In the Morning I’ll Rise Above by Joe Bonomo
In 1928, the Victor Talking Machine label in Memphis, Tennessee, released a ten-inch shellac recording by Ishmon Bracey, a twenty-seven-year-old blues singer-guitarist from the Mississippi Delta. He’d been worried about the goings-on of his women, and his story arrives as many great narratives do, in expressionistic shards: Bracey’s got his “regular” woman, and his “sometime” woman, too, who has a kid but who comes running to Bracey at night. Both women steal from him.
He warns his “sometime” woman that his “regular” gal will cut her, or maybe shoot her, if she finds her, that she’s the meanest woman he’s ever seen. When he asked her politely for water one day, she gave him gasoline. “I got four, five puppies, got one shaggy hound, it takes all them dogs to run my women down,” Bracey laments. Oddly, in the midst of singing about his troubles, Bracey drops in a one-verse infomercial for Palmer’s Skin Success, a popular cream used for lightening skin complexion. (“If you want your women to look like the rest.”) It’s hard to know whether Bracey sings with scorn and disgust or out of sympathy and with a wink, warbling nasally behind sincerity and guardedness in a studio somewhere in Memphis. After a suggestion by the Mississippi talent broker H. C. Speir, Bracey conceived of his song as a blues for a Saturday. Was there something beyond Speirs’s commercial instincts that suggested christening this song after a cheerless Saturday? Was there something in the song’s subject, in the lead-up to cutting loose, that inspired Bracey? Maybe he’s hungover. Maybe his sometime woman causes trouble mostly on the weekends. Maybe Speirs intuited that the singer feels the tug of Sunday’s salvations, taking stock of the sorry and the profane with his guitar in hand.
Bracey wrote songs and performed for several more years, working alongside some of the great Delta musicians, and then drifted away from the blues. Following a decades-old calling, he became an ordained minister in 1951 and stopped singing secular music altogether, preferring to testify in the Mississippi Baptist churches of his upbringing. “Thank God I have changed,” he reportedly told friends. “Saturday Blues” redeemed.
Somewhere else in the Volunteer State, later that night, Red Foley and his Cumberland Valley Boys are carousing in the deep, dark, and wild woods. “Tennessee Saturday Night,” originally issued in 1948 on the Decca label as the b-side of a ten-inch shellac, is a good-time swing ballad extolling the fun to be had when the moon goes up and inhibitions come down. Bowing to mid-century convention, songwriter Billy Hughes throws muted light on the frolicking, carefully veiling nudity in the shadows of decorum. The lure of a weekend’s peak, the evening devoted to dancing and drinking and letting go, is translated by Hughes into code for boozing and fucking, time-honored lyrical camouflage. Couples are in the woods “lookin’ for romance,” but the moon’s “a little bashful and it seldom shines,” so what happens in the dark stays there. The tension in Hughes’s lyrics arrives in the shimmy of “civilized people . . . go[ing] native on a Saturday night,” tensions made all the more palpable by Foley and the Valley Boys’ sprightly arrangement and performance, the fiddles and pedal steel guitars yearning for the tops of the pine trees. At this nameless joint, hidden “where the tall corn grows,” men and women “get their kicks from an old fruit jar” (predating Carl Perkins’s line in “Blue Suede Shoes”) and dance in the dark, the helpful bartender having taken out the lights with his boot.
What a blast! But there’s danger in the air—someone on the dark floor’s got a gun, and everyone “does his best to act just right, ’cause it’s gonna be a funeral if you start a fight.” In Hughes’s terms, folks “struggle and they shuffle” until the sun comes up, delicate diction for a Saturday night of screwing and fighting. “Tennessee Saturday Night” hit number one on March 19, 1949, and remained on the Billboard country charts for nearly three months.
