Saturday, 25 January 2014

Rev Canon Charles Johnson and Hebridean Folk Songs

Mrs Joscelyn Johnson

I love the Chronicles of Narnia, both books and the modern film trilogy version. It is such a wonderful and magical story which transports me back to my very early visits to Paradise with singers from the school where I taught and the RAM. The headmaster and subsequently Provost of the school had a house in a small village on the lower 'wing' of the island, and had had this house for around 40 years, even by the late 90's when we were first privileged to come as his guests. The Rev Canon Charles Johnson was a remarkable man. He was a Canon of the Church of England, devoted husband and father and strict yet immensely kind Headmaster who loved the boys in his charge.

He has left a vast legacy at the school. This is Seaford College where our young Ruby went on her scholarship last September.

He greatly loved Paradise and spent much time here in the holidays, building, conserving his small croft and bird watching. He and his wife who is thankfully still with us, were two of the kindest people I have known in my life and it is entirely due to them that I am here, living and working and hopefully giving musical pleasure to my pupils and audiences !

He studied theology at Emmanual College Cambridge and one of his tutors was the great C.S. Lewis. He talked a little about this literary giant in such kind terms and with much affection. Many years later at Seaford College he would teach Religious Instruction to the younger boys and used the Narnia books as the best Christian reference book, second only to the Bible !

Every year the singers came to Paradise to have a wonderful holiday and give concerts and I got into the habit of writing an arrangement of a Scottish folk song for SATB, and we always premiered it in the living room of Half of 1 Drumfearn ! The singers would squeeze inbetween the dining table with its plethora of oddly non matched chairs, and the pebble fireplace which Charles had fashioned himself during house alterations, and try out the new song. The redolent smell of the driftwood fire in the nostrils and the warm faces of the three or four listeners is etched into my memory, and I know, the memories of those aspirant singers, many of whom are now professionals and parents themselves. The one they all loved the most was the Iona Boat Song arrangement which has been passed down the years and is still oft used by those very teenagers who now have pupils and vocal ensembles of their own and carry the teaching banner onwards.

I was chatting with my daughter S on her way home from the JRAM this evening and we tried to list these arrangements. She indeed managed to remember more that I did............

I seem to have lost my original copies of some of them, so perhaps a useful job for 2014 would be to message around all of those singers and collect a full complement of them ? The songs I arranged were :

The Skye Boat Song

The Iona Boat Song

The Road to the Isles

Are Fond Kiss

The Mingulay Boat Song

The Eriskay Love Lilt

There may have been more, I am a little unsure ! You can see they were all the common songs, but I could not resist the timelessly beautiful melodies. So, I sit here watching The Chronicles of Narnia : Prince Caspian, and remember with a real smile the evenings spent around the fireplace in Drumfearn with Charles telling us of his Cambridge days and his athletic days and say a small prayer of thanks for having him ( and thus a little of C.S.Lewis ) and Joscelyn in my life.


The Iona Abbey approached by boat


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