How can it be?


We sang a new version of an old hymn last night. It was “How can it be” by Greg de Bliek of new Scottish hymns based on Charles Wesley’s “And can it be”.  In recent times there has been a growing appreciation of the real value of so many old hymns:  the clear theology and mind engaging words which often contrast with the often shallower themes of some contemporary praise songs. Many have reworked these for congregational singing with varying degrees of success. Inevitably personal taste comes in here and people are often unhappy about changes that do violence to what was for them a well-loved hymn but, in my opinion, this one really works.  I have to admit that I disliked the old hymn. The solid theology was lost on me because it was married to a light and almost frivolous tune (Sagina – Thomas Campbell), reminiscent of a Victorian foxtrot and belonging to the dance floor, It seemed completely incongruous and turned me off.  Greg de Bliek, on the other hand, has taken Charles Wesley’s words, almost as they are, with a few small changes, and with the simplest of tunes, an almost stark melody, allowed us to sing and think about what we are singing. He makes the last verse, the climax of the piece, into a chorus rising beautifully in the middle section and the whole is a very moving hymn. People will of course say “but I liked the old tune”  that may be true but it should not stop us thinking about the music, what it does,  what emotions it arouses, and whether it is appropriate or not. I think that what Greg de Bliek has done is not simply to dust down an old relic and make it a curiously but to open it up, bring it into the light and give us a hymn that is as relevant today as it was when it was written in the 18th century.

You can hear it at but the YouTube video hardly does it justice. You need to hear a congregation singing it and you need to be in that congregation.

Crawford Mackenzie

The Fishing Net


When I arrived in Aberdeen in the autumn of 1967, to begin my studies at the School of Architecture, the first thing I did with my student grant, after paying my dig money, was to buy a guitar. It was nylon string bottom of the range Tatra classic from Bruce Millers in George Street.  At the same time I became involved in a Friday night coffee bar run from the basement of the Salvation Army Citadel at the west end of Castle street. You entered through a small door on a side street, where the North Sea wind hurled its way up into town, and down a flight of stairs to a brightly painted room with a small stage and mic and a counter at the other end serving hot milky coffee, Coke and Fanta. The café was called “The fishing net” a reference to Jesus’s commission to Peter “I will make you a fisher of men”. It was decorated with paintings of fish, seaweed, brightly colourer nets and fishing tackle. During the evening a small folk trio or solo artist would play and sing and someone would speak with a message. It was run by a number of churches in the city with the aim of making connections with young folk on the streets on a Friday evening. , They were invited in, befriended and engaged in conversation.  I had only been going for a few weeks when one of the leaders asked me to play and sing on the following Friday. With foolish naivety, I accepted, completely oblivious to the fact that I had no material and had never sung, far less played guitar, in public before.  Hastily I scratched a couple of songs together, one which had a remarkable and not unconscious resemblance to the Kinks “Sunny afternoon” and the other to the Beatles “a day in a life” The third was a spiritual. I practised hard but as the day grew nearer became more and more aware of my foolishness. I remember the night very clearly, walking across to the stage with guitar over shoulder shaking like a leaf, thinking “I can’t do this” and praying “lord if you really want me to do this, let it be you who does it”. It is a prayer I have found myself praying each time I have been asked to sing, since. The noisy room was suddenly stilled and as I ham fistedly clunked my way through the songs I had this strange experience as if standing outside myself looking on as someone else took over, carrying the message to the hearers.

Once finished and with the waves of relief pouring over me I relaxed at a table and fell into a discussion with a slightly inebriated leather clad rocker. He wasn’t interested in the songs but wanted to argue about the existence of God.  I was helpless and could offer no good explanation or original thought.  We were soon joined by two others, one clutching a battered bible. Suddenly there was clarity and rational in the discussion and I sat back with dropped jaw listening to the discussion amazed at the command of our new friend. (the one doing the talking) He had understanding and ability to communicate the cosmic realities of creation and redemption and the wonder of the gospel in spell bounding clarity. It was only after he left that I learned that he was already well known in student and church groups, the president of the Christian Union in the University and later a significant figure in Reformed Christian circles both in Scotland and the USA, highly regarded for his teaching, writing and editorial work.  So it was a surprise,  that our lives should cross again some 45+years later, when we both joined with our families, in our new church setting. It was an added and unexpected delight to hear him preach. While some preachers become old and tired and tread well-worn predicable paths and others have spoken for a specific time and place, his preaching carried refreshing  timeless authority, vitality and relevance.   Now endowed with the richness of truth distilled slowly through the years it was presented with crystal clarity, much as it was, around the table, in the basement café, all these years ago.

