Sunday, February 19, 2012

...In His Hands: The Edwin Hawkins Singers: "Oh Happy Day"

Some songs can take a long time to get into the charts; this song took longer than most, and for a good reason: when it was written, the only way to hear it was to go to church.

Think back, if you will, to a time before the Internet; before compact discs, home computers, those big corporate computers programmed with punch cards; before the advent of television, vinyl, acetates, record players, radios, motion pictures, player pianos...back to a time when there were no planes, cars or trains.

We are in the London of the early 18th century, where Phillip Doddridge was born, the last of twenty children, into a religious household. He grew up to be a nonconformist Christian, a pastor of a congregation, and a hymn writer. The purpose of the hymns he wrote was simple - to summarize the sermon, to be a hummable and singable memento of whatever message he was trying to get across. He was also a teacher (of religion and philosophy) and a writer, his main influential work being The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, a book that converted William Wilberforce (the leading antislavery campaigner) to Christianity. For his hymn "O Happy Day, That Fixed My Choice" Doddridge wrote the words, and set it to music written earlier by J. A Freylinghausen. Doddridge died of tuberculosis in Lisbon in 1751, admired mostly for his religious writing.

There the hymn sat, words and music printed for congregations, until another man came along: one Edward Rimbault, also from London. He was born in Soho in 1816, son of the organist at St. Giles-in-the-Fields, and thus became a musical prodigy, from what I can figure out. At 22 he was lecturing on the history of music already, founded the Music Antiquarian Society not long afterwards with two fellow music historians, he later edited works by Handel including the Messiah and was offered, but turned down, a job at Harvard, already having gotten honorary degrees for his music scholarship elsewhere in Europe.

By the time he was in this thirties however, he settled down to work in various London churches as an organist, and applied himself to rewriting hymns. One he came across that he changed was Doddridge's hymn, for which he wrote a new melody in 3/4 time, and added a chorus. The hymn was sung, as it always had been, at baptisms and confirmations, in the UK and in the USA, the new 1854 version presumably making its way across the Atlantic before the Civil War. Rimbault died in 1876, the American centennial, a man known mostly to musical antiquarians and his London parishioners, and to anyone who looked to see who wrote the new music for various hymns.

There the song rested for some time, sung in waltz time, until in 1967 one Edward Hawkins, choir master, musician and composer from Oakland, changed the hymn from 3/4 to 4/4 time and discarded everything but Rimbault's chorus, taking the song to its essence, and recorded it with his singers at the Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley, as part of the album Let Us Go Into The House of the Lord. It was recorded in church on a modest budget and they sold the album wherever they appeared, right out of the trunk, just as so many gospel choirs did all over the US. A DJ in San Francisco somehow got a copy and began to play "Oh Happy Day" and it caught on, first a hit in the Bay Area and then spreading outwards, until we arrive here, in June 1969, over 200 years since it was first written, and over 100 since it was re-written, with man about to walk on the Moon, amidst the usual end-of-decade confusion and chaos, most if not all would have been unthinkable to Doddridge and Rimbault.

The influence of this song cannot be overstated; the simplicity of the song - it has, as far as I can tell, two chords - is a relief from the showbizzy songs of late, songs where grown women act like girls and so on. The main vocal here is by Dorothy Combs Morrison, is, amongst many things, the sound of a woman singing, a woman who does not have to be cute or pretty; she is the anchor of the song, the one who has experienced what the hymn is about, that supreme happiness that almost cannot be put into words. She sounds as if she has been through something, something momentous, and oddly enough she is not singing in a way (like Aretha) where you could hear her down the block. That is left to the rest, who are as loud and joyous and unified as a gospel choir should be, lifting the listeners slowly but surely, chord by chord. While Morrison experiences the mercy of being cleansed, the choir rejoices in being taught to sing and pray; it is a hymn wherein those who had been silent before spread the news now, and the happiness they sing of is not momentary or trivial but sits right at the heart and soul of their beings, and is thus transferred to ours (if our hearts and souls are open to it).

