This week’s Free Ride* muses on the songs of Yusuf Islam, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, who turns 64 today. I have such fond memories of learning to play his version of Morning Has Broken for children’s church as an eleven year old, and then later giving his Tea for the Tillerman album to my seventh grade teacher, Mr. Baker, in an effort to ameliorate some of my classroom mischief and get on his good side. Moonshadow and Peace Train and Wild World and Oh Very Young are among my favorite songs in the world of classic rock. Cat Stevens left that world in 1977 when he converted to Islam and began a second lifework, educating the west on the values of his new found faith and advocating for religious liberty, understanding, and tolerance of the Muslim world. He has continued that work, particularly in light of 9-11 and the ensuing Islamaphobia that has captured many segments of our world, even as he has re-entered the world of secular music, performing for hunger-relief and other social causes. For a look at his contributions to the songbook of freedom, I want to focus on three of his songs used in the 1971 quirky comedy, Harold and Maude. He wrote these songs, along with many others, while recovering from tuberculosis in a London hospital. His near-death experience created a spiritual awakening and led him to radically shift his musical style. His lyrics became much more reflective on the meaning of life, a subject well-suited to Hal Ashby’s dark film. The first song I’ll reference here, Trouble, speaks of the existential angst that arises from illness and death:
The next song, Miles From Nowhere, finds the singer on a journey toward the end of life, and anticipates his transition into the next world:
My favorite song from the soundtrack, and one of my favorite of all Cat Stevens’ songs, is the anthem, If You Want to Sing Out. It is something of a theme song for the movie, encompassing the life lessons and sage advice the elderly Maude, who wants her young beau to embrace life and all it has to offer. The song is best sung while dancing through a meadow, ideally with a banjo in your hands.
Thanks, Yusuf Islam, for embracing life and bringing all your music, especially this song, into the world, helping us all learn to live by Maude’s wisdom and embrace all that life has to offer.