Michael Cook Writes (www.michaelcook.org)
Some songs are so distinctive that you always remember them, even years after first hearing them. Spirit In The Sky, written and performed by Norman Greenbaum, is one of those songs.
With its distinctive hand clapping, and unique electric guitar sound, and sharp background vocals, one would be hard pressed to not catch themselves singing along to it while driving down the Atlantic City Expressway with the wind breezing through their car. Not that I’ve done it under that scenario or anything, mind you.
Norman Greenbaum is an accomplished musician who lives quietly in California. His website celebrates the song, but also makes mention of his many other songs, and also allows Greenbaum to show the internet the person behind the songs.
Spirit in the Sky has been one of my favorite songs since I was a child. I think part of the charm of the song, for me, is the distinct themes of Native American culture that I picked up from the song. I am part Native American, so of course this side of the story intrigued me.
I wanted to find out if, in fact, I was right about the Native American vibe, so I contacted Greenbaum through e-mail, and he responded, “I guess there was some influence on me after seeing a Hopi inspired ‘Spirit In The Sky‘ greeting card. In the interviews done with Greenbaum, I haven’t seen this touched upon, but he continued, “The reason I never bring it up is that I actually don’t think I saw it before I wrote the song.”
Even if he saw the card before the song, that does not take away from the fact that the song is, in fact, an original, and a classic. It has been covered several times, including on one of the final episodes of the previous season of 7th Heaven.
I guess what it comes down to is that the Native American people are a very spiritual people. This is a cornerstone of their being. Just the lines in the song are obvious, to me anyway, that there is at least some Native American theme throughout the song, and this is a very good thing.
There are many good lines in the song, and some have been described as “tongue in cheek”, or as being intended as a harmless jab at Christianity, since Greenbaum is Jewish. One line reads, “I’ve never been a sinner. I’ve never sinned. I’ve got a friend in Jesus.”
Some may take this a a friendly poke at the aggressive Christians who believe they’re “saved”, regardless of what they did or do. Greenbaum counters this, simply saying that, “there was absolutely no ironic jab at Christianity nor lighthearted humor intended. Not being of Christian faith, how was I to know I went against their beliefs? I thought it sounded good.”
And it did. But what was his message?
It was, he said, one “of general faith in a higher place. I listened to some gospel music, therefore, chose a Jesus theme.” So, we can see that this song is very much a personal song, and it evokes a message of faith without actually preaching a message. In fact, on Greenbaum’s website, there are letters from people of many different faiths who all share one thing: their lives have been positively impacted by the song, whether it be in times of grief or joy.
A woman named Carol shares on this website that, “I can’t say I grew up with your song, but I am growing old with it.”
I obviously don’t know Greenbaum, but I am willing to bet that messages like that are every bit as valuable to a songwriter as a royalty check, in some cases more so.
Other musical artists like the song, too, and some have done cover versions of the classic. I have yet to hear one, however, that in my opinion passes muster. It’s unfortunate that some artists want to cover a classic, and take away from the integrity of the original. I’m all for originality, but some people take it too far. It’s the same problem with covers of Music Box Dancer, by Frank Mills, which is a classic all to itself.
A version by Gareth Gates is one prime example. It’s horrible, mostly because he went in a “glam-pop” direction.
A less offensive version is one by Doctor and the Medics.
My personal opinion of the covers that I’ve heard are that they are weak, and to say that they don’t do the original justice is a severe understatement. However, Greenbaum takes another approach, stating that, “I try to not rate the cover versions. Everything has merit. Some more, some less.” In fact, he welcomes musicians to put their own spin on his song, saying that, “I’m open to new arrangements for the song. Why not?”
He also recommended me to another “Spirit in the Sky”, a version by Nina Hagen, which appears on her album 14 Friendly Abductions. (A video that uses her cover is online.)
In closing, I would be lying if I said that this song hasn’t had some personal impact on me. It has brought me comfort when I needed it, and it’s also a good song to drive to, especially on the freeway, and in cars with a real loud stereo.
