If there is one subject that gets the attention in both the Biblical Songbook and the American Songbook it is the allure of the female for the male. Stemming from the Garden of Eden and the dysfunctional relationship between Adam and Eve, men and women have been attracted to each other in a way that both pleases and displeases God. The poets, sacred and secular, have addressed this attraction for centuries.
In the Biblical Songbook we have Proverbs 2 (16), quote “[Wisdom] will save you from the adulteress, from the wayward wife with her seductive words, who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God.” end of quote This early paragraph in Proverbs introduces a subject which will occupy many subsequent verses in the collection: a warning against immoral women and the male weakness to sexual sin.
Here is a woman who, because of circumstances known only to her, operates outside of the bound of moral, legal and customary restraints. She uses flattering speech, physical attraction and sensual attention to entice the willing man who is described in Psalm 36(2) as one who “flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin.” The woman, and all who are associated with her, including the man, will careen towards a ruined and miserable life.
In 1755 Charles Wesley celebrated the 29th birthday of his faithful wife, Sally, by writing a poem entitled “Come Away to the Skies,” first entitled “On the 29th Birthday of a Friend.” The poem was published in 1767 in Wesley’s Hymns for the Family. With shades of Song of Solomon the hymn states quote “Come away to the skies, my beloved, arise, and rejoice in the day thou wast born.” and “So united in heart let us never more part, till we meet at the feast of the Lamb.” end of quote Wesley is rejoicing in the blessing of a godly wife to spend his earthly journey with.
(“Come Away to the Skies” performed by Steve White and the Church of the Redeemer)
For the American Songbook, in l933 Duke Ellington composed his Tin Pan Alley eternal “Sophisticated Lady,” which sings of a woman who nonchalantly cavorts between men, all the while longing for one stable, loyal relationship. The achingly sad lyrics speak of a decadent woman who has been treated badly by men and so turns to playing the field by “smoking, drinking, never thinking about tomorrow, dancing, dining with some man in a restaurant. Is that all you really want? No, sophisticated lady. I know you miss the love you lost long ago, and when nobody is nigh, you cry.”
Melodic and intensely harmonic, this beautiful Ellington tune almost outstrips the lyrics by Mitchell Parish. This is the great Ellington’s most popular composition, and here is the Duke with Harry Carney fronting on baritone saxophone. Now, if Carney’s playing doesn’t move you, you are asleep or worse. Later, check out Carney’s astonishing ending note, held for 75 seconds in this 1965 concert:
(“Sophisticated Lady” performed by Duke Ellington and Harry Carney)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brqxEdwsTQs
Proverbs 31’s description of the noble woman counters Proverbs 2 description of the wanton woman by ending with the highest possible praise for a godly wife and mother: “Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also.” The Wesley sacred hymn celebrates this life-long Proverbs 31 companionship, while the Ellington’s Tin Pan Alley hymn presents a Proverbs 2 woman longing for such companionship.
When God gives one a faithful spouse – husband or wife – it is a blessing beyond measure and worth rejoicing in song.
This is Bob Case for “Singing in the Shower: The American Songbook and the Church.