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  • Daniel Messé

Happy Birthday!

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

December 25, 2019

Tis the season. Here is a run-down of some of my favorite songs about a certain carpenter from Bethlehem. These songs range from the sacred to the profane. Or rather I should say that they are all personally sacred while generally profane, as all these great songwriters seem to belong to a sect of one (or two) where Jesus is concerned. Still, small sects can sometimes contain the largest faiths, and these songs continue to inspire me, though my own faith is in the song rather than the subject:  1) Jesus by Page France: Songwriter Michael Nau’s resurrected Jesus isn’t for the faint of heart (“And Jesus will come through the ground so dirty / With worms in his hair and a hand so sturdy…”). Still, his savior seems to be in line with his own personal mythology. His beautiful songs tend to mine the earth – literally – where everything (including himself) has either been buried, or dug up – or both, and even once above the ground, his images have a way of turning into dust and blowing away.  2) Travelin’ On For Jesus by Kate and Anna McGarrigle: Perhaps the most peculiar psalm ever penned, this song contains an odd assortment of commandments handed down by a very wary Jesus, who has just about had it up to here with our human foibles; what with all our debts going unpaid, and our grudges going unforgotten. About the only advice he can muster up for us: “Don't mind what the people says / Ah but don't take everybody to be your friend.” Ultimately, it’s the strange grammar and pronunciations of this suspicious hymn (along with the joyous melody and harmonies of course) that hold me in a sort of rapture – especially in the glorious coda, where we’re reminded as to the man’s bona fides: “He is the Maker of the heavens / Who be born now / From the Virgin Mary / One time he been crucified…” Special props go out to the sisters who – for reason unknown to me – sing “virgin” as “voigin”.  3) Chocolate Jesus by Tom Waits: In the case of this monumental songwriter, you can’t ever be sure if he’s “in character” or not, so I can’t say for certain if this nearly perfect song represents his true thoughts on the nature of salvation; either way, this is a cosmology I can get behind. And though many might label this song in particular as profane, he is certainly not alone in his faith – definitely not a sect of one, in a world where so many of us need to actually taste our miracles sweetly melting away on our tongues: “I fall down on my knees every Sunday / At Zerelda Lee's candy store / Well it's got to be a chocolate Jesus / Make me feel good inside / Got to be a chocolate Jesus / Keep me satisfied…” His list of false idols/candy bars is one of the more beautiful pieces of songwriting I’ve ever witnessed.  4) Jesus Walks by Kanye West: Yes, it's not always easy being a fan, but as far as I’m concerned this masterpiece of faith and songwriting has helped more of us sinners than any other single prayer uttered in any house of worship of late; Let’s just say Kanye is still in the black as far as salvation goes. What’s more, it’s not like he didn’t warn us about himself; here’s a man who knows he’s not even one step ahead of the devil, and his prayer – un-ironic and urgent – is spoken not just for himself, but for all of us in similar straits. The idea that salvation is only for the righteous must be one of the more useless creeds I can imagine… 

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