“Gonna push the clouds away, let the music have its way, let it steal my heart away, and you know I’m-a-goin’.” On Saturday nights, the journey is as jubilant as the destination. So affirms John Fogerty in “Almost Saturday Night,” from his self-titled album, released on Asylum in September of 1975. This narrative is fractured, too: there’s a train bringing the rodeo to town, or is it bringing the singer home? A radio is playing outside the window (a bedroom? a train compartment?), but it competes with the bells at the train crossing, or from an imagined Gibson in the hands of a Chuck Berry wannabe. The story is embodied in the singing, exultant melody, and arrangement that praise and make passionate contact with the expectations of a long-awaited weekend night. Six years after Fogerty released the song, Welshman Dave Edmunds issued his own rollicking version (on his album Twangin’), its joy elevating the song’s hopes and promises into a universal, trans-oceanic desire: bye bye tomorrow. The most powerful word in the song is “almost.” The taste of a Saturday night’s recklessness and exhilaration is more rousing at the brink of maybe, when anticipated, when prayed for.
I felt bound and placeless, the kind of in-between granted by an epic, Appalachian thunderstorm. I was heading west on Route 50, somewhere between Clarksburg and Parkersburg, West Virginia. Or was it Parkersburg and Athens, Ohio. Anyway, the wipers were going like mad. The constants: torrential, horizontal rain and the urging of Joe Boyd, an evangelical minister on WVGV gospel radio, 89.7 FM, broadcast out of tiny West Union, West Virginia. I’d tuned in after I’d grown bored with my iPod, on the search for some hills-and-holler color. The station promised “Old-fashioned, KJV, Gospel Preaching,” and Boyd’s voice cut through the lightning static as the road slipped perilously in and out of focus. I slowed down as Boyd’s sermon grew in intensity, crackling through the speakers, warning of impending doom, and lamenting in fiery tones the duped sinner who believes against the righteousness of Jesus and his Word and the self-erasing hosanna acceptance of that Word into your heart. Boyd extemporized from his audio pulpit, his voice booming through the car as the sky darkened and low lightning lit up the near space above my sorry head. The rain fell in sheets.
Every time you move like that, I gotta go to Sunday mass . . .
. . . You can’t go to church, child, and sing all day Sunday, and then go out and get drunk and greet the devil on a Monday.
Saturday night brings both pledges and lies of limitlessness, of a night never ending, a jukebox always playing, dance partners always spinning, car wheels revolving on roads that never end in daylight. But no matter how it’s beerily dismissed, or blithely ignored in the clutch-and-heave of Saturday night lovemaking, Sunday always comes.
Here’s a triptych, the soundtrack for the first panel provided by that old survivor Jerry Lee Lewis, feeling his way through Kris Kristofferson’s devastating “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” a performance from Mean Old Man, Lewis’s most recent album, released in 2010. There are no guest stars here, no manufactured, dual-studio stunt duets on this performance: all we’ve got is “The Killer” at the mic, with tasteful and unobtrusive country accompaniment. The giddy steel guitars that landed in the treetops in “Tennessee Saturday Night” now lay down reproachful, sobbing notes. There’s nary a piano in earshot, so Lewis can’t hide behind his bravura playing and distracting, stool-kicking showiness. The vocal’s weathered and lived-in, regretful and sighing, offered by a man in his mid-seventies who’s seen more than his share of repudiating Sunday mornings. Producer Jim Keltner was initially concerned that the song might not fit Lewis well. And then Lewis started singing. “When we got to the point where we were actually recording, I could feel it all throughout my bones,” Keltner told National Public Radio. “He just takes you right there, tells you exactly what this guy is thinking and where he is. It’s just amazing how he made that song his own.”
He wakes, his head pounding, and reaches for a restorative beer, joking to himself that he’ll have one for dessert, too. Putting on his “cleanest dirty shirt,” he heads outside to a world moving of its own accord, insensible to the agonies inside of him. A kid kicks and cusses at a can; someone’s frying chicken; a girl laughs as her dad pushes her on a swing. A communally sung hymn issues from a nearby Sunday school, and the man stops to listen before he trudges back home. The music and the voices and the praising melt with a far-off bell ringing, repeating “through the canyons like the disappearing dreams of yesterday.” Kristofferson wrote the song early in his career, and it became a big hit for Ray Stevens in 1969 and for Johnny Cash in 1970 (the year Kristofferson released his own version on his debut album). Down the decades it’s been recognized as among the bleakest and most brutal reckonings with the scolding brightness of a Sunday morning, a bottoming-out spiritual admission of loss “somewhere along the way.”
