocation and finding the reason that we are here on earth.

The Killers asks the big question. Who are we as human beings? What should we be living for? Just dancing? Or is there something more robust in humanity’s contribution to the planet? 

Deacon Blue make the vocational more personal. I have always seen Real Gone Kid as a revelatory moment for Ricky Ross. He has spoken about it happening during a Lone Justice concert. I can understand that. Maria McKee’s charismatic exuberance always has the possibility of being a conduit to seeing life’s full potential.

“I’ll do what I should have did” irks with some but as I have already said is that freedom of the language that I think poetry gifts us.

To do what I should have has been my main question in life since long before Deacon Blue gave it a mantra and I have been revisiting the question. What should I be doing with my day? What contributions can I make on my world? 

As I creep into my 61st I am reading the new Deacon Blue book To Be Here Someday and looking forward to seeing them play the Ulster Hall. You can be sure that when we are going mad to Real Gone Kid that I’ll be looking down my later years and asking… maybe now baby…


Dawes Fisherman's Blues

A friend recently posted a question on social media asking about a song of exuberance, to celebrate to. I answered Gloria by U2 but it was a close run thing with The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues. 

I have written before about my very favourite ever rock gig being The Waterboys at the Ulster Hall in Belfast on a magical April night in 1986. Fisherman’s Blues had not yet been released and it was a revelation of Mike Scott’s new hybrid of rock strut surrounded by Steve Wickham’s swirling dervish fiddle. My heart was full as it has been with every listen ever since.

Then… this past summer one of my favourite contemporary bands Dawes covered Fisherman’s Blues. It was a sonic shock, slowed down to an atmospheric lament. It jarred for a listen out two.

Then… it hit the spot. In its new musical habitat Fisherman’s Blues solicited different emotions. From a free flowing all is right with the world let’s dance sound this was now reflective and cathartic. It finally gets the blues of its title.

There might be a clue in the shift in feel when I tell you that the proceeds from the song are all donated to an NGO, United Nations Foundations’ Nothing But Nets campaign, attempting to help stamp out malaria. Taylor Goldsmith himself visited Rwanda to see refugees pouring over the border from Congo and Burundi. Perhaps it was the people he met in east Africa that influenced the mood of the piece.

I have been using it myself for my own mental, emotional and spiritual care. I generally carry a happy go lucky disposition but there are shadowy days. Vocation, health, pressure and anxiety can throw me into the dark.

Dawes version of Fisherman’s Blues has been like a Psalm that I have allowed to flow over me to bring salve and resilience.  

The fisherman and brakeman in the song are going through their own trials. They are chained and tethered. Life’s circumstances have them down. They are wishing, dreaming, praying for soul, light and love.

Like George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass that coincidently The Waterboys covered there is a sense that there are better days ahead. Days for Wickham’s fiddle after all:


Well I know I will be loosened

From bonds that hold me fast

That the chains all hung around me

Will fall away at last

And on that fine and fateful day

I will take me in my hands

I will ride on the train

I will be the fisherman

With light in my head

You in my arms


Now there is a dream of better days. Light. Love. Freedom from whatever. I have come convinced we need both versions, Dawes going through the valley of the shadow and The Waterboys after we have come through it.


Nanci GMU

(This was my BBC Radio Good Morning Ulster Thought For The Day on September 1st 2021...)


I was so sorry to hear about Nanci Griffith’s death recently. In the ‘90s her albums accompanied me across Ireland when I was the Youth Development Officer for the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Ireland. A trusty portable CD player was my dearest friend.

Songs like Trouble in The Fields, Once In a Very Blue Moon, and Love At The Five and Dime, particularly the storytelling introduction version on the live album One Fair Summer Evening - a wonderful talent!

However, there was another reason that I was drawn to Nanci. She loved Ireland. On Grafton Street gave a seasonal feel of cold Dublin streets at Christmastime and even had U2’s Larry Mullen Jr playing drums; It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go had us in a taxi on the Falls Road dealing with our divisions; and I Would Bring You Ireland where she wishes she could bring a very dear friend the gift of Ireland.

