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Why Van Morrison really is a troubador for a troubled soul

By Alf McCreary

Published 29/08/2015

Sweet music: like Leonard Cohen, a great many of Morrison’s songs contain deeply spiritual elements
Sweet music: like Leonard Cohen, a great many of Morrison’s songs contain deeply spiritual elements

Van Morrison sang "There'll be days like this", but even he might be surprised by the news that a Belfast city centre Presbyterian Church is devoting its morning service tomorrow to a tribute to the man and his music, on the eve of his 70th birthday.

The Rev Steve Stockman of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church is leading the service, with contributions by various performers of some of Morrison's songs.

This might raise a few eyebrows among traditional Presbyterians, but Fitzroy has a track-record in combining popular music with a spiritual theme. In previous years they have featured the music of Bob Dylan, U2, Bruce Springsteen and one of my favourites, Leonard Cohen, many of whose lyrics and compositions have a deeply spiritual content.

The location of this special service tomorrow at Fitzroy Church is especially appropriate, because the Fitzroy area features in his mind-blowing Astral Weeks, with Madame George.

Steve Stockman, who once hosted his own music show, Rhythm And Soul, on BBC Radio Ulster, knows his music backwards, and he points out that Madame George was described by one commentator as "part blues, part Protestant testifying … with the insistent verve of a Protestant minister", which is not a bad description of Stockman himself. Steve points out that Morrison provides many elements around which to build a Christian worship service: "His upbringing on Hyndford Street in east Belfast has meant that he was conditioned in the shadow of all kinds of churches, missions halls, Gospel halls and Kingdom halls.

"It was very unlikely that an artist like Morrison, who has paid so much attention to his childhood, would not find these influencing his art." Morrison later became an enthusiast of Comparative Religion "and into the middle of this wide-ranging mix, Morrison's Christian legacy enters and exits in orthodox and unorthodox ways".

For some people, Sir Van is an acquired taste.

For many years I ignored him, until one evening at the end of a late-night movie the credits read, "music by Beethoven, Mozart and Van Morrison".

At that point I decided that I had better take an interest in this guy, and, with the guidance of my wife who has long been a Morrison fan, I began to appreciate the genius of this shy and immensely talented artist.

Many of his songs have a deeply spiritual element, including on of my favourites, Whenever God Shines His Light.

Morrison has the rare ability to clothe philosophical themes in attractive songs that are both secular and spiritual. Even Days Like This has a deep message of reassurance and optimism, despite all the doubts and fears that assail most of us in our daily lives.

Van Morrison's ability to delve deeply and also to entertain is mirrored in the music of many of the great classical composers, including Beethoven, Bach, Mahler and many others.

One of the most touching stories is that of Sergei Rachmaninov, who was aware of his impending death when he wrote his last composition, Symphonic Dances, and wrote "thank you, Lord" in the margin of the score.

One of the great German theologians, Paul Tillich, said in the Fifties that, if the churches failed to carry their messages to the world, this role would be taken over partly by the artistic fraternity, and so it has come to pass.

The Fitzroy service starts at 11am tomorrow, and it should be worth sharing.

There will indeed be days like this.

Belfast Telegraph

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