Jerry Lee Lewis, who’s spent his career and personal life with only occasional truces between his sacred and secular hostilities, sings “Sunday Morning Coming Down” as if the song’s complications and bitter candor are as essential to him as his pulse. They probably are. Lewis has fought decades-long addictions to alcohol and drugs, to fame and sex, all the while unable to banish the cautionary voices from the Pentecostal churches of his youth in Ferriday, Louisiana. In the early 1970s he released a gospel album (In Loving Memories), recorded at a church in Memphis, and, for a while, earnestly swore off honky-tonk and rock and roll performances; the redemption didn’t take, the footlights and late nights and booze and women too tempting, too much his to covet and own. In “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Lewis becomes an interpreter for anyone wishing he were stoned to blur the truths of a blank Sunday morning, who feels alone, who admits that “there’s nothin’ short of dyin’, half as lonesome as the sound / On the sleepin’ city sidewalks, Sunday mornin’ comin’ down.” Listening, one frankly wonders how much time Lewis has left, and whether a reckoning of mortality brought this uncompromising song to his lungs.
Center panel, later that day. A man sits alone in Room 16 in a lousy motel somewhere on the edge of the lousy part of town. He’s been holed up there for three weeks, resisting calling his ex on the pay phone only to hear her hang up on him again. He thinks maybe he’ll take a drive on this Sunday afternoon, out into the hills or across the parched farmlands, or down to the river for the breeze, but he’ll probably stay just where he is, because “this small room, it seems to understand.” If the song describes a paralyzed man, the performance is dynamic and muscular. The Blasters’ “Just Another Sunday” (written by Blaster songwriter Dave Alvin with John Doe of X) appears on the band’s 1985 Hard Line album. The arrangement mimics the ebb and flow of the singer’s frustrations: ruminative verses lamenting his sorry state heave into the chorus where the band stops noodling around and commits to a driving ensemble performance—all growling guitars and eighth-notes—fueled by bitterness and the desire to fight through to the other side of it.
As is the case with virtually all Blasters songs from this fertile period of their career, before sibling dissension and industry factors derailed the band, singer Phil Alvin—he of the peerless, ageless rock and roll voice—commits to his brother’s words with Biblical vehemence. On this ordinary Sunday, preachers “got their heavens to sell” while he’s stuck in a seedy motel room, its fluorescent reproach a poignant substitute for the church’s vertical splendors and communal worshipping, for natural light filtered through pretty stained glass. Last night seems far away now—maybe he drank at a bar or alone in his room watching television’s promises sold by corny, come-on commercials and music videos. The preachers can have their heaven and hell. Hindered and sulky, he’ll stay where he is.
Third panel, later that evening. A couple is arguing in their kitchen, battling their way to some kind of truce. This is the first day of the rest of their lives, he insists to her, and there’s no pretending that everything’s okay. The tableau is lousy: he’s a self-described bloodshot deadbeat, and her mascara’s bleeding tears down her face. They’re a young couple facing the fact that ecstatic Saturdays turn to hopeful Sundays turn to remorseful Mondays. As Green Day’s “Church On Sunday” races to its anthemic chorus, the couple lurches toward a compromise: “If I promise to go to church on Sunday,” he says, “will you go with me on Friday night?” It’s a simple question, and the melody makes it hopeful, ascending on the phrase “Friday night.” But the question is burdened by a vexed past—lies, likely, and mistrust, and disappointments, as shared desires and visions pull apart.
Characteristically hook-driven and urgently performed, the tune appears on Warning (2000), a relatively unheralded Green Day album resting between the band’s early successes (Dookie, Nimrod, “Good Riddance [Time Of Your Life]”) and their worldwide Billboard-and-arenas dominance (American Idiot and its Tony Award–nominated Broadway adaptation). The autobiographical “Church On Sunday” is arguably the first fully adult song that Billie Joe Armstrong and the band produced, an honest rock-and-roll struggle between the excesses of snotty punk nihilism and a mature life devoted to faith and community. The tension in the middle has this young couple in its grip: If I do what you want, will you do what I want? Can we balance this weekend so that it doesn’t topple into hangovers and recrimination? Can this work? He assures her that he’ll earn her respect, but the eternal present tense of the song’s resolution offers little closure. Next weekend is still a long way off.
