Jumping off my last post, as well as one I wrote earlier this year, I’m a giant music fan. Eclectic tastes doesn’t do it justice; I listen to everything from calypso to country, from Motown to metal, from rock to rap, and from Gypsy to gospel. It’s that last one that might surprise readers who aren’t familiar with me. One might think atheists usually ignore god’s music. But I love it. It’s not the lyrics; they could be singing about literally anything, and I would love it just the same. It’s the soul, the energy, and the beat. I’ve said this many times before, but you don’t need god to enjoy god’s music.
This post is a list of my favorite songs directly (or even loosely) related to religious beliefs. These songs span many genres, not merely gospel. So with that in mind, here’s my top 10 favorite songs written by god (if you didn’t read my last post, a Christian man told me god was the author religious songs). In reverse order:
10. “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton
Genre: Soft rock
This one’s rather difficult to listen to, considering the song was written about the tragic death of Clapton’s son, but the music itself is genius (we expect nothing less from Clapton). In the song Clapton laments that he cannot join his son in heaven just yet, even though he thinks his son misses him in heaven. He looks forward to an afterlife where “they’ll be no more tears in heaven.”
9. “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” as performed by Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash was almost known as much for being a deeply devout Christian as he was for being one of the most badass human beings to ever live. It’s difficult to pick a Cash song for this list because so many of his songs were about his faith, especially songs written during the last years of his life. “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” is a traditional folk song, performed by countless musicians, often by gospel bands.
8. “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum
Genre: Psychedelic rock with gospel influences
Greenbaum, a Jewish man, wrote this song not as a song of worship, but as a song in the style of gospel that tells an American Western story. Although the song has long been regarded as a religious song, Greenbaum rejects this: “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. Funny enough… I wanted to die with my boots on.”
7. “American Pie” by Don McLean
Genre: Folk rock
Seriously, who doesn’t love “American Pie”? Although it’s not overtly religious, McLean uses the trope of Christianity to tell the story about “The day the music died.” When singing along in my car, I have no problem singing the lines “Did you write the book of love/And do you have faith in God above/If the Bible tells you so?” and “And the three men I admire most/The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost.”
6. “All Along the Watchtower” as performed by Jimi Hendrix
Genre: Psychedelic rock
Originally written by the deeply religious Bob Dylan, Hendrix really gave the song its soul. “All Along the Watchtower” quotes Isaiah 21:5-9 with “Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower…”
5. “Cross Road Blues” by Robert Johnson
Genre: Delta blues
“Cross Road Blues” has, for years, reinforced the myth that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil by the cross roads in exchange for his musical talents. In reality, however, “Cross Road” is a song about a man asking god for help. While the cross roads may allude to the loss of a “sweet woman” or something more sinister (the threat of lynchings in the 1930s deep south, says Litwack, pp. 410–411), all we know for certain is Johnson’s trust in the “Lord above.”
4. “God’s Away on Business” by Tom Waits
Genre: Jazz cabaret
To be honest, I’ve no idea what this song is about. The lyrics are schizophrenic. I don’t know what to make of them. A friend suggested Waits might be an atheist, but if he is this song is hardly evidence. Then again, Waits doesn’t believe in the devil. Per Waits: “Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, it’s just god when he’s drunk.”
3. “Far Away Eyes” by The Rolling Stones
While not explicitly religious, “Far Away Eyes” is a song about the radio stations in Bakersfield, playing mostly LA gospel shows. That’s the background. Jesus isn’t a central figure in the lyrics, but Mick Jagger makes it a point to thank him for the girl he shagged and left in Bakersfield.
2. “Devil Got My Woman” by Skip James
At first listen the lyrics appear to be a classic blues formula: sing about heartbreak. But at closer inspection we find that James realizes how strong a hold Satan has over his heart, and in the end, after putting his faith in god, god forces the devil to let go his hold over James. Skip James’ entire song library is made up of mostly highly spiritual works, in stark contrast from the majority of blues music.
1. “Something Got A Hold Of Me” by People’s Temple Choir
From the “He’s Able” album, hands down “Something Got A Hold of Me” is my favorite song ever written
by about god. Despite the complete lunacy of the band’s leader, the song is tragically fun. Just try to not tap along to the cadence! The song’s chorus lines stick in your head for days on end. It’s an incredible song! I even tracked down an original vinyl LP, still sealed, because I love this record so much.
In fact, I like this record so much some friends tease me that if I had a religion, it would be Jonesian Suicidal Christianity.