Could there be a better example of what this blog is all about than “Oh Happy Day” as performed by Spirtualized?
"“Oh Happy Day” has a long and convoluted history stretching back to the mid-18th century. Penned by United Methodist pastor and poet Philip Doddridge, the hymn that would eventually become “Oh Happy Day” was originally entitled “Rejoicing in Our Covenant Engagement to God,” with lyrics based on 2 Chronicles 15:15 and a melody lifted from an earlier 1704 hymn composed by J. A. Freylinghausen. In 1854, a new refrain was added to the hymn by London organist Edward F. Rimbault with the title “Happy Land! Happy Land!” Finally, in 1969, the Edwin Hawkins Singers gave the song a soul-gospel makeover and "Oh Happy Day" as we know it hit the airwaves, becoming a top-five Billboard pop hit in the process.
Obviously, the song “Oh Happy Day” itself is religious. But Jason Pierce, lead singer and songwriter of Spirtualized, isn’t.
“I get asked quite often about why I have references to the lord in my music.” Pierce said in an interview with Pitchfork. “I've never been and will never be religious, but as soon as you have a conversation about Jesus, you know what you're talking to him about: how it is to be fallible and question yourself and your morals. Like on my new album, with the line, ‘help me, Jesus’-- you know I'm not asking for help fixing the ******* car. You know there's a certain place you'll get to before you'll ask for that kind of help. It's like an immediate shorthand to the nature of the song.”
So, when Pierce is singing “Oh Happy Day,” what he’s going on about is his deliverance from a 22 year drug habit that almost killed him. He’s using the religious experience expressed in the song as a cultural touchstone to communicate the depths of his own joy and relief at still being alive. He doesn’t intend for it to be taken as a literal religious experience.
But, of course, it is. Who else but God is the addict calling out to when they hit rock bottom?
“Save me, God, for the waters have reached my neck. I have sunk into the mire of the deep, where there is no foothold. I have gone down to the watery depths; the flood overwhelms me. I am weary with crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, from looking for my God.” (Psalms 69: 2-4, NABRE)
And who else are they thanking when that deliverance comes? The head may come up with a lot of different answers, but the heart knows the truth.