Yes, mantra and kirtan, are powerful forms of spiritual music, but ancient musical prayers aren’t the only source of auditory inspiration.
Here is a list of songs – some you may know well and some you may have never heard of – that speak to the quest for spiritual understanding and evolution. If your search for inner peace and contentment needs a theme song, below are some unconventional choices.
Death – Let The World Turn
Before punk knew it was punk, three brothers recorded an album at a studio in Detroit they had chosen by throwing a dart at a page of the phone book hung on the wall. Oldest brother David Hackney had a vision of changing our perception of dying into a positive and gave the band a controversial name: Death.
Even Clive Davis tried to facilitate a name change but David wouldn’t budge. Death came close to signing a major label deal in the mid seventies, but without a different moniker, the offers faded away. David, with brothers Dannis and Bobby, continued to write and perform music until his passing in 2000. Right before he died, David gave Bobby the master tapes saying: ‘Bob, you’ve got to keep all this stuff, the world’s going to come looking for it one day, and when the world comes looking for it, I’ll know that you’ll have it.” It was a prophetic moment; the music of Death was resurrected through a series of coincidences that are chronicalled in a fantastic documentary called ‘A Band Called Death’. If you ever think about how your legacy will live on without you – and if we ever really die – it’s a must watch.
If breakthroughs keep occurring
Let them in
You know that time is all we’re made of
The world will keep on spinning
Let it spin
You know that time will all be made up
The Beatles – Mother Nature’s Son
In the 60’s yoga, meditation, and eastern spirituality were on the way to becoming mainstream in North America. Curiosity drove many to travel to far off lands from which the ideas came. In 1969, the Beatles traveled to India to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. While they studied with their new teacher, they cleared their heads, fought amongst themselves, and wrote songs. The result was The White Album.
Inspired by a talk given by the Maharishi, Paul McCartney wrote ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ upon his return to the UK. In the search for peace, many head into the forest or jungle or desert to reconnect to nature – and themselves. ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ spoke to his love of nature and its importance in his spiritual life.
During the literary movement known as Romanticism, nature was looked upon as containing all mysteries and all truths. The Romantics’ belief system also included – in addition to the importance of a spiritual life – the rejection of organized religion, and the celebration of freedom and individual thinking. But it is this belief in the beauty and importance of time in nature that ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ shares with the Romantics, turning away from industrialization and coming back to a basic way of being, as the Beatles did in India.
Born a poor young country boy
Mother Nature’s son
All day long I’m sitting singing songs for everyone.
Sit beside a mountain stream
See her waters rise
Listen to the pretty sound of music as she flies.
Find me in my field of grass
Mother Nature’s son
Swaying daisies sing a lazy song beneath the sun.
Nature Boy – Nat King Cole
Speaking of nature, ‘Nature Boy’ was Nat King Cole’s first song on the Billboard charts. Released in 1948, it stayed on the charts for 15 weeks, where it peaked at the number 1 spot.
The song was written by musician and composer George McGrew, who took the name eden ahbez when he became a follower of the social movement Lebensreform. Those living by its philosophies adopted a back-to-nature lifestyle, emphasizing raw and organic food, nudism and sexual liberation, alternative medicine, and religious reform They abstained from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and vaccines. He spelled his name without capital letters because he believed that only the words ‘God’ and ‘Infinity’ deserved capitalization.
eden brought the song to Cole via his manager and, when it was finally recorded, was rumoured to be living under the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. In an interview in Life Magazine in 1948, after the massive success of ‘Nature Boy’, he recalled saying to a policeman: “I look crazy but I’m not. And the funny thing is that other people don’t look crazy but they are”. He continued to compose music for major artists until his death at the age of 86.
The message of ‘Nature Boy’ is simple: Love is the greatest lesson. And it may come from places – or people – we don’t expect. Be open.
There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Very far over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise, was he
And then one day
One magic day he passed my way
While we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
The greatest thing
You’ll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved
What If God Was One Of Us – Joan Osbourne
In the autobiographical book ‘Balancing Heaven and Earth’, Jungian analyst and author Robert A. Johnson (who studied with Carl Jung himself) describes his time in Ojai with the great Krishnamurti. By the time Johnson arrived in Ojai, Krishnamurti had grown impatient with the idea of having followers who wanted knowledge from his teachings, rather than thinking for themselves. He believed that gurus were of no use, but was having a difficult time convincing his students, including Johnson, to trust their inner knowledge because the wisdom was already inside of them.
“I saw people in the Ojai community praising Krishnamurti to the skies and adoring him like some god incarnate. But they were essentially projecting their own wisdom onto him. Krishnamurti was explicit in his teaching that the age of gurus was over and that one had to take responsibility for one’s own life into the self.”
The song, written by Eric Bazillian, is a rumination on how we see god, and what form it/he/she/them would make it more palatable for us. Of course, the question of whether god is one of us is irrelevant once we realize we are god.
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?
If God had a face what would it look like?
And would you want to see if, seeing meant
That you would have to believe in things like heaven
And in Jesus and the saints, and all the prophets?
Wine/Do You Know – Saul Williams
Speaking of realizing you are god and that she is me? Yeah, Saul said this and knows this, like he knows everything else. And he explains it better than anyone in Wine/Do You Know, off of his 2001 album Amethyst Rock Star, co-produced by Rick Rubin.
How much must you age before you’re ageless?
Align yourself with the divine
Allow your inner sage to burn your rage less
Cause I find you’re testaments of time
There is no space for time within your mind
If your looking for yourself, yourself you’ll find
Through the crystal of your spirit you’ll inherit the divine
You are God, you best believe
Don’t waste your time down on your knees
Sinnerman – Nina Simone
When Miss Simone was a child, her mother played a version of this traditional spiritual during her revivalist sermons to nudge people towards confessing their sins. The song suggests that there is nowhere to run when it comes to wrongdoing; that prayers made in desperation to save oneself are worthless.
‘Where were you? When you oughta been praying?’ asks Simone in the voice of ‘The Lord’. Decades after being recorded, Miss Simone’s ‘Sinnerman’ still nails to the wall those who would rather ask for forgiveness than permission. Our culture rewards those who would push boundaries in the name of achievement and accomplishment. But we can see – even when we turn on the daily news – that there is sometimes only so much a person can get away with before the hammer falls.
Now, the idea that a sinner will always be punished flies in the face of reality. And it’s a fallacy to believe that every single person will get their due in some misunderstood concept of karma. But ‘Sinnerman’, as a cautionary tale, speaks to the idea that by keeping ourselves on the up and up, we’ll never find ourselves lost, with no one and nothing to help when we hit bottom. As Yogi Bhajan says: “Keep up and you will be kept up”.
So I ran to the Lord
I said Lord, hide me
Please hide me
Please help me, all on that day
He said, hide?
Where were you?
When you oughta have been prayin’
I said Lord, Lord
Hear me prayin’, Lord, Lord
Hear me prayin’, Lord, Lord
Hear me prayin’, all on that day
Sinnerman, you oughta be prayin’
Outghta be prayin’, sinnerman
Oughta be prayin’, all on that day