John G. Rodwan, Jr.
God has smiled on me. I do not know what I’ve done to deserve even one of the kindnesses he has shown. I do know that Jesus is going to be here, and he is going to be here soon.
I do not believe any of the statements in the paragraph above—not a single one.
I do, however, thoroughly enjoy the songs from which I have adapted them.
It may seem peculiar for a nonbeliever to find anything meaningful in religious
music, but it really is not so hard to get hit in the soul by such songs. The
emotions given voice in songs about god can be real, even if the ideas about
the way the world works do not always hold up under scrutiny. Conventional
gospel as well as jazz, blues and country style god songs can express those
true and deep feelings with undeniable intensity and exuberance. Hope that
circumstances will improve, that if you endure your current suffering you
will enjoy better times later on—the central concept of many god songs—can speak
to you even if you reject the celestial trappings. Sometimes,
if you do not subscribe to the notion that an anthropomorphic almighty power
intervenes in human affairs, you simply have to be able to take Jesus
as a metaphor. Some songs—especially the ones about sinners who know
they have done wrong and who need help to find the right path—make a more
forceful impact if the lonely figures seeking assistance are truly alone
in the wilderness from which they cry out. Many songs of an explicitly
religious nature are ultimately about what it is to be human, to suffer
and struggle, to be alone.
Amina Myers sings about a very beneficent and kind deity on trumpeter
Lester Bowie’s 1978 album The 5th Power, one of the first albums I remember buying that included a traditional religious song, albeit one arranged to fit extended free-jazz soloing. In “God Has Smiled on Me,” the deity does not only signal his favor for the songstress with a friendly facial expression; the true sign of his love is his releasing her from bondage. “He has set me free,” she proclaims. Set aside the theological premises: When things are going right, when you experience luck greater than you could have reasonably hoped for, when you have survived a grueling trial, saying god has smiled on you poetically captures the gist of the feeling.
For a time, Bowie was married to another singer, Fontella Bass, who brought
gospel sounds and sentiments to jazz recordings made by him and by others,
including the World Saxophone Quartet. After years of sticking to the
four-horn ensemble structure their name denotes, the group eventually
made some records along with other musicians playing percussion instruments,
for example, or singing. Bass joined them for Breath of Life, and on the
title track she recounts how god created all human beings as equals,
precisely the kind of idea that made god songs such a pivotal part
of the Civil Rights movement. Just as one can oppose racism and advocate
freedom without devotion to any imagined higher power, a listener can
value anthems of emancipation while remaining firm in unbelief. If saying
that when god put the breath of life into me it was the same thing he
did to you, as Bass does, needed to be taken literally as an explanation of
how human beings came into existence—forget what you may have heard about
evolution!—then we might have a problem. However, it does not have to be taken that way. It can instead be heard as an artful expression of fellowship, or a plea for it.
Performing some of the songs most closely associated with the Civil Rights movement,
Mavis Staples put together a record that made numerous music critics’
lists of the best CDs of any genre in 2007. The Freedom Singers join her
on We’ll Never Turn Back
for songs such as “On My Way,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “99 and ½”; Ladysmith Black Mambazo contributes background vocals on tracks including “Eyes on the Prize.” In the liner notes for the album, Staples is adamant about both the role of the church in the struggle against racial prejudice and the importance of the church in her singing. Staples says she and others in the movement “looked to the church for inner strength and to help make positive changes.” I would have thought that individuals looked inward rather than upward for inner strength. However, she insists that many “drew on the spirituality and the strength of the church” in their quest for equal rights. I do not question, nor do I wish to question, the authenticity of her devotion, the sincerity of her statement, or its historical accuracy.
The ideas that solutions to man-made problems like institutionalized racism were also man-made, that political change results from human endeavor alone, and that belief in a divine being who is willing to give assistance on request could be an impediment to realizing such change would certainly be anathema to Staples and many other veterans of the fight against Jim Crow. Nevertheless, recognizing that we live in a world without god does not deprive humans of the source of their strength, the possibility of community, or the chance at sanctuary some may have sought in church. Instead, a godless existence offers the prospect of freedom from everything but death. Men and women determine their course through their short lives without aid from above. In unholy reality, the illusion of a heavenly world to come can no longer make bearing actual lived existence any easier (though music still has that power); nor can such faith serve as a reason not to take responsibility for this one because of hope for a better world beyond the grave. If anything, one could argue that the Civil Rights movement demonstrates human beings’ ability to improve their conditions themselves, and that the strength, determination, and will required really was inside after all.