It’s also thought-provoking. I think that regardless of our differing religious faiths, we can agree at the very least that when we die, and they lay us to rest, we will, in fact, go to some form of a spirit in the sky.
Patricia’s Porch Talk: Homegrown Philosophy And A Gospel SongPatricia Paris writes: www.chattanoogan.com/articles/article_106889.asp
Norman Greenbaum's, "Spirit In The Sky"
The Nonsensical Lyrics:
Never been a sinner
I've never sinned
I've got a friend named Jesus
Why They're Nonsensical:
When this number first came out,and what with people, including teenagers, bopping out to it, I distinctly remember thinking that I could scarcely credit my eyes and ears.What on Earth, I thought, was a number about Jesus and Heaven doing being played and danced to in pubs and clubs all over the show? Such subject matter pounding out in nightclubs?
With drinking, smoking-all kinds-debauchery, fighting, swearing and goodness only knew what else taking place in them? It simply didn't register. Guys,it still doesn't.
I checked this whole question out, and this is what I discovered. Norman Greenbaum has never actually been a Christian, or anything like it. He said the number grew out of a number of things, including listening to Porter Waggoner singing about some preacher guy. He also thought that a number about Jesus might just be OK by the nightlife brigade and so on, whereas one about God Himself might not. His parents are on record as saying no one was as surprised as they were by the entire thing. It would make it to as far as number 3 in the charts, and sold two million copies.
Subsequent attempts to make it big failed apparently. I have said a number of times in my articles for Am I right that I never could abide fast dance music, and the idiotic scenes it spawns.Well, I always found myself even more non-plussed by the sight of people shambling all over the floor like a pack of total headcases to a number as religiously charged as this.What was everyone thinking of? Did people believe that it was perfectly OK to knock back the booze and then dance to a reference to Jesus? Sorry guys but I just can't abide mentally challenged thinking like that, even if those concerned are unbelievers.
Checked out the nonsensical lines I picked? That proves that not only was Greenbaum not a Christian, but that he knew absolutely nothing at all about the Christian faith. It runs exclusively on the strength of the fact that it's adherents are born sinners. That that's why Jesus came into the world in the first place.To pay the penalty for sin Himself,and subsequently help them deal with sin. So to say, as this song does, that you've a friend in Jesus because you've never sinned, would sound to God as the single most crazy statement ever uttered throughout eternity. Just who or what for that matter is this Spirit in the sky Greenbaum refers to even? God? Jesus? Some other Heavenly personage? The question isn't answered.
Also,the song talks about getting right with Jesus as a RECOMMENDATION to this Spirit in the sky, as if we're talking about a job reference or something.The whole thing remains one of the most outlandish episodes in the history of pop music.
Submitted by: THE BIG GUY
A Blessing From Norman Greenbaum
Current mood: ecstatic
One of the cool things about the internet is its immediacy. The other day I was watching a DVD with the fam and "Spirit In The Sky" by Norman Greenbaum ran during the credits. It was a huge hit in 1970 and is still regularly used today. I happened to have my laptop handy so I typed in Norman Greenbaum (to see if he was still alive for one thing) and sure enough, there he was. Much older than his hippie-pic on the cover of his record, but none the worse for wear. Still wears his hair long, though it's turned a shimmery silver. Gotta love it.
Anyway, I found his website and one of the features is a list of comments from fans, some of which he actually responds to. So I shot him an e-mail about what "Spirit In The Sky" meant to me. And it read thusly....
It was 1970. I was five. I was facing east, standing in my parents driveway, looking up in the clouds. Somewhere behind me "Spirit In The Sky" was playing on CKLW. I still remember it because it was the first time I realized I too would die someday. Thanks for the heads-up.
Hope it's not too soon.
How cool is that? That simple response meant so much to me. Sometimes I think that's probably why I bother with local music at all. It's so rewarding.