There are two stories to tell today with regard to the song “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens/Yusuf. The first is a short history of this song which, as it turns out, was first written as instrumental music for a church hymn over a century ago. The second story concerns our singer and his life, which has taken several twists and turns along the way making him one of the most interesting and enigmatic entertainment figures of all time.
The song “Morning Has Broken” has a long and storied history. It is believed to have been created as an instrumental piece of music by Irish monks on the Isle of Iona several hundred years ago. From there, the song (which was known as a hymn tune) made its way into Scotland. Once there, a gaelic speaking woman named Mary MacDoanld turned the hymn tune into a Christian hymn and named it Bunessan (which is the name of a village near Ardtun where Mary lived). In 1927, the Bunessan tune was written down in a hymn book called Songs of Praise. Once included in the book, the editors approached an author named Eleanor Farjeon to compose lyrics for the Bunessan. The poem that she wrote was inspired by the beauty of the village of Alfriston in Scotland. Together, Farjoen’s poem and the hymn tune, Bunessan, combined to form a new song that was entitled “Morning Has Broken”. It remained a church hymn up until 1972 when a singer who went by the stage name of Cat Stevens recorded it on an album called Teaser and Firecat. This album also contained the hit songs, “Moonshadow” and “Peace Train”, which cemented Stevens’ reputation as one of the great Folk-rock singers in music history.
Cat Stevens was born as Steven Georgiou in 1948. By the time he finished high school, he was dabbling in both art and music. Like many young, aspiring musicians, Georgiou began his songwriting career by peddling his songs to other musicians. One of the very first songs he ever sold turned out to be a classic rock n’ roll tune for Rod Stewart and many others. It was called “The First Cut Is The Deepest”. As his career began, Georgiou was packaged as a rock singer. He even changed his name to something that was thought to be easier for the general public to understand…Cat Stevens! However, he did not feel that the person being promoted by his record label was a true representation of himself. That feeling was further entrenched within his mind shortly after the release of his first album when he was struck down by tuberculosis. During the year it took to recover in hospital and then several convalescent homes, Stevens watched the doctors and nurses and how hard they worked to save his life. He, also, watched others less fortunate than him pass away. As he lay in his recovery bed, he began to realize that there was much more to life than the rock star lifestyle that awaited him once he returned to health. So, as part of his recovery process, Stevens began practicing yoga, he became a vegetarian, and, most importantly of all, he began examining the religions of the world.
When Cat Stevens had fully recovered, he made the professional decision to eschew rock music in favour of a style of music that better reflected the man he felt he was becoming. Consequently, Cat Stevens opted for Folk-rock. His next two albums, Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat, were big hits and established him as one of the world’s rising music stars. As the 1970s progressed, Stevens continued to embrace and explore various religions and philosophies. Once, while in Marrakesh, he heard the adhan being broadcast over speakers. When he asked about what was going on, it was explained to him that the adhan was the call to prayer for those who followed Islam and that its playing was “music for God”. The phrase “music for God” appealed to his burgeoning sense of spirituality. Not long after, he was given a copy of the Qur’an as a gift. Reading it, Stevens discovered that much of it spoke directly to his heart. Seeking greater wisdom, he approached an Islamic cleric and asked to know more. The cleric was happy to oblige. At the end of their discussions, which lasted for several days, Stevens was told that if he wished to truly immerse himself in Islamic culture, then he should convert and give himself over fully to Islam. He did so in 1977. To the surprise of his fans and his record label, Cat Stevens changed his name to Yusuf Islam and walked away from the music business for what was to be over a quarter century.
Once he had fully converted to Islam and had been accepted into the Faith by those in authority, he was advised not to continue his career in music because western music often spoke of themes that would be deemed offensive to Islamic culture. So instead of music, Yusuf, as he now preferred to be called, threw himself into philanthropy. He used the royalty money that came pouring in from the sales of his previous two albums to fund the building of Muslim-oriented schools in England and around the world. Yusuf also funded organizations whose purpose was the spread of peace. He married and raised his children in the Islamic faith as well. Despite having several well-documented moments of controversy (such as when he was quoted as supporting the death sentence imposed on author Salman Rushdie for his book, The Satanic Verses), Yusuf settled into life as a Muslim man and was at peace with the decisions he had made.
But then, one day, several decades later, his teenage son brought home an acoustic guitar and asked his father to teach him how to play. Those lessons were the first time Yusuf had picked up any musical instrument in over twenty-five years. The urge to create new music returned. But, being as immersed in Islam as he had become, Yusuf knew that creating western music was not the way forward for him. Instead, he created albums for children that celebrated Islam. However, as significant anniversary milestones approached for his albums, Tea For The Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat, Yusuf was approached to sing selected songs in public again. With approval from his local clerics, Yusuf re-appeared in the secular world and gave several public performances of songs such as “Morning Has Broken”. Yusuf stated that a song such as “Morning Has Broken” spoke to the beauty inherent in our world, and that, in turn, reflected the philosophy of Islam that he found so compelling all those years ago and throughout his adult life. From Steven Georgiou to Cat Stevens and finally, to Yusuf…from rock star to folk singer to Islamic philanthropist…from bachelor to husband to father…the journey through his life has been a rich and fulfilling one, indeed.
A special thanks goes out to my dear friend, Jan Fluke, for nominating “Morning Has Broken” as today’s Reader’s Choice song. Like me, Jan is a retired teacher. We worked together for many years which allows me to say with great confidence that Jan is a champion for children in all aspects of their development. In her retirement years, Jan and a friend have co-written several books for children and have launched their own literary-based company called The Story Snuggery. Thanks again, Jan. Keep those song requests coming. Your taste in music is awesome!
The link to the video for the playing of the hymn tune “Bunessan” can be found here.
The link to the official website for Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Story Snuggery can be found here.
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