I played I Would Bring You Ireland a lot when she died. I was holidaying in Ballycastle, listening to it as I drove out of Ballycastle Forest, across Glenshesk’s 40 shades of green with Rathlin out in front of me, the Fair Head to my right and Scotland beyond. 

I realised that I was driving across the very Ireland that Nanci wants to send her friend. To live on this island of radiant beauty and to enjoy it day after day. I felt the blessing of God’s creation.

But just as in the Genesis story of Eden we humans can ruin God’s creation. Driving across Glenshesk I was also feeling the news of bonfires when in either July or August we burn the flags and photos of each other.  Gifted this incredible beauty, some of us want to poison it with the hatred that Griffith sang about in It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go. 

I love this place so much. Yet at times it abuses me, hurts me deep. When it hurts I’m glad to have Nanci Griffith reminding me of my love and the wonder of this island gem of God’s creation, set in the Atlantic waves.



I was so sorry to hear about Nanci Griffith’s death this past week. There was a period in the early ‘90s when her albums accompanied me across Ireland. 

I was the Youth Development Officer for the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Ireland. The roads in the early 90s weren’t great. It could take hours to get from Dublin to Limerick or Cork or Donegal. A trusty portable CD player was my dearest friend.

I was mad into songwriters at the time. John Gorka, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jimmy MacCarthy… and Nanci Griffith was very much in that listing. She was a great lyricist. Songs like Trouble in The Fields, Once In a Very Blue Moon, covered beautifully by our own Mary Black and Love At The Five and Dime, particularly the storytelling introduction version on the live album One Fair Summer Evening to name a few.

However, there was another reason that I was drawn to Nanci. She loved the Ireland that I was working in and exploring as I listened. On Grafton Street gave the a seasonal feel in cold Dublin streets and even had Larry Mullen Jr on it; It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go had us in a taxi on the Falls Road dealing with our divisions; and I Would Bring You Ireland was a love song where the love of Ireland was a gift to the lover.

That last song has been playing very powerfully with my heart this past week. Most of the summer I have been driving across the Glens Of Antrim. From beaches, mountains, cliff tops and roads across cultivated, defined and beautiful farm land of forty shades of green I have been madly in love with the very Ireland that Nanci wants to send her lover. To live on this island of radiant beauty and to enjoy it day after day. I feel blessed.

Then you read the news. Some of us gifted the beauty of this place want to poison and stain it with the hatred that Griffith told us about in It’s Is A Hard Life Wherever You Go. Putting flags and political posters and photographs onto bonfires is a sectarian cancer that both our communities need to rid themselves of. Politicians from both communities need to work harder at eradicating it.

Ireland like a lover has me forever. I love this place so much. Yet at times it abuses me, hurts me deep. The bonfires of July and August have hurt and I was so thankful of Nanci Griffith reminding me of my love and the wonder of this utter gem of God’s creation set in the Atlantic waves.

Back to the loss of Nanci Griffith. I was most impressed by this social media post by Belfast songwriter Ursula Burns who wrote about how she met Nanci at the Belfast-Nashville Songwriting Festival: -

We met over breakfast at the Dukes Hotel and started playing a few songs..... 12 hours later there was up to 20 musicians.  I think it was the best day of my life. Nancy bought me wine all day and I played harp while she sang. Every year after that she came up to say hello and always remembered my son’s name and made a fuss of him when he was with me at the gigs.  I loved her. I loved her songwriting and her voice and her spirit. I was blown away that i got to play with her and will always be eternally grateful to the Belfast/ Nashville festival for making stuff like that happen on ordinary rainy February days!

Now that is my kind of songwriting hero. Love and prayers to those closest to her. Nanci Griffith songs will mean a lot to so many of us for a long time to come but they will ache and grieve her loss the most.