Shifting landscapes

It’s been claimed as a hymn to Englishness but also a call for socialism. It’s been rearranged by industrial bands and warbled by cricket fans. Jason Whittaker charts the ever-shifting song Jerusalem

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Although not a part of the official Platinum Jubilee celebrations, it is not hard to find various recitals of the hymn Jerusalem on social media, uploaded to mark the Queen’s 70-year reign. Professional choirs and amateurs alike vowing to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land doesn’t seem the slightest bit controversial, but this was not the case for Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1976.

It was a reminder that whatever glory days existed had long been replaced by ridicule

We may be returning to the inflation, international conflicts and domestic crises of the 1970s but current culture wars seem to have steered clear of the Queen herself (if not the rest of the royal family). A year after her Silver Jubilee, however, Derek Jarman’s punk-inspired movie Jubilee took aim at all aspects of the British establishment. Suzie Pinns goosestepped in bondage gear to the strains of Rule, Britannia, while a gay Jesus is taken in a crown of thorns before various bishops as Jerusalem plays in the background.

By the late 1970s, Jerusalem had fallen to its lowest point as far as popular culture was concerned. As Empire, and then Commonwealth, Day celebrations from the 1950s became a faltering memory, the song had become associated with nostalgic kitsch, rolled out once a year for Last Night of the Proms.

When it was invoked in TV shows, movies or literature of the period, it was as a reminder that whatever glory days existed for empire had long been replaced by ridicule. This was best exemplified by the 1969 Monty Python sketch Buying a Bed. When a young couple try to purchase the said bed, any mention of it – and thus allusions to sex – cause the nervous store manager, played by Graham Chapman, to sing Jerusalem very loudly and very prudishly.

And yet if Jarman’s depiction of a gay Christ being condemned to death for England’s sins was the blasphemous conclusion of the hymn’s decline, over the next decade it would become a site of struggle about what Englishness meant. In part, this was due to a resurgent conservatism under Margaret Thatcher. Surprisingly, however, much of the debate about what it meant to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land came from the left, and precisely the kind of punks and post-punks portrayed by Jarman.

This was not so much due to the music of Hubert Parry – inspiring as that was – as the words of William Blake. The stanzas beginning “And did those feet” were part of the preface to Blake’s epic work Milton a Poem, which was an anti-war, anti-establishment clarion call to rouse up the “Young Men of the New Age” against those “Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University” who supported violence. Ever since the poem had been rediscovered by Blake’s biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, it had echoed with anti-establishmentarians, but by setting the poem to music to support the pro-war effort Fight for Right in 1916, Jerusalem seemed to have been placed squarely in the service of English militarism against its very corporeal enemies.

Except that it hadn’t. Within months of creating his music, Parry removed Fight for Right’s privileges, transferring the copyright to his friend Millicent Fawcett with the stated aim that it would become “the Women Voters’ hymn”. Although no socialist himself, Parry had sympathy for liberal causes and some of his passions for a better society were not so far removed from those of Clement Attlee, who adopted Blake’s words the better to describe the country he wished to create after the Second World War.

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From its inception, then, Jerusalem was a battleground for mental fight, and as the post-war consensus crumbled it was once again taken up to inspire either side. Its first and most obviously political deployment after Jarman was in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. It drew explicitly on Blake’s verses and to later generations it was often self-evident that the movie was an expression of Thatcher’s England. When the film was first released, however, the producer, David Puttnam, saw it as a film that critiqued the narrow vision of an English elite that despised the other – whether Scot, Jew or lower class. But whatever liberalism may have existed in the first iteration of the film was quickly wiped out the next year by two factors: the movie’s success at the Oscars and – more important – the Falkland’s conflict. Intricacies of social conflict among England’s sporting elites was wiped away by a marketing campaign the following year that wrapped the movie in the Union flag.

The appropriation of Jerusalem by the Conservative Party was far from complete however. Not long after Colin Welland announced that “The British are coming!” while accepting an Oscar for Chariots of Fire, one of the most unusual musical arrangements of the hymn ever recorded was released by Mark Stewart.

Stewart’s musical career had begun in 1978 with a punk band, the Pop Group, after which he began experimenting with a dub style that mixed punk and new wave with elements taken from older artists such as Lee “Scratch” Perry. His double A-side single Jerusalem/Liberty City combined a stripped-down drum and bass backing track with samples from orchestral and brass band arrangements of the hymn. It also reversed the order of the stanzas, creating a distorted and disorienting version. Yet although this record was one of the bleakest releases of the hymn ever to be recorded, it was not – like Jarman’s – disparaging or mocking. Rather, it was a reclamation of Blake’s words in Thatcher’s Britain, the work of a postmodern prophet in the wilderness that has not lost its power to shock four decades later.

Jerusalem appeared in much more familiar settings throughout the eighties, whether performed by the Grenadier Guards or by Judy Collins on Amazing Grace, but it was also taken up by Mark E Smith, on The Fall’s eleventh studio album, I Am Kurious Oranj. The album was originally intended as a soundtrack to a ballet by Michael Clark and Company about the bicentenary of William of Orange’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 and is classic Fall material.

Two much more pointed renditions of the hymn, however, both appeared in 1990 in response to the Conservative government’s new poll tax. The better known of these was recorded by Billy Bragg and appeared on his album The Internationale. For Bragg, this was the worker’s hymn, and his simple arrangement for voice and piano shared more with Parry’s original 1916 setting rather than more bombastic orchestral arrangements.

By contrast, bombast was everything on the version made by the industrial group Test Dept – who had first attracted attention supporting striking miners in 1984. Working with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, their rendition is loud and seemingly traditional – until the half-way mark when the music is broken in two by the voice of Margaret Thatcher celebrating the fall of socialism. By the end of the year, it was Thatcher who had left government and her poll tax had been revoked.

Concentrating on alternative versions of Jerusalem can easily give a false impression that the hymn had discarded its establishment credentials. It would still appear on collections with titles such as Anthems to Inspire a Nation or Trooping the Colour, as well as wedding music after the release of Four Weddings and a Funeral. But as the new millennium approached there was a sense that Blake’s paean to Englishness was more than nostalgic memorabilia. Artists as diverse as Bruce Dickinson, Bob Davenport and The KLF adapted it for their own musical ends, while it came to be frequently used in state-of-the-nation literary works, whether Jez Butterworth’s play, Jerusalem (2009), or Marcus and Julian Sedgewick’s graphic novel Dark Satanic Mills (2013). There were more recorded versions of the Parry hymn – and more adaptations of Blake’s words into different media – in the decade and a half of the new millennium than in the half century since the Second World War.

This was probably because of increasing tensions in what it meant to be English. The skein that held the United Kingdom together began to unravel in the 1980s as Scottish nationalists increased their share of the vote. By the beginning of the 21st century, Jerusalem was a staple of public life, especially through its increased use in sport, and from 2000 there were multiple calls in Parliament to adopt the hymn as a specifically English anthem – by Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats between 2003 and 2007.

By the time of the EU membership referendum in 2016, Jerusalem was most likely to be invoked online by Brexiteers as unproblematically supportive of UK independence – at the same time that the writer Alan Moore was using it in his novel Jerusalem in a way that would have been more familiar to Attlee. A century after it was set to music and more than 200 years since Blake had written the original words, the meaning of “And did those feet” is probably more contentious than ever, and what it means to build Jerusalem is likely to be fought over even more in the next few years.

Jason Whittaker’s Jerusalem: Blake, Parry and the Fight for Englishness is published by Oxford University Press on 14 July

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