For the seventh Songbook entry, it’s time for sounds that remind us of, or at least make us long for, God’s goodness. Here are two pieces I can recommend unequivocally as fine music, one initially composed without words, from the jazz tradition but veering into the classical, and another with words, from the rock song canon. Both reflect an awareness that in America, and perhaps for any “European Son” as well, the first day of the week (or is it the last?) does not feel like any other.
I have linked to two versions of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” here, first its original recording, the second a later version featuring Mahalia Jackson singing words added to it. As great as Jackson always is, I encourage you to listen to the original recording more closely—after several listens, once one gets past its apparently sleepy feel, one begins to feel it’s real majesty, and incidentally notices its interesting use of dissonance. If you look on the youtube side bar, you’ll also find some fine adaptations by various sorts of choirs, suggesting it might well become a part of a broader classical canon, and not just the jazz and black gospel canons, for ages and ages to come.
Why did Ellington occasionally write such “sacred songs?” Perhaps the best initial answer is found in Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues (one of the most insightful books on popular American music), in the chapter titled “The Blue Devils and the Holy Ghost,” wherein the peculiar tension and connection between what Murray calls the Saturday Night Function and the Sunday Morning Service is explored, not resolved, and thus presented as a basic feature of the Afro-American socio-musical landscape. “Come Sunday” itself reflected more than that, as Ellington specifically composed it as one piece of his Black, Brown, and Beige work about Afro-American history, where its place was to present how America’s slaves felt about (and felt on) their one day of freedom from the work-week’s toil. It’s about freedom/oppression, redemption/judgment, and gratitude/homelessness, all considered in those quiet and yet perhaps soul-wrenching hours that especially occur during the Day of Rest.
Rock, the “European Son” of American music (born ’65-’68), from the beginning did without a peculiarly American pop music pattern, particularly seen in blues and country, of “good-time” musicians (such as Elvis Presley, Mance Lipscomb, Johnny Cash, Duke Ellington, and many others) occasionally wandering into the performance and recording of gospel songs. Saturday Night kept bumpin’ up against Sunday Mornin’. Rock did not follow that (to its lights insincere) pattern, but soon replaced it with another sort of musical connection to the Divine. Rock became a place where “60s spirituality” was expressed, in its various pagan-esque, pantheistic, theistic, and questioning modes. Of all places, it is on certain recordings by the Velvet Underground where this is most vividly heard. If one wants to tune into the chastened Spirituality and Seeking characteristic of the very late 60s, as opposed to the smugly pantheistic and arrogantly pagan-esque gestures more characteristic of ’66-’67, one cannot do better than songs (mostly from the third eponymous album) like “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “The Ocean,” and especially “Jesus” and “I’m Set Free.” The last two (the first an achingly sympathetic impersonation of a turn to a Jesus, the second a critical impersonation of a convert to any religion) dare to go the heart of religious decision. In that sense they are unlike 60s songs like “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Let It Be,” and “Good Shepherd” which seem to have more of an aesthetic than serious interest in Things Biblical.
Even 1967’s The Velvet Underground and Nico, the band’s infamous initial “reporting” foray into Manhattan’s vice-ridden scenes, of both the gutter-low and avant-garde-high kind, into displays of femme fatales, S+M, girlfriend-beating, heroin addiction, dope-dealers, drag-queens, partying decadence, and night has seen your mind self-loathing, all delivered via oddly-chilled “pop-art” packages, or via the outright noise-art drone of the band’s “subway sound,” even this journey contains a spirit-haunted note, the stunning beauty of “Sunday Morning” that begins the album.
It’s as if on the verge of our noise-laden trip into the dark corners of the Big Apple’s Free Modernity, we are briefly reminded of what is officially absent in this new place: the Christian/Biblical significance given to time, and to our lives as well. Once Upon a Time (not so long ago), the world was believed to Be Good because He said it was, and so the early dawnin’ was not only itself beautiful but naturally elicited praise, Sunday especially. This feeling is no longer expected to Come Sunday, nor is any other sort of New Day or dawning age (say, of Aquarius) expected to come, not at least by the hardened Moderns of NYC, but nonetheless, some sort of beauty-haunted feeling does come. It might be initially welcomed, but in the second verse we hear I’ve got a feeling, I don’t want to know.
As in Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” a strain of dissonance lurks in the background, but the song is introduced by the nursery-evocative sound of the celeste(it’s like a glockenspiel)—something about the feeling takes us back to the innocence of childhood. But the song is not for a child—the second beginning of the verse is Sunday Morning, and I’m falling… and here’s the first run through:
Sunday Morning, praise the dawning,
It’s just a restless feeling, by my side.
Early dawning, Sunday Morning,
It’s just the wasted years,
so close behind.
As Blake would say, this is a Song of Experience. But what is the feeling of restlessness? Why does it inspire praise, but then become one the narrator doesn’t want to know? Surely it has something to do with the religious impulse of Sunday. Has it to do with our attempts, as in the 1915 Wallace Stevens poem of the same title, to redirect that impulse towards a pagan-esque (but perhaps “complacencies”-inviting) devotion to earthly beauty? Set in the American capital of Art-as-Religion, does the song mean to suggest dissatisfaction with all such attempts? Surely the feeling is additionally caused, or at least intensified, by a reaction to “the wasted years.” These were years of bad/useless experience, and their character is slightly elaborated by the next verse’s echoing that line with It’s all the streets you crossed, not so long ago.
Whatever the source of the feeling, the chorus has some advice, namely, don’t listen to the advice that says its meaningless:
Watch out, the world’s behind you.
There’s always someone around you,
who will call
it’s nothing at all.
One has moved to a point where a life-wasting and too-cynical world is being left behind, but the danger is its still around-you spokespersons will convince you that the Sunday-linked feeling “by your side” is meaningless. But notice that the next song on the album is “I’m Waiting for my Man,” about a white addict waiting for his dealer on a Harlem street—hard to imagine anything more unlike a dawning, more unlike an inspiration to move on, to Quest. Rather, the addict waits for the same old enslavement. Whatever feeling was felt that Sunday Morning, one was not able to follow it into anything positive, and perhaps, one even fled from it. It amounted to the nothing they said it was. So here we go into the hell-scape.
Well, that’s the best I can do with this still somewhat elusive-feeling little song…and I haven’t really even tried to plumb the depths of “Come Sunday.” If others are hearing more or just know more, about either of these pieces, do chime in.