Cascadian artist Jeff Johnson cites Celtic spirituality as one of the greatest influences on his music, because of its deep connection to the natural world. Here, Jeff explains his inspiration for three songs of prayer—the first by the grace of swallows in flight, and the others by the prayers of two Celtic saints, Brendan and Columba.
Watching Swallows Pray
I started from a very young age composing music. Not only did that process allow me to express myself through that music, it also allowed me to process myself through that music. Naturally, with that as a background, my music is going to express my experiences as a human being, and my experiences as a human being always have me in nature. Consequently, nature is always going to be there, whether it’s specifically alluded to or not. As it turns out, I use a lot of natural sounds from my travels and experiences in my recordings. I’ve done that for many, many years and I guess that means I really value that. I see, for instance, the song of a bird as equally important to a melody I come up with.
I have spent literally hours and hours watching swallows swoop around my backyard and in other places where I’ve had the delight of seeing them. At some point, as I watched them years ago, it really became an act of prayer for me.
I love the vulnerability of this prayer. I love how this prayer takes what it’s about to do seriously and realizes that there’s going to be a cost. I love the sense of place in this prayer. In Brendan’s case, he’s about to get in a currach, which is a little boat with eight other people and they’re just going to go out wherever the current takes them.
Eventually Brendan’s story ends in the land of promise with a vision of heaven. But the interesting thing is that the story doesn’t really end there. They come back home, but they have a different idea of home. That’s one of the great things music can do for people. It can take them to places they wouldn’t normally go to, but because of that experience, it can give them a different perspective of where they actually live. Nature affords us that opportunity all the time.
When one takes the time to listen to a piece of music all the way through without interrupting it, there’s a lot that can be gained from that experience, if it’s a good piece of music. And I think the same is true if one takes the time to be in nature.
I love this prayer because there’s a great sense of holy wandering and having to trust God in that wandering. But also, there’s such an awareness of his surroundings in this prayer and, specifically, the various surroundings that have to do with nature.
This article features excerpts from a conversation between Jeff and Christ & Cascadia editor Forrest Inslee. You can listen to the full interview and hear more about the values behind Jeff’s work on the Earthkeepers podcast.