Crawford mackenzie

Desert Island Youtubes


I wonder if Roy Plomley  could have possibly imagined, when he devised his radio programme in 1942, that it would continue for 70 plus years and become a British institution. While LPs replaced gramophone records which, in turn, were replaced with CDs and MP3s the format of the programme has remained unchanged with an endless list of musicians, artist, writers, politicians, comedians and celebrities, all willing to share their life story in the context of a selection of music. I will never be a guest, so leaving out the life story and the potted psychology; this is my fantasy list of records, but, with a twist. When I land on this desert Island I have been able to salvage a pen drive with 8 YouTube videos and a solar operated device to play them on. This is my selection:

1 The Kinks  “You really got me”  As a young teenager I missed out on Elvis, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Jelly Lee Lewis and all the other early rockers. I couldn’t get fired up by Cliff Richard and even the early Beatles passed me bye.  I hated the adulation they received and when I was asked to give a talk in 2nd year English class, chose my dislike for the Beatles as the subject, explaining how I found their music simple, their words childish and how I much preferred to listen to Beethoven and Brahms on the radio. The teacher humorously offered me armed protection so that I could leave the room without being molested. But it was the Kinks who really got me.  I remember that lunchtime in the school gym where the prefects were allowed a record player and one of the singles, that the boys produced, touched a rhythmical nerve. It was that da-di-di-da-di—– da and the vocal a split second ahead of the riff.  I remember walking down the long corridor to class afterwards with the beat still thumbing away in my head, never to be forgotten.

2 Joe Cocker “Summer in the City” the Loving Spoonful first came on the scene it was summer. It always seemed to be summer. There was something magically light and funny and joyful about their songs. It fitted with the long summer days outside on the grass, during exam breaks, or wrapped around the sports ground as other strained every muscle on the field. It was the expectation of a long holiday and the songs fitted the mood perfectly. None more so that ”Daydream” which John Sebastian could play solo without losing much from the sound of the full band. Summer in the city had an altogether different feel. The summer had moved from suburbia to the heart of the city, sticky and hot with the promise of the cool evening and endless parties. John Sebastian was interested in how Aaron Copeland used the orchestra to create city sounds and he decided to use real recordings of street traffic. This was taken one step further in the video made for Joe cocker’s version.

3 Bob Dylan  “Knocking on heaven’s door” its popularity with every strumming busker and street musician, for me  “Knocking on heaven’s door” has never been one of Bob Dylan’s greatest songs, by a long shot, but this performance with Tom Petty is very special.  The whole sense of the live sound is captured with a magnificent harmonica introduction almost interrupted with Stan lynch premature roll on the drums which Dylan stays with an outstretched hand. Benmont Tench does some fine work on the piano, but it is a whole.

4 Peter Paul and Mary  Early Morning Rain”  Mary Travis, who like so many gifted singers, has sadly gone from us, provided the spark and tension to an otherwise plain Peter and Paul.  While Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey provide the solid base of the songs with tight clinical guitar work, flawless vocals and harmonies, it is Mary Travis who is the wild card. Standing often on the edge, to the side, she creeps into stir the song and creates an unnerving tension that is riveting. She moves dances and sings like an exotic bird with harmonies that makes your hair stand on end. This comes over so well in the video recordings of a “Tonight in person”. These include the republican “Rising of the moon”  (long before the troubles) and the light hearted gospel Jane Jane But it is Gordon Lightfoot’s “early morning rain” which for me is the pinnacle.   The song, itself, meant a lot to me, reminding me, as it did, of the time I missed the plane home from Glasgow Airport in the summer of 1967.    The line “she’ll be flying o’er my home in about three hours’ time” makes me choke a little.  Listening to how these three played together, recently, made me aware that our set up with “The Weather’s Hand” was much like this and perhaps there was something subconsciously going on there.

