Friday, June 03, 2016

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 3: A Song That Makes You Happy

For today's pick, I'm returning home to Soulsville, to draw from one of our deepest cultural and musical wells: Stax. The Stax "sound" is the sound that I most closely identify with Memphis, my home, and even the saddest of songs from the Stax vault has always possessed the power to cheer me up. Those horns, that driving rhythm section, that B3 organ, those stories of piety and drunkenness, of romance and infidelity, of justice and injustice, of hopes cautiously cultivated and cruelly shattered: these are the ingredients of Memphis soul music.  And the Stax studio-- an old converted movie theater with sloped floors and an idiosyncratic, practically unreproducible, almost mystical echoey effect-- was the tabernacle of the Memphis sound, a portal to transcendental sonic ratios that structure Nature herself, the earthly dwelling-place of something divine.


My pick for today is "Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha Na Boom Boom)" by The Staples Singers, their first hit on the Stax label in 1971.  Here it is:



This is a song fully-infused with the pentecostal spirit if there ever was one. By that I mean-- and this is not a criticism, but rather one of the things I love most about it-- "Heavy Makes You Happy" is messy sounding.  Like many of The Staples Singers tracks, it draws on a long and storied gospel tradition deeply embedded in, but not reducible to, the Memphis sound. Technically speaking, "Heavy Makes You Happy" isn't "messy" at all-- that rhythm section sits right in the pocket throughout, like human metronomes-- but everything else that is happening around the rhythm section, especially in the breaks, somehow manages to retain the feeling of in-the-moment inspiration and improvisation. It's as if the music began to play and, as we say in church, The Staples Singers were "infilled with the Holy Spirit."

I don't know the backstory of this song, so I don't know what "heavy" really means. I know from the lyrics that "heavy" isn't just a feeling, it's a philosophy. I know that "heavy" dries up your drink and that it makes somebody sing. I know that "heavy" both messes up your mind and makes you happy.

Great gosh a'mighty now. That's heavy. Sha na na na boom boom, yeah.

Whatever The Staples Singers meant by "heavy" remains a mystery, but I think I have what philosophers call an intuition of it, and my intuition confirms their evaluation. "Heavy" is a feeling, but not just a feeling. It's that something that overtakes you when you find yourself blindsided by the overwhelming meaning and significance of things. Not necessarily "big" things-- the meaning of existence and of death, what constitutes the good life, why terrible things happen to good people, or how we ought conduct ourselves in the presence of so many terrible people-- but quite often the infinitely mundane, almost boringly ordinary and otherwise common things, like the contagious nature of laughter and of sorrow, like (as Kant noted) the mysterious beauty of birdsong, or (as Camus noted) our almost incomprehensible motivation to keep on waking up every day and making another go of it.

Those are The Heavy.  They often feel heavy. But their weight, their meaning, and their significance is not always burdensome.  Rather, they can be more awesome, more wonder-inspiring, and more joyous than the unbearable lightness of being.

Click here to return to the "anchor page" for #30DaySongChallenge2016 with the full list of this year's picks

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