Pop lyrics re-appraised by the Magazine
Campaigners are trying to save the cottage where Morning Has Broken was written, from demolition. Is the hymn-cum-pop song worthy of such efforts?
Cat Stevens, top left, is among many who have covered the hymn
Just a few of the opening bars are enough to transport many unsuspecting souls back to the school assembly halls of their childhood.
"Morning has broken, like the first morning; Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird."
Others though, will find their thoughts drifting to that pin-up of early 1970s easy listening, Cat Stevens, who turned the hymn into his signature song.
And any church traditionalist who says they don't wince just a little when they see it listed on the hymn board is probably being economical with the truth.
Morning Has Broken occupies a somewhat paradoxical place in the nation's hearts - a favourite hymn for a nominally secular society. Now it's become the focus of a campaign to save the cottage where its lyrics were penned by the late Eleanor Farjeon.
Join in if you know the words
The owner of the cottage, in the pricey London suburb of Hampstead, has applied for permission to bulldoze the property to build new homes. Among those opposing the plans are Poet Laureate Andrew Motion.
If the fortunes of the cottage were to rest solely on purists' attitudes to Farjeon's work, its future would be far from secure.
Merits of tune
"It's alllll right," says John Ewington, general secretary of the Guild of Church Musicians, stretching the cadence of his "approval" to imply, at best, a lukewarm endorsement.
"I don't think you could compare it with something like When I Survey the Wondrous Cross or one of those Wesleyan pieces."
A veteran of hundreds of church weddings, he says the hymn is a favourite among brides planning their big day, "along with Jerusalem and I Vow to Thee My Country.
"People who have a chip on their shoulder about modern hymns might say it's a bit trite."
He does, however, warm to its words: "It's a lovely poem, but it's not a 'liturgical piece' as I would call it."
The "morning" in question, is not a literal break of dawn - rather a reference to God's creation of the heavens and the earth, as told in the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis.
The words were commissioned from Farjeon - pronounced farr-jon - in 1931 by a local vicar who was compiling a new edition of the hymnbook Songs of Praise. He asked Ms Farjeon to write a poem to the melody, a Gaelic tune from the 19th Century.
"He wanted a hymn about creation, but not necessarily specifically Christian," says Mr Ewington.
With its rich imagery of rain, dewfall, sunlight, blackbirds, grass and "the wet garden", the focus of the three verses is not so much the Creation as the Garden of Eden.
Yet the ill deeds of Adam and Eve are overlooked, says Robert Canham, of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, in favour of "saying how wonderful this Creation is".
"It's certainly not specifically Christian, echoing some sort of harmony with Judaism and Islam, I'd imagine."
Yet in skirting around specific Christian imagery, Mr Canham confesses its obliqueness left him a little stumped as a schoolboy in the 1950s.
The hymn is a wedding standard
"The line 'Born of the one light, Eden saw play' confused me. Anthony Eden was prime minister at the time and I hadn't a clue what it was about."
Some 50 years on, how does he rate the song?
"Like so many of the hymns that one sang as a child, like All Things Bright and Beautiful, and were overplayed, I couldn't face it for 20 years or so. But lately I've come to appreciate them for what they are."
The same goes for the fortunes of the hymn itself, which was widely shunned initially, but, says Mr Ewington, enjoyed a renaissance in schools in the 1960s. So much so, that many still believe Cat Stevens himself composed it.
Smashed Hits is compiled by Jonathan Duffy
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As the person mounting the campaign to save the cottage, can I add a few pertinent facts ? Eleanor Farjeon is only one of the reasons for saving this beautiful old (18th Century) building from the bulldozer. She wrote numerous other stories and poems in the cottage, but it was also the centre of Hampstead literary life for much of the time she lived there. In the 19th Century, it was the home and glassworks of an artist called Henry Holiday , a member of the Pre-Raphaelites, whose most famous painting is Beatrice and Dante. At Perrins Wall, he designed and made some of his most famous stained glass windows that can be seen all over the world, but most famously in Ely Cathedral, and even in Westminster Abbey. The spectacular chimney of the building is part of the old kiln works. Why don't you come and interview me and I will tell you all about it , plus wonderful views of this rose-tiled cottage. We can't always let the developers win so it's worth the battle before anything else is "Broken "...
Lynne Woolfson, Hampstead, London
As a child I used to love this song, I used to sing it in school at every opportunity I got, then one day my teacher announced she was getting married and asked me if I'd sing it at her wedding. I was heartbroken because I had a crush on her, I did sing it at her wedding but I cried halfway through. I was only 10 but I never sang it again.