Bert Jansch “Blues run the Game” The first LP I purchased was Bert Jansh’s debut album recorded in 1965, on a reel to reel tape recorder with a borrowed guitar for which he was paid £100. I had to borrow a record player to listen to it. I could not believe that what I was hearing came from a single guitar, there seemed to be so much going on at the same time and I have spent a good part of 40+years trying to emulate the style. I saw Bert once live at a concert at the Lemon Tree and he was his characteristically unassuming self, on a simple stage, plugging in his guitar and fixing the microphone like he was a complete novice. Yet most guitarists will say that they owe most to him. He was shy about the limelight and said that he would rather be propping up some bar somewhere. Sadly he got that wish, drink all but destroyed him and possibly led to his premature death.  This is just one example of many.

6 Karen Matheson and  Paul Brady “Ae Fond Kiss” The transatlantic sessions produced some wonderful collaborations from musicians across the world and the filming of these, catches that wonderful sense of the players simply getting together in someone’s living room playing so beautifully and sensitively. To my mind some of these are almost perfect: Mary Black on Richard Thompson’s “farwell farewell”, with Michelle Wright, Iris DeMent and  Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh on “Will the circle be unbroken”, but my favourite highlight is Karen Matheson and Paul Brady on Burn’s “Aye fond Kiss”. I was never a fan of Burns and hated this song as I associated it with the stilted formalised style of Kenneth McKellar and more recently Fiona Kennedy and Susan Boyle. The Corries tried to make it more folky, but that was less than convincing.  Micheal Marra, Dougie MacLean and Eddi Reader have added their own twist to it, to lots of acclaim, but they come nowhere near the authenticity of what Karen Matehson and Paul Brady’s do with the song. The balance and restraint of Donald Shaw’s piano, Aly Bain’s fiddle pulling it away and just a touch on Gerry Douglas steel guitar. The way the key descends and ascends to suit the voices matches the theme perfectly especially when they come together in harmony for the last two verses. When Paul Brady comes in with the whistle, behind the line, you know you are in on something special. It all sounds like it has just fallen together which belies the mastery of the musicians. The singing is so convincing you would think they were the lovers who the song was about.

7 Nanci Griffith “If these old walls could speak” A friend introduced me to Nanci Griffith as the face of new country and her album “little love affairs”.  I was immediately a fan.  It was the combination of her song writing craft and her singing, in the way that she could caress the words as well as deliver them with a snarl that caught me.  I have had most of her albums and watched her in concert a number of times. She has the great gift of inhabiting a song, often material by others. Her versions of Julie Gold’s “From a distance”, which she made her own, and Stephen Foster’s “Hard times” are among some of the finest. But the song which haunts me is Amy Grants’ “If these walls could speak” (if you can ignore the strange and untypical fashion statement)

8 Marilyn Marshall “ Front Line Believer” Marilyn recorded this, possibly one of her finest songs, in the last album by The Weavers Hand in1999. She had been moved by the stories she was reading of the Andean Christians who were caught in the crossfire during the civil war in Peru during the time of the “Shining Path” in the 80s and 90s. In this time pastors were specifically targeted and many were murdered. Sometime whole church congregations were massacred in the course of the revolutionary’s brutal aims. Christians in the Ayacucho province lived in constant fear, waiting on a knock on the door, in the dark of the night and this song captures this grim reality and the futility of the movement which was unable to see “The light of true salvation”   

Crawford Mackenzie

Everlasting Arms

Recently we were at wedding of a good friend. We had known her since she was quite young and it was a special joy to watch her grow and become the person that she is today. We shared many things over the years, including the playing and singing of songs together in a church band and it seemed fitting that I should write something for her and her husband on their special day.  It was not a specifically wedding song and strangely it has been most appreciated by those coming to terms with bereavement and loss. So for celebration or loss and for it’s worth you can find it at


There is a bond so strong and sure

Through changing times it will endure

No one on earth can every break

No power in hell can separate

There is a hope I know is true

It keeps me sane and pulls me through

Just like the sun shines on my face

I feel the warmth of his embrace

And when the storms are all around

When faith is weak hope almost is gone

He will protect me from all harm

For underneath are the everlasting arms

There is a friend and I know he’s there

He lifts me up and hears my prayer

When I fail to see or understand

Yet still he holds me in his hand

And when the storms are all around

My faith is weak my hope is gone

He’ll  keep me safe from life’s alarms

For underneath are the everlasting arms

There is a place where I belong

That knows no tears or pain or wrong

Where death is dead and night is day

Where sin and sorrow are washed away

And I long to be there in that place

To hear my name and see his face

But until then I will fear no harm

For underneath are the everlasting arms

Crawford Mackenzie ©2013 Tollcross Songs