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Sydney Carter (1915–2004)
The genius of Sydney Carter uniquely contributed to the history of 20th century popular culture, with a radical vision of one man’s theology that continues to speak boldly to millions through the medium of contemporary yet timeless songs. At least three of them, Lord of the Dance, One More Step, and When I Needed a Neighbour, have impressed themselves in countless hearts and minds as modern anthems, their perfect union of the simple and the profound being ideally suited not only to be sung at weddings, funerals and school assemblies, but also for private reflection. Indeed, as Carter’s friend Rabbi Lionel Blue observed, Carter’s songs have the status of psalms for today, the testament of a free-thinking spirit whose theology was always to question and to doubt, in ways that also reflected broader 20th-century currents of approaches to belief and faith. He himself declared that ‘they are songs which can be sung in a Christian context, but they all had to mean something to me because I was often on the edge of not believing.’
A historian by training – he read history at Balliol College, Oxford, after attending a council school in Islington and Christ’s Hospital School, Horsham – Sydney Carter dreamed of becoming a film producer or painter, but instead found his vocation through a passionate involvement in the folk revival that followed the Second World War. A stylish and idiosyncratic performer, he progressed from humble beginnings in pubs and clubs in the 1950s to singing alongside such luminaries as Martin Carthy, Ewan MacColl, Pete Seeger and Judy Collins, while producing material for London revues and for Flanders and Swann. A poet, a sceptic and an iconoclast, in the 1960s he also played his part in the controversial satire boom epitomised in the ground-breaking TV programme That Was the Week That Was, to which he contributed.
Suffering in old age from Alzheimer’s disease, Sydney Carter retained a thread of contact with reality through his lyrics, which he continued to recognise and sing with Lionel Blue. His spirit will likewise live on in words and music for forthcoming generations, as a dream of the general dance in which doubts are reconciled and hope renewed in a powerful affirmation of the future.