Roberto Di Deavario, Liverpool
It's not a song, it's an anthem and it was Cat Stevens who brought it to the public's attention. Everyone knows it, and to all who were around when 1960s it reminds them of their past. Knocking down the cottage where it was composed would be like bulldozing the Cavern in Liverpool or demolishing Abbey Rd. It's history and should have a blue plaque on it, there's loads of places in London that could be knocked down for housing, Buckingham Palace would be prime for developers - lakes and parks nearby and in the middle of town.
Bryan George, Cardiff
The reason brides most commonly choose Morning Has Broken, Jerusalem and I Vow To Thee My Country is because most of them haven't been to church for at least 15 years. They know Jerusalem and I Vow... from sport on telly, and they remember Morning Has Broken from primary school. A vicar friend says Lord of the Dance is very popular too, along with the less-well-known: "Oh, vicar, do we have to have hymns and prayers?"
Lucy Jones, Manchester
I think it is a case of the simpler the words the deeper the meaning. The song express wonder at the world god made and it is very appropriate for a wedding since each marriage creates its own garden of Eden.
Michael Franks, London
I got into Wrose Junior School choir as a squeaky eight-year old treble by auditioning with this. Don't like the Cat Stevens version, we used to take it a bit faster. I don't think it merits 'saving' the house where it might have been written, where's the point in that?
I remember singing that song at school. I think the cottage should be saved. We saved Paul McCartney's house and John Lennon's so why not this cottage? I am a British citizen and I think some things are worth saving.
Linda Hurd, Milan
I always thought St Francis of Assisi wrote the lyrics to that poem/hymn?
Richard McLeod, Riverside, California
Rather strangely, I dislike it when it's sung in church as a hymn, but I like the Cat Stevens version. I've no idea why - except that quite possibly Cat Stevens sings better than your average congregation.
Kitty, Coventry, UK
The hymn was a favourite of my late wife's, and she requested it be sung at her funeral, which it was. It seemed apt, and the congregation sang wholeheartedly. I think it is a beautiful hymn.
Barry Stevens, Sumburgh, Shetland Isles
The mysterious line is "born of the one light Eden SAW play" - ie the same light from the beginning of creation.
James Sergeant, London UK
I loved singing Morning Has Broken at school assembly so much that when I married in 1973 it was among my choices for the service (along with Jerusalem and Love Devine, All Loves Excelling. I'm not a religious person but I think the words are indicative of a new start and most appropriate for a wedding. Incidentally, after 34 years, we are still together...
Jackie Steele, Toronto, Canada
Anyone who, as I did, had a Catholic education in Britain in the 1970s and 80s was exposed to some pretty dreadful hymns - Colours of Day anyone?
Steve, Bristol, UK
This song will stay in my mind for a long long time because it was used by my English teacher to teach the present perfect verbal form. Somehow you do remember things much better when you're learning with a song, don't you think?
Beatriz, Switzerland (formerly Portugal)
Eleanor Farjeon was very talented and wrote my favourite poem Mrs Malone. It might seem a bit mushy for nowadays but the sentiment of compassion to animals is spot on, there's room for another (look it up).
I find this song deeply spiritual. The credit I saw on Cat Stevens' album was traditional folk song so I assumed it was a couple of hundred years old. When I sit in meditation and listen to it I cry deeply at the sheer beauty of Creation, and it gives me a space to reflect on a world that was, but unfortunately is no more because of what modern development has done. Instead of overplay being a detriment, instead I find the song to be a mantra to beauty. Please keep the house!
Susi, Toronto Canada
I wince when I hear hymns set to all kinds of modern words. I class it with Amazing Grace & Lord of the Dance - all part of the agenda to make religion folksy in the American mode. Yuk!
Jon Friend, Edgware Middx
Give me the keys to the bulldozer, I'll do it.
Cat Stevens "A pin-up of early 1970s easy listening"?? That's a rather backward compliment for the excellent singer-songwriter!
Matthew, London UK
I too like the song (or hymn if you prefer), and I prefer the Cat Stevens version. But not to the extent that I'd want to preserve the cottage. I'm guessing the proposed new homes won't exactly help the homeless, but anything that increases the country's housing stock must be welcome.
Trevor, Bradford, UK
OK, keep the song in the books, keep singing it, and put up a blue plaque "In a cottage on this site..." But preservation of the cottage for all time as shrine? Be serious.
I think the Blue Badge Soc should be contacted. The cottage knocked down and the well-known blue plaque put in its place.
In the photos of the cover artists, you only identify Cat Stevens. We can recognize Art Garfunkle and Neil Diamond - but who is the man in the lower right corner?
Susan, Mesquite, Texas, USA
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