To say the least this song's power and simplicity made it an instant classic (I'm sure Doddridge and Rimbault would have approved of that) and no doubt benefited from Aretha Franklin's astonishing leap into the charts, bringing her own gospel style to the charts in an uncompromising and downright refreshing way. I can imagine people hearing this on the radio in complete confusion, admiration and then urgency - in that they had to go find it in a record store, now. It inspired George Harrison ("My Sweet Lord"), Todd Rundgren (his "I Saw The Light" is in the same key, even) and others to turn from psychedelic wig-outs to something simpler and, in some cases, more religious. The musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell had yet to happen, but the whole "Jesus freak" hippie scene was already well underway, as the search for meaning, love and purpose that so many counterculture kids were undergoing led them to Jesus (in part, I tend to think, as he too had long hair and a beard). So this 1967 recording was an anthem of sorts for them, a confirmation of all things good and righteous, as well as being an inspiration to other musicians, in the UK (Primal Scream's "Moving On Up" being the most obvious) and the US.

Its message of acceptance and redemption must have appealed to everyone, at the end of a messy decade, that to sing and pray and participate in celebrating life instead of despairing of it was a way out or through. The happiness here is solid, though, and requires a similar solidity in the listener, as the choir grows louder and louder, the joy absolute, almost overwhelming. This is the beginning of contemporary gospel, gospel that crosses over to R&B and has more or less stayed there ever since, from Mary Mary's light funky soul (this is one of my favorite songs from last year) to Kirk Franklin's R&B swagger (this is another) to Marvin L. Sapp's incredible testifying (this amazing song crushes all competition for most uplifting song of 2010). All of these songs were Billboard hits, not just in the gospel but also R&B charts, and the pop charts as well, and that is a legacy from Hawkins' work, amongst others.

And so we have travelled a long way through time and space, from the misery of Fleetwood Mac to the overwhelming love here. What could come next? The return of the man who embodies these two extremes, in one song...


plague said...

Magnificent record that I only recently heard for the first time. Almost can't believe it made it into the charts, let alone all the way to #2. Wonderful write-up Lena! I'll have to read through your piece a few more times to see whether I have anything substantive to add in comments, but I thought I should leave a preliminary 'Bravo!' right now. It's insane that such a thoughful piece of writing about such a wonderful record should have no comments!

Lena said...

Thanks so much, very happy you enjoy this posting - I look forward to your comments!

plague said...

OK, thanks for all the history on this track, and also for the links to current gospel. Hearing this track for the first time only a few days ago (on a wonderful album compiled by Nick Cave of his influences/faves) convinced me that I'd stumbled across one of those hidden chords that retrospectively makes sense of a lot of the music I've been hearing my whole life. I hear its echoey piano intro in Imagine but also in the Good Times sitcom's opening and closing credits themes that I love so much. I hear its massed voices in the ending of Hair's Let The Sunshine In. And so on. It's everywhere.

I'm sure you're right that this record must have hit the spot for a lot of people in 1969 in part as a welcome respite from genuinely frightening social turmoil and events (although the Sharon Tate/Manson murders were just around the corner, and this was also the peak freak out time about the Zodiac killer in CA, so importantly the real world shocks kept coming and coming...). On the Cave edited compilation I have the track after Oh Happy Day is Gainsbourg and Birkin's Je T'aime from later in 1969. Another surprise massive hit that speak brilliantly and comfortingly to us all even now. I think these tracks are quite alike in conjuring surprising, ecstatic musical spaces beyond politics. (Elvis magnificent 'In the Ghetto' which you foreshadow at the end works a little differently I feel - Elvis is taking political sides there and the music's correspondingly a little more conventional.) All of this must have been very welcome at the time.

One correction: You describe 'Oh Happy Day' as being just two chords. But that's wrong, while there's a lot of leaning on two chords throughout, a fresh seventh chord first slips in on the D of the second background vox OHD, and subtle modulation progresses from there (so it's not the same two chords being leaned on throughout). Things explode if you tab it out carefully: this tabbing of it counts 31 separate chords!

I learned to play Imagine recently and was surprised to discover that it packs 10 chords in its 3 minutes (twice as many as, say, Coldplay's The Scientist does in 4m 30s). It sounds so simple, but really isn't!

It occurs to me that not only are these stately gospel-ish songs from the 1969-1971 period more complicated than they look/sound, they're also just more musically fluent and accomplished than the post-U2, stately rock songs that are their offspring at least on one level.