The Common Good
January-February 1999

Driving Forward, Looking Back

by Matthew Colwell | January-February 1999

Peter Campbell's retrospective offers strength for the journey.

Nostalgia is the rage in much of popular music today. 1940s Swing is back with a vengeance, 1960s pop icon Burt Bacharach is in vogue, and '70s disco and '80s rock is being given strong radio play. Even Nirvana, the group credited with heralding the grunge movement and defining '90s rock, used in their last recorded concert appearance the haunting and powerful "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" a Huddie Ledbetter song pulled straight from the folk music archives.

Perhaps this emphasis on nostalgia reveals an overall dissatisfaction with the direction much of pop and so-called "alternative" music has gone. The formula for a "popular" song has grown stale and become fashioned to meet criteria of corporate interests and financial profit rather than of musical integrity and authenticity. If finding meaningful music today lies in finding and applying authentic musical resources from the past, then the new album by Australian folksinger/songwriter Peter Campbell could not have arrived at a better time.

Rear-View Mirror

is Campbell's new double CD that is truly "retrospective," as the title implies, not only in its stark acoustic-folk style, but also in the rich images of past experience conjured up by the songs. It is a collection of mostly older songs and recordings put together on two CDs, the first of which is a live recording that includes many previously unreleased numbers. The second is a studio collection of some of the best tracks from his first two albums. As the title implies, Rear-View Mirror invites you to keep an eye on what's behind you as you drive forward—not for pure nostalgia's sake, but to find resources that can offer strength and direction for the present journey.

Many of the songs were forged in the midst of the struggle and celebration of the vibrant "radical discipleship" movement in Australia in the 1970s and early '80s. Campbell was beloved by many as the movement's troubadour. He is also known for his connection with Noel Paul Stookey—the "Paul" of Peter, Paul & Mary. Stookey not only invited Campbell to open for him on his second Australian solo tour, but he produced Campbell's second album, Across the Border. Peter, Paul & Mary later covered Campbell's song "Wild Places" on Such is Love.

From the first words of Campbell's stirring a cappella opening number "Once Upon a Time," he not only challenges the forces seeking to steer us off course ("Never trust a radio or a TV for information concerning the value of life"), but reminds us that "Once upon a time was enough." We are invited to look back for a sense of how to find values, meaning, and direction today, to look to a simpler life of farming, of meals shared together, of an unspoiled and redemptive creation, of humor and simple joys found in everyday life, and of finding Jesus in the traces of meaningful experiences. The song's words and images are subtle and evocative arrows that point to something deeper—to meaning and hope found even in the depths of human tragedy and struggle.

"In the Giving," "Only the Traces," and "Then the Quail Came" usher forth the memory of a God who showed up unexpectedly in a struggle to keep on keepin' on. "Blue Hill," "One Last Wild River," and "Wild Places" paint a rich picture of creation and the forces that work to corrupt it. "Hot Water," "People," "On the Run" and others imagine discipleship as the challenge to keep faith through the complex challenges of life. None of these musical reflections leave us in the past, but offer resources for meaningful discipleship and community in the present.

The album contains 30 songs, enough music to really allow one to enter and become immersed in another world. Entering that world may at first be challenging, though; don't expect the slick production heard in mass-marketed music today. The mixes are rough, and the live CD has almost a bootleg quality to it—it is stark and unembellished, and it keeps the vocal straining and spontaneous imperfections. But on entering this world, the rewards are manifold. One is invited into the experience Campbell himself describes in the song "People": "So I've climbed this rock/I've stared at my horizon/it lifts me high and I can see beyond my fear/And I don't believe I saw the way before/but I can see the way from here!"

MATTHEW COLWELL is an auto mechanic living in Pasadena, California.

Rear-View Mirror. Peter Campell. Tintacks Music, 1998.

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