Tensions between Saturday night’s excesses and Sunday morning’s sober inventories are sometimes too graphic to resolve. In 1950, Columbia Records issued a 78-rpm single by Ted Daffan’s Texans, “I’ve Got Five Dollars And It’s Saturday Night,” a lively ode to cash and liberty (and wine, women, and song). Armed with five dollars—the equivalent of maybe fifty bucks today—the singer’s ready to shrug off the hard week behind him and head to the bar. The Texans swing effortlessly behind Daffan’s crooning, the lilting horns and plucked guitar solo translating the singer’s relaxed pleasure. “It’s gonna go on ’til way past one,” Daffan gushes, fingering the change in his pockets, “Gonna have fun tonight, gonna get right tonight.” The promise? “Everything will be alright ’cause tonight is Saturday night.”
A year later, Daffan’s song would be reborn. Songwriter and guitarist Webb Pierce, a popular presence on the Louisiana Hayride radio show, had released a number of successful country singles in and around Louisiana, his home state. In the early 1950s, Pierce was between moving from the California-based 4 Star label to the larger Decca label, and he took this freeing opportunity to interpret Daffan’s hit song. For obscure reasons, Pierce transformed Daffan’s celebration of Saturday night into a spiritual testimonial. (According to country music historian Colin Escott, Pierce claimed at the time that the melody was in the public domain and so free for Pierce to do with it what he wished, but allegedly Pierce knew that the melody was Daffan’s, and thus was careful to give Daffan co-writing credit.) Released as a b-side on Pierce’s own Pacemaker label in 1951 and credited to Webb Pierce and His Southern Valley Boys, “I Got Religion On A Saturday Night” is essentially Daffan’s, with redemptive lyrics provided by Pierce. The song is performed in the same key but the arrangement is more sprightly, and Pierce sings as if his urgency to testify trumps Daffan’s to whoop it up. Here, too, the singer has been worn down by the workweek, but looks forward to going to church, “where the folks live right,” because “religion is my might, tonight.” Willfully ignoring the place where the lights are bright (“’cause music and dancing, that ain’t right”), Pierce dismisses dance halls and taverns as heathen joints.
What precisely happened on a mid-century Saturday night that got Pierce his religion is left unsaid, his conversion implied in the song’s swinging, upbeat credence in a life devoted to God and church, of the deliverance of five dollars to the collection plate, not to a tavern’s till. Virtually anti-songs of each other, Daffan’s and Pierce’s takes on Saturday night embody the conflict inherent in pleasure and repentance, an enduring, eternal dance scored by fiddle, steel guitar, and upright bass. Paradoxically, within a few years Pierce would write one of the eternal honky-tonk odes to barroom drinking, “There Stands the Glass” (covered by Jerry Lee Lewis, among many others). That song’s essaying of alcoholism and tavern romance is so vivid that it was banned upon its release by some Southern radio stations.
After twenty or so minutes, the landscape affected by Joe Boyd’s rising-and-ebbing preaching was nearly too much to bear. I considered pulling over and—not testifying, or saying Yes, so much as surrendering. I was scared, and I didn’t know if I was spooked by the novelty of a fiery evangelical sermon roaring from my car speakers or by that sermon’s meanings and its vivid intentions for me. The not-entirely-welcome surprise of a homily. A couple of times I considered turning off the radio but, rationalizing my desire to hear some local color before that color evaporated, I instead tuned in. I listened. Sun broke through at last, and as Route 50 ascended from the valley through which Boyd’s voice resounded, the rain lessened. I gradually left that mystery behind, though I was tattooed.
This was late morning, on a Sunday. I’d been driving for a couple of hours after spending two days and nights of hard drinking with my buddies in a cabin in the hills of Great Cacapon, West Virginia. All weekend, Bracey’s and Foley’s and Fogerty’s and The Killer’s and the Blasters’ and Green Day’s and Daffan’s and Webb’s songs, and dozens of others, boomed from the deck speakers down into the darkening hills and hardscrabble pitch pine and hickory trees leading to the quiet Cacapon River, as we drank cases of beer and talked and laughed and grilled meats and headbanged and air guitared until the early morning hours.
