Sydney Carter

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Folksy English songwriter whose softly elegant compostions have been oft-covered, best known for "Lord of the Dance."
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b. 6 May 1915, Camden, London, England, d. 13 March 2004, London, England. Although he had a desire to work within the BBC or in films, the Oxford-educated Carter ended up teaching, becoming history master at Frensham Heights School in Farnham, Surrey. He was already writing poetry, but it was after World War II, during which he served in the Middle East and Greece with the Friends Ambulance Unit, that Carter started composing songs. Inspired by the music he heard in Greece, Carter started frequenting folk clubs in London and heard Ewan MacColl; he joined the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), and also started singing songs himself. He also started writing lyrics for Donald Swann, working on a series of West End revues in addition to Swann’s children’s musical, Lucy And The Hunter.

During the 60s, Carter wrote some songs for Christian Aid, having previously contributed religious and protest songs for the Aldermaston march. His first album, 1962’s Putting Out The Dustbin, was recorded with the actress Sheila Hancock, while Hallelujah featured Martin Carthy and Isla Cameron. The former included the minor hit, ‘My Last Cigarette’. Probably Carter’s most well-known, and most widely covered, song is the school children’s’ favourite, ‘Lord Of The Dance’, an adaptation of the Shaker hymn ‘Simple Gifts’ included on the 1965 EP of the same name. The song’s ambiguous lyrics drew inspiration from both Christianity and paganism, making it attractive to both devout believers and atheists alike.

Many of Carter’s compositions reflected a religious theme, and in 1995, his 80th birthday was celebrated at Westminster Abbey. His ‘Judas And Mary’ was sung at the First International Festival of Music in Seville, (Unda Sevilla), Spain, in 1967, by Nadia Cattouse. Over 20 countries took part, and it won the Gold Medal Award (Premio Unda Sevilla). Another favourite, ‘One More Step’, is now acknowledged to be the most commonly requested song for use in collective worship. Meanwhile, the lyrics to ‘Friday Morning’ prompted the Conservative politician Enoch Powell to call for its ban because of the controversial lines ‘It’s God they ought to crucify/Instead of you and me’.

Carter always claimed that his style was based on rhythm and feel rather than technical ability, but his songs have been covered by a variety of artists, including Rolf Harris, Jackson Browne, Julie Felix, the Spinners, Judy Collins, and Pete Seeger. His anti-war lullaby, ‘Crow On The Cradle’, was revived in 1979 at the No Nukes concert and brought Carter some unexpected royalties. Despite his final years being blighted by Alzheimer’s disease, Carter’s songs will endure and continue to bring joy to future generations.