Thursday, February 16, 2012

Who Was Norman Greenbaum Anyway?

Driving along this evening I found myself listening to the song Spirit in the Sky on the Satellite Radio. It's a song I've always loved and one that I always crank the volume up for.

This is simply a great rock song and fun to listen to. But I've always wondered about it. It came out in 1969 and was a big hit for Norman Greenbaum, an artist who didn't quite disappear but who didn't become a huge star.

When you listen to this song, you think it is a great example of the sort of rock music that came from that era's "Jesus Freaks" movement (Christian Hippies, it was cool enough in its time). But "Norman Greenbaum" isn't really a traditional "Christian" name. So?

So, I finally looked him up and learned that Mr. Greenbaum was (and I think still is) a practicing Jew. According to a 2011 interview quoted in Wikipedia, he was trying to write a simple song with a spiritual theme:
The song itself was simple, when you’re writing a song you keep it simple of course. It wasn’t like a Christian song of praise it was just a simple song. I had to use Christianity because I had to use something. But more important it wasn’t the Jesus part, it was the spirit in the sky.
His explanation reminds me of what I once heard songwriter Eric Bazilian say about his song What if God Was One of Us, which was a hit for Joan Osborne in the 1990s. I remember an interview in which Bazilian explained that he had written the song in one sitting, partly to impress his then-girlfriend (now his wife0 and partly to demonstrate how songs start as simple musical ideas. As far as I know, he plucked the phrase "what if God was one of us?" from the air and built around it.

Whether these are songs of praise, in the religious sense, or simply fine song-writing, makes little difference to me as a listener. When Spirit in the Sky comes on my radio, the only thing that matters to me is how loud I can turn it up.

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