Now, on Route 50, emerging from the ominous dark of a summer thunderstorm and of my own misgivings about pleasures and excesses, I was exhausted and hungover, my defenses perilously low. I’d driven from mindless fun (there’d been drunken stumbles at the cabin, some low-rent fireworks, a busted window) into the valley of a proselytizing sermon. Were I a character in a short story, you could say that I was ripe for an epiphany, since I was helplessly enthralled and shamed by—and yet stubbornly resistant to—the blazing homilies issuing from WVGV, a sermon cried by a fervent, faceless voice that was as sure to disappear from signal range as quickly as it had crackled to life.
In San Francisco, scuzz rocker Ty Segall is working through his own dilemma, his amplifiers cranked. He’s hoping that some distortion will help clear the air. He’s singing “Thank God For Sinners,” a raw, fraught anthem from his 2012 album Twins. He’s out on the street, he’s looking for her—she gives him sweets, and he’s not done with her yet. In the tradition of offering gratitude for those who elevate us, who provide purpose and ballast, Segall is perversely thanking God for sin and sinners and for the love they give to him. “In the morning,” he assures himself, “I’ll rise above.” The song’s really loud, murky, and heavy, mid-paced, as if Segall—a one-man band—is playing in a kind of sonic mud. It’s hard to tell if it’s being played in the late, late hours of a Saturday night overindulgence, or in the early hours of Sunday’s come-down; the song’s pitched somewhere between hangover and healing. Sinning is elevating Segall, nourishing him, yet halfway through the song, he begs: “Won’t you please just stop, so I can make it through?” Something during the night provides him with just enough, and whatever it is, he’s grateful for the way it triumphs over him, for its dangerous appeal and temporary fuel.
Poor Bob Venable. He’s so tangled in sin and deliverance that he’s made of it a permanent knot. The Texan songwriter and guitarist wrote “When Sin Stops” in 1958 for his band the Nighthawks to record and issue as a regional single. I came across this relatively unknown song via the Nasty Rockabilly series—a terrific German-label multi-volume compilation of obscure, one-off 1950s and ’60s singles—and it has an interesting history. Norman Petty, Buddy Holly’s producer, produced the Nighthawks’ recording in a New Mexico studio; Holly’s backup singers contributed to the Nighthawks’ song and alerted Holly that “When Sin Stops” might be in his wheelhouse. After the Nighthawks released their single on the Hamilton label, Holly recorded the song for an unknown Lubbock, Texas, radio DJ and performer named Waylon Jennings. It was Jennings’s first single (released on the Brunswick label in 1959) and an initial link in the chain of tragic associations between him and Holly.
Holly’s influence is palpable on the Nighthawks’ version, chiefly in guitarist Eddie Reeves’s hiccupping lead vocal and in the song’s ingenuous, sock-hop rockabilly groove. Of greater interest is the song’s wrestling with sin and love, made painfully blatant in the singer’s efforts to compartmentalize his girl’s obvious lascivious charms away from whatever respectful and proper love they might (they must?) share. Gamely, Reeves sings one of the more brutal lines in American rock and roll, “When sin stops, love begins.” As if the equation were ever that simple. She walks through the door and his temperature soars; she fibs and rolls her eyes, but he begs her to not stop (while the backup singers implore her to go on). He knows it’s not right, that the sinning has to stop before he can love her, but her lips are all he sees, and that’s a problem that even the most innocuous, feather-weight melody can’t forgive, or erase. I like to think that, like Segall in “Thank God For Sinners,” the Nighthawks perform “When Sin Stops” at a kind of threshold, one night’s romp leaving traces of regret that the next day’s reckoning dresses up as pieties, or as hard-won truths, or as salvation, depending. When sin and love meet, we’re at a blurred edge, between Saturday’s nodding off and Sunday’s stirring.
Joe Bonomo’s most recent books are This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began and Conversations with Greil Marcus. He Teaches at Northern Illinois University and appears online at No Such Thing As Was.