The King James Bible: Still No 1
Celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible tend to have focused on predictably grand themes: how it has shaped politics, literature, society etc. Thank goodness then for Pop Goes the Bible! (Radio 4), a bit of genial weekend relief, reminding us of the way popular culture is similarly awash with the KJB’s phrases and stories.
Paul Gambaccini’s introduction was delightfully free of hand-wringing hush. For him ‘the good book is still No 1’, at least as a vending machine for lyricists the world over. As he put it: ‘religious and literary merits aside, the King James Version of the Bible has the enviable distinction of having inspired more music than any other book’. Quite a claim, but backed up by an educatory half-hour of examples.
We heard from Sir Tim Rice who described how his schooldays soaked him in biblical tales, put to good – and, one might add, profitable – use, most obviously in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar, but also in King David where he adopted some of the text’s vivid phrasing. Leonard Cohen talked about the five-year struggle to get ‘Hallelujah’ to yield any rewards, while Bono commented upon the way biblical imagery and themes had wriggled into a recent album, the song ‘Yahweh’ on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
One of the most intriguing claims of the show came from Dr Diana Lipton, an Old Testament specialist. She argued that, rather than being mere looters of the Bible, pop songs can actually add to our understanding of the tales. As she put it: ‘popular songs enable us to look back at the Bible and see it in a new light. They refresh the Bible; they bring something new’. Case in point here was Tom Jones’ ‘Delilah’, which, she argued, helped shift attention away from Delilah as seductress and highlighted the often-forgotten fact that Samson must truly have loved her; also under discussion was Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, with the relocation of the Abraham/Isaac story injecting some gritty truth into a tale normally viewed in alabaster.
Many may need convincing on this last point, but the central truth of the KJB’s hold on songsters down the decades was made convincingly. As with all the other wonderful TV and radio documentaries, not to mention the boxful of new books, this year’s anniversary has highlighted the munificent bounty of the KJB for writers and artists alike.Tagged in: Paul Gambaccini, Pop Goes the Bible!, radio 4, The King James Bible
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