Trying To Get To You

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Sacrilegeous Etta James

It goes without saying that gospel music is a fundamental building block of soul. Some of soul’s most iconic artists – Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and Al Green – sang gospel, were raised in it, or left secular music to go back to it. Simply put, it was part of the fiber of their being. And the importance of the church in African-American life has been historically paramount – especially during the years of Jim Crow and segregation.

Etta James was trained in gospel, and perhaps that’s why hearing her 1973 cover of Randy Newman’s “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)” was so shocking to me the first time I heard it – it was the first time I ever heard a gospel based soul artist be sarcastic about God.

Newman’s original version, on his epochal album, Sail Away, is sung with a weary and almost regretful detachment. Etta sings it with a knowing and burning anger. When she sings in God’s voice, she sings with a mocking relish toward her subjects that is almost sensual – caressing each syllable like she was curling up next to someone in bed after a long and immensely pleasurable night. It's a remarkable cover.

As the critic Robert Christgau wrote, “To hear this gospel-trained ex-junkie turn 'God's Song' into a jubilantly sarcastic anti-hymn is to know why pious blacks consider blues devil music.” At the very least, the song reinforces my belief that if there is a God, She’s a hottie with a very evil sense of humor. That’s my kind of sacrilege.

Download: Etta James - "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)"

Cain slew Abel Seth knew not why
For if the children of Israel were to multiply
Why must any of the children die?
So he asked the Lord
And the Lord said:

Man means nothing he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower
Or the humblest Yucca tree
He chases round this desert
'Cause he thinks that's where I'll be
That's why I love mankind

I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
From the squalor and the filth and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That's why I love mankind

The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak
They said, "Lord, a plague is on the world
Lord, no man is free
The temples that we built to you
Have tumbled into the sea
Lord, if you won't take care of us
Won't you please, please let us be?"
And the Lord said
And the Lord said

I burn down your cities-how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That's why I love mankind
You really need me
That's why I love mankind


Anonymous said...

First I just want to say that I've been reading your blog for a while and really enjoy it.

I had never heard that song, let alone Etta's version of it. She always sings with power, but that blew me away. Thanks for sharing it!

Anonymous said...

Wow, remarkable indeed. Thanks very much

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. Big up.

Anonymous said...

A phenomenally brave thing for her to do.
I like it better than my own version.Randy Newman