Although I’m only a mild fan of John Michael Talbot’s music, there are three of his albums that I place very high on my list of favorites. Two of them, The Painter and No Longer Strangers, were made with his brother Terry. The Painter was the first music I had ever heard of JMT. When I first met my bride-to-be she played it for me. She used to use it to warm up before running. We wound up using one of the songs, “The Mystery,” as the (recorded) recessional at our wedding.
It seems to me that the influence of Terry on these albums raises it above most of JMT’s work, which is often musically repetitive and lyrically overly abstract, sounding like a treatise. Terry is first much more a story-teller. He is also has a more concrete social consciousness. Even in the days when the brothers were playing with Mason Proffit Terry contributed a burning prophetic fire to their lyrics. One of my other favorite albums of all time is Terry Talbot’s solo album Sings Stories of Jesus. The album isn’t available anywhere that I can figure out, but there are a couple of videos on YouTube that give you a taste of what it is like.
But this post isn’t about any of these albums. It is about God of Life (1984). This album was produced during JMT’s “Celtic” period. All the songs have a distinctive Celtic feel, with lots of penny-whistles, uilleann pipes, and harmonic fifths. The orchestration is never overly lush. It is vigorous when it needs to be (“Peace”) and gentle and unassuming at other times (“Betwixt Me”, “Healer of My Soul”). There is a fun, lilting instrumental called “The Meadow.” There is also some great cello work.
The lyrics on the album, borrowed from ancient Celtic prayers, are very concrete, Trinitarian, and conscious of God’s providence and closeness.
For the guiding lamp of the ocean
Thy hand on the rudder’s helm
Thy love behind the billows
The wind within my sails
God to enfold me
God to surround me
God in my thinking
God in my words
God in my sleeping
And in my waking
God in my watching
God in my home [I think]
I love the concrete imagery of baptism in “In the Name of God.”
The little drop of the Father
The little drop of the Son
The little drop of the Spirit
In thy life, beloved one
The little drop of God
On thy little forehead
In the name of God
There is a strong sense of the role that the way Christ is in us to strengthen our social relations.
Peace between all persons
Peace between husband and wife
Peace between women and children
Descend on us the peace of Christ
Bless O Christ my face
Let my face now bless everything
Bless oh Christ mine eyes
Let all my eyes see be blessed with peace.
One cool thing is his use of banjo (“Belfast”). JMT was a nationally ranked banjo player in his youth. He really can make it sound Celtic. “Belfast” was in fact a piece from their Mason Proffit days that he recycled. I wish you could compare them. You’ll have to go to Spotify, I guess. Here JMT is playing it solo on banjo without the orchestration. Here is the Mason Proffit cut, with “Belfast” at the end of “Black September,” about the Palestinian/Jewish violence in 1972.
My favorite, though, is the plaintive and soulful “Healer of My Soul.” esp. the lyric:
Keeper of my soul
On rough course faring
Help and safeguard my means this night
Keeper of my soul
I am tired of stray and stumbling
Heal my soul from the snare of sin
I tear up with this one.
Lots of JMT’s music is not available on YouTube. I think he keeps tight control over his intellectual property.
I played guitar with JMT once. Kathy and I were on a retreat that he sponsored. After a prayer session I was sitting on the stage in a chapel playing some songs when he walked in and sat down. We played a couple of simple tunes together, I think. Then we asked him to play “The Mystery” for us, since we had had it at our wedding. He tried, but he could hardly remember it.
No picture this time.
—Robert Gotcher is a theologian from Milwaukee, where he and his wife have been raising their seven children, five of whom are out of the house, more or less. He is a recovering Beatlemaniac.