For Memorial Day, here’s a song about the missing and wondering we do when our loved ones pass away. “What Are They Doing in Heaven” was originally written as a hymn, by the Methodist preacher Charles Albert Tindley, in 1901. It has since become a mainstay of Gospel and Country artists, and has been recorded by some really tremendous artists: The Staples Singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Dixie Hummingbirds, Vince Gill, The Be Good Tanyas, and Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, to name a few.
The song’s melody and text are achingly simple, and they describe grief in a disarmingly innocent, beautiful way. The narrator is just “thinking of friends that I used to know,” who have “gone up to Heaven.” As many of us who have lost people have done, he or she asks, “what are they doing right now?” There’s no talk about sadness, no mourning, just a sense of almost childlike wonder. For those grieving, I hope this song brings you some measure of the comfort it’s brought me.
This is the first known recording of “What Are They Doing in Heaven,” and the singer, Washington Phillips, saw very money or fame from what would become a very influential recording. Like many of the Black artists of the early and middle 20th century, his recordings didn’t gain him special renown or financial stability – it wasn’t until white audiences began to “discover” the Blues in the late 1950s and 60’s that artists like Mississippi John Hurt, Lightning Hopkins and Big Bill Broonzy found the steady revenue streams, artistic recognition, and cultural respect that artists in other genres enjoyed. Most Blues artists who didn’t live long enough for the change in tides to lift their prospects, such as Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Robert Johnson, lived and died without knowing the influence their music would have on future generations. (Side note: there’s an interesting parallel here with the music of J.S. Bach. Today, Bach is revered as one of the true musical giants of history, but he was relatively unknown for the two centuries after his death, aside from a few famous pieces. It wasn’t until the 19th century, when Mendelssohn re-discovered and championed his works, that Bach began to gain cultural prominence.) All of this is to say, while this and the other few songs recorded by Phillips would turn out to be immensely influential on later artists, including some who would go on to found what we call Rock n Roll, the artist himself was a farm laborer, amateur preacher and musician who died in poverty. This is one of 18 songs he recorded in 1927-9, at sessions in Dallas; as far as is known, he recorded no others. His choice of instrument is an unusual one– in fact, no source seems to be really certain of what he’s playing. It was assumed for a long time that he was playing a “dulceola,” which might have been a corruption of dolceola, a very rare instrument similar to a zither. However, later interviews with the recording engineer revealed that Phillips required a 30-minute instrument assembly period before sessions could begin. Since the Dolceola requires no assembly, it seems more likely that Phillips made his own instruments from parts of broken or discarded ones and named them as he wished. He is buried outside of Teague, Texas, in an unmarked grave.
For those who are really moved by the song, there’s one other recording that I find especially compelling: this 2013 version by the husband and wife duo The Quiet American. Listen here, and enjoy.
It should be said that, while this is a beautiful song to help attend to loss, it is not expressly a song about fallen soldiers. There are many wonderful songs that specifically explore the experience of sending young men and women off to war – my friend and colleague, and fellow NYFOS collaborator John Brancy suggests “G-d Be With Our Boys Tonight,” by Wilfred Sanderson, and Charles Ives “Tom Sails Away” is another tremendous one (NYFOS’ own Steven Blier is playing the piano on that recording) – but I would argue that, at this moment in American life, there’s a lot of progress to be made in the way we honor our fallen soldiers, and especially in the way we honor their families, living comrades, and friends. The burden of war is borne not just by those who fight and die in it, or those who fight and live on, but also by those who lose sons, daughters, parents, siblings, and friends. For those who are missing, mourning, grieving, or just wondering, this song is for you.