Today’s song is ‘Hallelujah’. This song was written by Canadian singer Leonard Cohen and was originally released on his album ‘Various Positions’ in 1984. Achieving little initial success, the song found greater popular acclaim through a recording by John Cale, which inspired a recording by Jeff Buckley, followed by many others. It is considered as the ‘baseline’ of secular hymns.
Following its increased popularity after being featured in the film ‘Shrek’ (2001), many other arrangements have been performed in recordings and in concert, with over 300 versions known.
The song has been used in film and television soundtracks and televised talent contests. ‘Hallelujah’ experienced renewed interest following Cohen's death in November 2016 and appeared on many international singles charts, including entering the American ‘Billboard Hot 100’ for the first time.
For over twenty years, I worked as a Probation Officer in the West Yorkshire Probation Service. I became a Probation Officer in 1971 and at that time, I only came across two other officers in West Yorkshire who were black skinned. This was a ten-year period between the mid-70s and mid-80s when the West Yorkshire Probation Service bought in from America, ‘racial awareness courses’ that had been given to Army Recruits in the U.S.A. Every Probation Officer in West Yorkshire (including the Chief Probation Officer), was obliged to attend a week-long course in ‘Racial Awareness’ within a six-month window. There was no reason that was considered acceptable for not attending the course, and even those who feigned illness part way through the course or invented a ‘dead aunt’ were ordered to complete another full course within the year.
At the time, the vast majority of Probation Officers merely reflected the feelings that most decent white-skinned members of society held. While they were prepared to admit that racism existed, even in the politest of social circles, it was adamantly stated that it didn’t exist or was ever practised in their homes and hearts. Many Probation Officers cited having several black friends as an example of them never holding racially discriminating views and opinions, and almost all Officers objected to being forced to give a valuable week of their time up to being taught something they believed they automatically practised every day of the week.
By the end of the week’s course, all white-skinned Officers had reluctantly arrived at the view that ‘racism ‘ was such an unconscious conditioning process which had taken root in the words and actions of all white people over our lifetimes and that it had become institutionalised in our language, attitude and actions (consciously and unconsciously displayed).
While attending the week’s course in Wakefield, I made friends with one of the Probation Service’s newest members during a pairing exercise. We were all paired with another officer, with whom we spent most of that week. My pairing partner was a woman of very small stature who weighed little more than seven stones. She was called Mitzie. Mitzie had been one of the few Probation Officers in West Yorkshire who was black, and at the time, she was very conscious of her impoverished background and skin colour. Mitzie was the most unassuming of individuals and she hardly said a word. She had been born in one of the southern U.S.A. States and had come to England to live and work a few years earlier after her husband had died. While her size and youthful looks gave Mitzie the look of a young woman in her mid-twenties, I couldn’t believe it when she told me that she was 46 years of age and was the mother of four grown-up children.
Over that week on the Wakefield course, Mitzie and I became good friends and we agreed to keep in touch as she worked at the nearby Dewsbury Probation Office. Mitzie had been brought up in a very religious family and the happiest time of her week was Sunday Morning when she attended her Baptist Church in Huddersfield where she sang in the church choir.
According to my reading knowledge at the time, I knew that after the Emancipation of Slavery, the free men and women organised their own churches which were chiefly Baptist, followed by some Methodist, although other denominations played lesser roles. By the early 1900s, the Pentecostal movement emerged. Mitzie had been brought up in a revived Pentecostal religion where the congregation sang their hearts out. Being fascinated by all kinds of song and music, I told Mitzie that I’d like to visit her church one Sunday. She added that I’d be most welcome.
On the Sunday I visited Mitzie’s Pentecostal Church unannounced, there were only a few white faces in the congregation, but I was instantly made welcome. Mitzie was at the front looking towards the congregation. She was a member of the church choir. I will never forget when she moved from the second row of the Pentecostal choir to sing as ‘lead singer’ of the next hymn. This little woman who stood no more than five feet tall opened her mouth, and from it sprang the deepest singing voice I’d heard in many a year. She was the most beautiful singer.
I cannot remember the Gospel hymn Mitzie sang that day, but several years later in 2008, I heard Alexandra Burke, the ‘X’ Factor winner sing ‘Hallelujah’ and was blown away by her singing. My mind immediately went back twenty years or more to that Sunday morning in Huddersfield when another black-skinned singer blew me away. Every time I hear ‘Hallelujah, I remember Mitzie, even though ‘Hallelujah’ was not the song/hymn Mitzi had sung in the choir that day.
I dedicate today’s song to Janice Jagger and her husband, Colin, from Halifax. I have never met Janice or Colin face-to-face, but there are people in this life whose presence one never has to be in, in order to be touched by their humanity and loving concern. One never needs to witness the goodness of another to know of its existence in them. One doesn’t need to be best buddies with someone, to be aware of the character strengths and wholesomeness of that person. Truth, honesty, industriousness and compassion shouts out its presence in every whisper of want it hears. Janice Jagger is such a person; of that, I’d stake my life.
Having been seriously ill myself for the past decade, over the years of my marriage to Sheila, she has been required to do more and more for me daily than I ever could have imagined. And just as Sheila has kept me and my needs at the forefront of her mind from the first light of day to bedtime (without the slightest hint of resentment), I too know, that Janice Jagger has done this also for her poorly husband, Colin. Like my Sheila, Janice is a woman of substance; a symbol of everything that is good and wholesome in the human species. God bless them both. Thank you, Janice, for having been my Facebook friend. You are one of the people on my list to ‘look up’ within the year. Bill x
Love and peace Bill xxx