Not long before his death, Johnny Cash recorded a version of a song that also appears on Staples’s record. However, he insists “I Shall Not Be Moved” where she says “We Shall Not Be Moved.” In notes about recordings he made late in his life, Cash says his song is “the same song as the black gospel song” that uses the plural pronoun but his “stems from the white church” in which he was raised, though any difference between them is “not something [he] ever thought about.” That does not mean he did not spend ample time thinking about religious matters, judging from the quantity of god songs he recorded. Many of them do focus on individual spiritual struggles rather than on the church as a basis for collective action aimed at social change. His statement of personal, steadfast resolve was part of a group of tracks he called
My Mother’s Hymn Book, which he claimed was his favorite of his numerous albums. He explains that he made it “knowing God loves music and that music brings hope for a better tomorrow,” an outlook I imagine Staples shares, whatever the differences in their respective church experiences. While I cannot say that I hold the same belief (either in a god or about his attitude toward music), I can hear something worthwhile at work there.
Hope, or a willingness to persevere, at least, becomes necessary in a world filled with pain, and that topic proved an undying source of inspiration for Cash. He joined the massive choir of country artists who recorded Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me.” Cash called the iteration of it on his first
American Recordings release “Why Me Lord.” The certainty that you have done
too much wrong to deserve affection or generosity from someone else, the
desperation that accompanies the conclusion that you have wasted what
another has given you, and the shock that that someone remains willing
to stand by you—all of that intense swirl of sentiment and suffering and joy is captured in the lyrics and in Cash’s vulnerable delivery of them. The “Lord” that Cash added to the title need not exist for a listener to have that uncanny sense that the song articulates moments from his or her own emotional biography.
Kristofferson provides instances of a powerful song that can touch even the godless, but he also has penned at least one god song that could make even a true believer cringe. Kristofferson sang “Why Me” with George Jones in what was the high point of their joint Carnegie Hall concert in October 2006. Earlier that same evening, he sang a protest song from the then-new album
This Old Road that, however well intentioned it might be,
relies on one of the most insidious aspects of religious belief:
the unshakeable conviction that god supports my position and, thus, not yours.
The poorly conceived “In the News” denounces such behavior, but also engages in
it. Apparently referring to the war in Iraq, Kristofferson laments
that “Everyone says God is on his side”—clearly an explosive problem. However,
the singer also relates what he swears god said to him, which, of course,
agrees with his own views on the war. God really is on his side, you see.
In addition to revisiting canonical hymns and modern god songs like
Kristofferson’s (as well as secular pieces) during his fruitful period working
with producer Rick Rubin on the numerous American Recordings
albums, Cash also transformed what did not seem like devout material into his brand of sacred song. Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” always sounded to me as ironically intended rather than earnest. The 1980s pop group, I thought, mocked the idea of every person getting exactly the god he or she desired. Yet Cash felt he had a personal relationship with his Lord. The feelings of helplessness and the need for aid and comfort that underpin his interpretation give it an emotional heft that the original lacks. He really did want someone to hear his prayers, someone who cared, and he really believed he had found such a figure. I may see life as a matter of persisting without recourse to cosmic kindness or a supernatural friend, but that does not keep me from being moved by Cash admitting his weakness and asking for help.
Indeed, for the faithless, god songs like Cash’s can gain poignancy. When he says god reached down his hand or is calling, softly and tenderly, for you and me, he sincerely means it. Whether in the form of reworked secular pop songs or haunting, acoustic renderings of old hymns, Cash gives voice to a profound loneliness and the search for consolation from a heavenly father. That figure’s absence makes Cash’s isolation and longing
especially resonant. His calling out for someone who is not there and is not going to lift him up or reunite him
with those who have died makes his suffering more affecting than if what he
so wanted to believe—what he did believe—were actually real.
