Saturday, August 04, 2007


COTTON PATCH GOSPEL (1988, USA, Michael Meece / Russell Treyz, script with Tom Key)
Now, you all think about this story and behave toward everybody on this planet as you would like everybody on this planet to behave toward you. In a nutshell, that's everything I've got to say.

In the early eighties, stage actor Tom Key was touring America with a one-man performance of excerpts from Clarence Jordan's "Cotton Patch" versions of the gospels. Jordan was an early civil rights activist whose controversial inter-racial Koinonia Farm in rural Georgia predated the explosive upheavals of the 1960s. A scholar of Biblical languages, he transposed the gospels into the Southern idioms of his day – a witty, subversive application of scripture to modern cultural situations that resulted in a series of Cotton Patch gospels and epistles that were very popular in the sixties and seventies.

As the story goes, Key was approached at a performance one night by a man clutching a stack of hand-written pages. He'd been captivated by the show on a previous night, and had begun writing songs that might fit with Key's performance. Fortunately, this wasn't just another instance of "The Lord gave me these songs" (presumably because He didn't want them): the man with the music was Harry Chapin, and the songs were superb.

For my money, these tunes are by far the best things Chapin wrote. In his recorded output I find a tendency toward a certain dreary sentimentality: that's counteracted here not only by the lively bluegrass and country arrangements (exquisitely played by The Cotton Pickers), but also by a wonderfully acerbic irreverence that energizes the entire script.
It isn't easy growing up to be Jesus, With no steady job and no steady girl.
You ain't got time to worry 'bout the little things in life
When you're s'posed to be out saving the world.

This video is nothing more – and nothing less – than the filmed version of the original cast production of the stage play, appreciative audience and all. Key is a winsome and flexible performer, and if occasional moments might strike viewers accustomed to screen naturalism as somewhat "stagey," other moments – such as the tender, matter-of-fact healing of the governor's daughter, or the lynching of Jesus – bring chills.

Key has performed the show in an extended Off-Broadway run and at major theatres across the states. It may be the most-produced version of the gospels on professional and community stages in the past twenty years. If you hear about a chance to experience the show live, "get movin'!" – as the archangel spake unto Joseph. But few companies of any calibre can match the artistry and musicality of the original cast.


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