J.J. Goldberg

A Holiday Concert: Songs of Sin, Atonement and Redemption

By J.J. Goldberg

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A new year approacheth, and it’s time for another holiday video concert. Actually, I’m doing two of them. This first one is a collection of songs that put me in the high holy day mood. The second one, coming next week, will include some holy-mackerel renditions of the Yom Kippur liturgy, including what I think might be the greatest Kol Nidre ever put on film and an Israeli rock ‘n roll version of a climactic moment in the closing Ne’ilah service.

But that’s next week. What I’ve put together right here includes songs on themes of sin, atonement, forgiveness and redemption, sort of in that order. It includes Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, Connie Francis, an Irving Berlin number, a few gospel numbers, Nina Simone, Kinky Friedman and a unjustly neglected masterpiece from Bob Dylan ‘s early days. Also Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme singing Bashanah Haba’ah. And more…

Up first is a gospel number, “(Please Forgive Me, Lord) For the Wrong I’ve Done,” sung by the late, legendary Willie Banks and his Messengers.

“For the Wrong I’ve Done,” Willie Banks and the Messengers.

“Mama Tried,” country great Merle Haggard’s huge, breakthrough No. 1 hit in 1968, is a searing, more or less autobiographical statement about Haggard’s childhood poverty, the loss of his father and his (then recently ended) life of crime. Unlike the song, though, in real life Haggard was never sentenced to life, much less without parole. He did several stints in juvie and San Quentin for burglary, assault and repeatedly escaping prison, before hitting it big in music and giving up burglary. He received a full pardon from Governor Ronald Reagan in 1972, shortly after releasing “Okie From Muskogee.” He once told Johnny Cash that he had been with him at his famous 1958 concert in San Quentin Prison, and when Cash said he didn’t remember Haggard being on stage with him, Merle said, “No, in the audience.”

“Mama Tried,” Merle Haggard.”

Now we move on from sin to repentance and forgiveness. We begin with Connie Francis’s deep meditation on the meaning of contrition, “Who’s Sorry Now?” Kidding. Actually it’s a sardonic observation about the uselessness of apology in fixing a wrong that’s been done. It was written in 1923 by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Francis recorded it in 1958. It instantly became a monster hit and catapulted her to fame.

“Who’s Sorry Now?” Connie Francis.

Next is Nina Simone’s 1965 version of “Oh, Sinner Man (Where You Gonna Run To?).” It’s notable for its hypnotic beat and this recently created, powerful documentary montage that goes with it.

To be honest, though, I rather prefer Bob Marley’s version as an inspirational piece. And there are those who prefer the familiar, traditional Weavers version, which actually gives the whole original story, missing from Simone and partially elided in Marley, of the sinner’s desperation to find redemption without having to experience full repentance.

“Sinnerman,” Nina Simone.

Here’s a 1915 novelty song by a very young Irving Berlin that imagines the same Sinnerman faking atonement, but getting away with it. This 2007 version is sung by Janet Klein, who is worth checking out if you like old-time music and Jewish humor and you’re not familiar with her already.

“Cohen Owes Me Ninety-seven Dollars,” Janet Klein.

Honest repentance: “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” was first recorded in 1927 by Blind Willie Johnson. I think his original version is a blues masterpiece and I would have simply put it up here, but I suspect some people will be turned off because of the scratchy, low-fidelity sound. So if you don’t want to go there, here’s Led Zeppelin’s fairly close adaptation, live in concert in Knebworth, England in 1979.

“Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” Led Zeppelin.

O.K. Imagine it’s Ne’ilah time, the closing service of the day. Following are several meditations on the opening and closing of the Gates of Heaven. First, Kinky Friedman’s “We Reserve the Right To Refuse Service to You,” recorded in 1973 with his band Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. This song pokes fun at, among other things, synagogue tickets and the Gates of Heaven themselves, so I suppose we can safely take it as a comment about Yom Kippur.

“We Reserve the Right To Refuse Service to You,” Kinky Friedman.

Bill Gaither has been singing and writing gospel music since the 1950s. This old hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” is about accepting the forgiveness and redemption bein adam la-Makom that Ne’ilah is about. If this number doesn’t transport you to a different spiritual plane, have a physician take a look at your soul. (You can look in the Yellow Pages under Soul Practitioner, I guess.)

“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” Bill Gaither and the Gaither Vocal Band.

Another hymn from the, um, other team (though Aaron Copland works the theme into his “Old American Songs, which sort of gives us a partial claim, I guess): “Shall We Gather at the River,” written in 1864 by American poet Robert Lowry. One of my favorites — it always reminds me of Ne’ilah, of standing in the midst of the crowd, together and alone, all robed in white, feeling slightly hazy and buzzed with anticipation (of what, I’m not always sure, speaking personally, but some things you just have let wash over you, which brings us back to the river). This is country great Randy Travis.

“Shall We Gather at the River,” Randy Travis.

The next number, “Beshanah Haba’ah” (“Next Year”) is an if-only wish song, what you might call a messianic vision, about how life would be different once there’s peace in the Middle East. This version is performed by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, and it makes an odd pairing to my mind, since the song (words by Ehud Manor, music by Nurit Hirsh) is all about the future and Steve and Eydie are pretty much about the past. Anyhow, I couldn’t let it go.

“Bashanah Haba’ah,” Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme.

Finally, my favorite vision of redemption, Bob Dylan’s unjustly neglected “When the Ship Comes In.” This performance was filmed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, at the civil rights march where Martin Luther King made his “I have a dream” speech. You can tell Dylan is nervous — he mixes up words in several places. Joan Baez steps in to sing backup, and it looks here like an afterthought, as though she knew he was nervous.

“When the Ship Comes In,” Bob Dylan with Joan Baez.


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