Monday, March 28, 2011

Loves Me Like a Rock

There is an album of Bob Dylan songs called Saved, and it is a series of his religious songs, done gospel style. Why there is no equivalent Paul Simon compilation is a mystery.

Certainly, he has enough material. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been performed by many gospel groups, and was so recently on TV's Glee. "Gone At Last," "A Church is Burning," "He Was My Brother," "Mother and Child Reunion," "Mrs. Robinson," "One Man's Ceiling," "Slip Slidin'," all are either gospel or could easily be arranged in that style...even his brand-new "Getting Ready for Christmas Day" is based on an African-American sermon.

But the one that is the most gospel-inflected is this one right here. On the original album, Simon is backed by The Dixie Hummingbirds. In other performances, he is backed by The Jesse Dixon Singers. Both groups have performed it at their own concerts, without Simon. There is also a great, semi-a capella version by members of the O'Jays that was part of the movie The Fighting Temptations; the clip is on YouTube. As is the clip of Stevie Wonder performing it at a Simon tribute.

It is fair to say that this song is one of the few written in the latter half of the 20th Century that has been accepted into the gospel repertoire... of those songs not written with that intent.

The song itself is very straight-forward. The verses take us through the speaker's life, and even imagine the unlikely event of his ascending to the US presidency. In each case, he is tempted by the Devil (or his stand-in, Congress). In each case, he is able to rebuff the Devil's temptations by knowing he is secure in his mother's love.

In the first verse, he is the picture of childhood innocence and reverence. He is "consecrated" and sings in Church.

Even in adulthood, he is happily married-- sex is not a sin but a "consummation." The line "I can snatch a little purity" might mean that even when he is, um, consummating with his wife, he remembers that this is a sacred act and not just physical pleasure. (If the word "snatch" had the same 'entendre' meaning in the '70s as it does today, this is a very sneaky, ribald pun by Simon.)

The last scene imagines the president at the "podium" before Congress, which generally happens only during the State of the Union Address. Even in this case, the speaker would still say "Who do you think you're fooling?" if he were tempted to do the wrong thing by this powerful group.

All because of his mother's love... which he says is an eternal and immutable as God's, since God is called "The Rock of Ages." (The original Hebrew word "olamim" translates variously as "eternities," "infinities," "worlds" or "universes"-- That God is "tzur olamim" means that God is the constant, steadfast "rock" on all the eternal, infinite planes of existence.)

This is a finite song, but one that has brought infinite joy to millions. And it's certainly the most exuberant Mother's Day card ever written.

The song went to #2 in the US, and stayed in the Top 40 for three and a half months. It charted it many other English-speaking countries: the UK, Canada, and Australia. And also in The Netherlands!

The Hummingbirds' own version made the R&B chart and snatched them a little... Grammy. Jazz favorite Ramsey Lewis covered it, too.

Next Song: Still Crazy After All These Years


  1. I think "momma" is supposed to shift to the speaker's "honey" in the 2nd verse as opposed to his literal mother. Think the song "Embraceable You." (Come to momma, come to momma, do...) "Poppa" can also be used as slang for the male lover in a relationship. One piece of evidence for this is that on the Muppets performance, Paul breaks into a spoken-word snippet of an Elvis song towards the end, "Honey you lied when you said you loved me..."

    Of course, if that's true, one has to ask what new meaning the line "She get down on her knees and hug me" is supposed to take on. Obviously it makes sense to just repeat the chorus, but it can't have escaped Simon that the meaning would be rather... different in the new context.

  2. I see what you mean, but I really just think it's about how the love of a mother is an anchor in a world of temptation. It's a gospel song, after all.