Garth’s music – a view on Garth’s journey in music, song and justice
Forty years ago Garth’s music and song lyrics challenged what had become the established way of doing things within the Christian church in the UK. Firstly, he was a part of the movement within Christian music away from a particularly “sacred” sound, not afraid to bring Christian lyrics towards the mainstream popular style of music. This bridged the culture gap for his own and following generations between the church and the world in which they lived, and helped many within those generations find a way to explore their spirituality without the need to deny their inherent culture. It did also bring condemnation from some within the established Christian churches who felt that these musicians were endangering the purity of the church by in some way secularising it, so it was not always an easy road but there was growing support for this new attitude within the church so it was not entirely lonely.
The second and perhaps more obvious challenge Garth brought to the church was in his lyrics. As early as 1974, in ‘The People of the West (Amos rides again)’ he courageously wrote “You’ve silenced your prophets, You’ve shut down your dreamers, Your life blood is money, You’re exploiting the poor – Oh the people of the West, they just love to invest in a system that keeps the poor man poor… higher living standards, that’s the God you adore…” Also in 1974, in ‘Walk in his shoes’ – “He’s a friend of the poor, he brings good news, a friend of the oppressed he walks in their shoes – he hungers for justice for those born to lose, he’s the healer of the broken, confused and abused – and those of us who follow him must walk in his shoes.”
The Christian message of that time did not focus on the oppressed and the broken, and references to social justice and abuse were rarely heard in church. In 1978 he wrote ‘That’s why we’re here,’ which became the theme song of the ‘Pop Gospel’ tv show of the early 1980s and had Christians singing along with the words “Happy to share, happy to bear one another’s burdens, that’s why we’re here – Man was made in the image of God – that’s why we’re here! We’re told to walk where Jesus trod – that’s why we’re here! Working for justice and working for peace, working for Jesus ’till this life cease!”
But this was the same decade in which Christian music publishers were to decide that the word ‘justice’ would not sell and therefore this was also the decade when Garth had to decide whether to follow the road to a career in popular music, or the road of the prophetic and often unpopular voice of the Christian conscience, perhaps even the conscience of the church. Western society was becoming ever more self centered and consumerist, which was reflected within the church as people were encouraged to focus on their own personal needs, the importance of feeling good, and the aspects of faith that made them feel safe, nourished, and happy. Stories of the poor and suffering around the world were told, and people encouraged to give money generously to help, but being involved in politics to try and change the “system that keeps the poor man poor” was actively discouraged as the church generally separated from affairs of state and focused on the affairs of heaven. Thus Garth’s uncompromising message became less and less comfortable.
In 1983 Garth wrote
“I fear for the freedom fighter because his mind is ill at ease:
he went out to fight for justice, but now he’s gone and caught the disease.
The cause was just and honest but there’s blood upon his hands –
women, children and good men too and fear throughout the land.
I fear for the freedom fighter who chose the bloody road –
who tries to harness evil to try to lift an evil load;
and I understand the righteous wrath that drove him to what he’s done,
but forgiveness lies in nail scarred hands, not in the hands with a gun.
I fear for a society that always turns away,
so desperate men choose desperate deeds to try to have their say –
and cold hearted politicians look up in feigned surprise
when violence is erupting before their very eyes.
The battle’s not nearly over, it’s only just begun;
we write him off so easily, say we wouldn’t do what he’s done.
He went ’cause he cared so deeply for those who weep at night;
there’d be no need for him to go at all if we all did what was right.
So take up the cause of freedom and do it with all your might.
Show that the power and strength of love is a more powerful way to fight.
And if you won’t let your voice be heard then please don’t criticise –
there’d be no freedom fighters if we weren’t so compromised –
there’d be no freedom fighters if we weren’t so compromised.”
Lyrics like these leave no room for ambivalence. Christians who were not prepared to be uncomfortable and challenged would at this point have to chose to listen instead to one of the growing number of other Christian singers of the 1980s and ’90s. Garth was not selecting for himself a route of popularity and success – or financial ease. This was to prove a lonelier road, especially with the passing of time. Nearly forty years since those earliest songs there are more Christian singers than could ever have been predicted, with musical styles covering every possible genre. And amongst them are many who write and perform songs with social justice themes. But even now it would be hard to find a Christian songwriter/performer who carries the burden of injustice and inequality in every song, woven throughout each line. Garth still seems to stand alone in this; perhaps this is because for him it is not about preaching a message, it is about expressing an experience. For Garth, practicing the equality of all people, regardless of gender, colour, race, age, sexual orientation, culture, faith, religion or anything else, is not a doctrine. It is not a truth to be taught. It has become something intrinsic to him and he cannot help expressing it; it seems he can’t write a song or a poem or even an email without expressing it. And throughout the years, sprinkled amongst the social justice songs, there have also been songs about individuals often showing a depth of compassion that brings a lump to the throat, for example The Caretaker (1972), Thirty-two years (1989), You Are Loved (Stephen Lawrence)(1994).
So Garth’s popularity within the Christian church declined as consumerism within the church increased – but it certainly did not disappear. Many people of faith heard in his message an expression of their own spirits, and were inspired and encouraged to follow his teaching and find ways to work for unpopular causes. Consequently today he has a deeply loyal ‘fan base’ of Christians of varying ages who recognise the choices he has made, hold him in respect for his courage and integrity, and perhaps even have been encouraged to make similar choices in their own lives. There are many who credit his songs with the direction their lives have taken in working for the good of society or their communities. Also several of today’s successful and popular Christian singer/songwriters testify that his music during their youth influenced the direction of their lives.
In 1985 a group of far sighted friends and colleagues recognised that Garth’s choices were leading him out of the realms of popularity. Music that challenges people and makes them feel uncomfortable simply will not sell as well as music that makes people feel warm and good about themselves. This meant that Garth would need financial resources to support what was clearly his calling, and so the Amos Trust was established to enable Garth to continue travelling to areas of the world where poverty and injustice prevailed, so that he could come back and tell their stories through his music, without having to rely on the music sales to support him. And Garth did. Through concert tour after concert tour, with audiences numbering ten or a thousand, in venues varying from little back rooms of country churches, bamboo huts, and prisons to prestigious concert halls, Garth told the stories with apparently unceasing energy and good humour. And so the Amos Trust with Garth as Director developed into an awareness raising organisation, also fund raising to support projects around the world that he encountered on his journeys.
Twenty-seven years on, as directing this fast-paced organisation has long been a full time task, Garth has passed that role on to Chris Rose, though he continues to work part time with Amos and focusses on his prophetic ministry, writing books, poems, prayers and especially songs that challenge the Christian church and call it back to its roots in the teachings of Jesus, and the prophets who preceded him; to work for peace through justice for all individuals throughout the world, recognising the equality of every human being as made in the image of God, and to take up the cause of the weak, the poor, the disenfranchised, and all unjustly treated.
Although many people of faith do work towards this, it is still not generally a popular message. Many within the churches still move away from a message that is challenging them to do something difficult or unpopular or sacrificial or uncomfortable. This is still a world where money is to be made from selling a message that extols consumerism and the quest for higher living standards at almost any cost. The message of the prophets is no more the way to make a living than it ever was.
Isobel Webster April 2012
Copyright © 2012 Garth Hewitt