While Cash may have pondered loneliness in many songs, he had company among fellow faithful artists who reimagined work by nonreligious artists. I have no idea whether Tom Waits truly believes Jesus once walked the earth and will return imminently, but when I first heard him so proclaim on the brutally brilliant
Bone Machine, I heard the song as a three-minute distillation
of Waiting for Godot rather than a straight statement of conviction. Played alongside tracks like “Earth Died Screaming,” “Dirt in the Ground,” and “Murder in the Red Barn,” his “Jesus Gonna Be Here” does not impart unqualified optimism about the future. When the Blind Boys of Alabama perform his song, however, you know they mean exactly what they say (though they leave out Waits’s line about being good except for drinking). They include “Jesus Gonna Be Here” on an album,
Spirit of the Century, mixing their takes on traditional fare like “Good Religion,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Motherless Child” with songs by such renowned gospel-spreaders as Waits and the Rolling Stones. Just as Cash believed he had his own personal Jesus, the Blind Boys of Alabama really do think Jesus is on his way back. For his part, Waits uses religious imagery in many of his songs. A few years after his “Jesus Gonna Be Here” came out, for example, “Chocolate Jesus” arrived on
Mule Variations. Whatever he might believe, and no matter how often he mentions saints and sinners, his songs when he performs them do not feel religious the way they do when the Blind Boys of Alabama belt them out.
For a secularist, the concept of sin is invariably suspect, if not absurd, but the term as it is used in many god songs can be
taken simply as a synonym for “wrong.” You do not need a god to know when you have done something you should not have, to crave forgiveness from whomever you have wronged, and to feel redeemed if you receive it. When King Lear says he is more sinned against than sinning, he acknowledges his own faults while simultaneously insisting he does not deserve the treatment he has received. Similarly, the denunciations of rambling, gambling and back-biting depicted in many a god song can be heard the same way, free of theological dimensions. The reality of the wrong is the pain it caused other people or that other people have caused the singer. The accounts of sorrow over actual human suffering, not violation of god-given rules, breathe life into songs about sinners.
While Cash may have recorded a selection of his mother’s preferred hymns toward the end of his career, and recorded enough traditional gospel works to fill several albums over the course of his life, he also had plenty of sinner songs in his repertoire, including many about murder, often told from the perspective of the killer. “I shot a man in Reno,” one of them announces. “Just to watch him die.” It may not be fully accurate to say of Cash, as William Blake said of John Milton, that he was “on the devil’s side without knowing it,” but Cash’s records do reveal an ongoing interest in the activities of those who joined the fallen angel’s party. (He might have called himself a former member of that group, in reference to his battles with drug addition, though he did not stop singing about sin until death silenced him.) The songs also evince an awareness that, just as many readers find the Satan of
Paradise Lost more interesting than the god, many listeners want to hear about people who do wrong, who are often more compelling than the upright and the holy. Those on the dark side live life with more verve. Part of what attracts performers and listeners to such songs is recognition. We identify with the sinner, who, in many country songs, serves as an anti-establishment figure. Of those first-person killer songs compiled on a disc simply dubbed
Murder, Cash noted: “We, the people, put ourselves in the shoes of the singer. We want to feel his pain, his loneliness. We want to be part of that rebellion.” (“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” he might have added.) The songs offer even the true believer the vicarious thrill of sin.
Indulging in such flirting with the devil can be permitted among singers of god songs as long as it is accompanied elsewhere with the search for redemption and atonement for oneself – or punishment for persistent, unrepentant sinners. When I am the transgressor, these songs suggest, I thank god for his willingness to forgive, but when others do wrong, I relish the Almighty’s willingness to show his wrath. Religious wishful thinking can be self-important; it can also be cruel. The joy felt for god’s kindness or direct, individually tailored support somehow does not preclude a bloody minded pleasure when god denies others the warmth of his smile, when he cuts down those without pure religion. If you really subscribe to this sort of thinking, then I imagine it requires elaborate mental contortions to reconcile all these conflicting (though admittedly human) impulses. If you do not believe, then you can simply enjoy all the sinners’ stories. They do get the great lines, just like in Milton’s work.
The man alternately called the Reverend Gary Davis and Blind Gary Davis sang sermons in the style of the blues, some of which involve the thirst for righteous vengeance. Blind Willie Johnson recorded a song that Davis later made his own. It appears with eleven other vigorous god songs of complete conviction on
Harlem Street Singer, which Davis recorded, alone with his guitar, in 1960. Davis called his telling of a biblical tale “Samson and Delilah,” but Johnson gave his a title that spells out the song’s expression of revenge-seeking anger that an atheist can appreciate regardless of its scriptural basis: “If I Had My Way I’d Tear that Building Down.” The line forms the chorus. The song feels especially suitable for those days when god is not smiling down on you.
©2009 by John G. Rodwan, Jr.