Lord of the Dance

Update: Sydney Carter died on March 13, 2004.

The inspiration for this article was a discussion on rec.music.filk of Sydney Carter's song, "Lord of the Dance," and its Pagan counterpart of the same name. At least two of Carter's songs -- "Lord of the Dance" and "Julian of Norwich" -- are well known among filkers, but Carter doesn't get quite the recognition he deserves. In what some would call the ultimate accolade for a writer of folk songs, both of these songs are often regarded as "traditional."

Worse, some people believe that the Pagan version of "Lord of the Dance" is the original, and that Carter's "Christian version" is a variant of it. This is a mistake; his is the original. However, the tune to which he set it, "Simple Gifts," is a Shaker song dating back to the nineteenth century. The Lord of the Dance FAQ page helps to set the record straight. The annoyance which the page maintainer expresses about the Pagan version is at least partially justified by the occasions on which he hasn't been given due credit.

There are actually several variants of "the Pagan version." The best known among filkers is the one published in The Westerfilk Hymnal, Volume 2, now out of print. The chorus is nearly identical to Carter's, but he is not given any credit. Westerfilk uses a different tune, a traditional one in a minor key. As the song is usually performed, each verse increases in tempo, usually with percussion and dancing adding to the excitement, until the last verse drops back to a slow tempo. Group singing of it is often the culminating point of a Pagan filk circle. Several variants of it can be found on the Web. Here is one which actually mentions Carter in the credits.

Some people regard certain lines in Carter's "Lord of the Dance" as anti-semitic. The lines, "I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame / The holy people said it was a shame," are sometimes cited in this regard, reading "the holy people" as "the Jews." While I don't know what Carter had in mind, I find it more consistent with the overall sense of the song to read "the holy people" as the priests, the professionals of religion. The same could be said of "I danced for the scribe and the Pharisee." The Pharisees were a major Jewish sect in Jesus's time, and his denunciation of the Pharisees, while a dinner guest at a Pharisee's house (Luke 11:37-44), is one of his uglier acts; but modern Christians don't usually think of the Pharisees in those terms. This line should probably be taken simply as a rejection of empty, joyless ritualism.

Certainly "Lord of the Dance" shouldn't be taken as a narrowly Christian song. Carter is quoted on the Lord of the Dance FAQ page:

I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.

As an atheist, I'm willing to accept either of the songs as an expression of the power of dance and music to enhance human spirituality, as long as I don't have to take the words literally. The title "Lord of the Dance" arguably belongs neither to Jesus nor to the deities of neo-Pagans, but to the Hindu god Shiva, who is often portrayed as a graceful but powerful dancer. For a commentary on this, see the page on Nataraj: Shiva as Lord of the Dance.

"Lord of the Dance" has been the subject of several parodies. Here are links to a couple:

There is an article by Cathy Cook McDonald on how the Pagan "Lord of the Dance" came to be written, published in Kantele, and reprinted and still available in Filker Up #3. Lee gives the following summary:

Ann Cass has mentioned Becky Price as another contributor.

Michael Flatley's dance company made use of the title "Lord of the Dance" and the "Simple Gifts" tune for a popular video dance extravaganza. Since he didn't use any lyrics for the song, Carter probably never got a cent from this. A pity. (The Web page for this video is broken, providing no useful functionality without browser plug-ins. I hope they'll upgrade their Web page creation software soon to support universal browser access, so I can provide a link to their page.)

Copyright 2001, 2004 by Gary McGath
Last updated March 19, 2004

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