It might’ve been released 50 years ago, but Norman Greenbaum has admits that his classic track Spirit in the Sky took just 15 minutes to write.
He told Rolling Stone that the idea originally came from a greeting card.
“[It featured several] American Indians sitting in front of a tipi, with the fire going and being spiritual towards what they had deemed God, which was a spirit in the sky. I think it was the Hopi,” he recalled.
“I went, ‘That’s kind of interesting.’ These two had nothing to do with each other. I just put it in the back of my head.”
Things didn’t really start to connect until Greenbaum was watching a TV show with country star Porter Wagoner.
“He did a song about a miner that was up in the hills, digging for gold. He hadn’t been to church [or] prayed for, like, years and years. And for some reason, he decided it was time to go back. So he took his viola, came all the way back into town, and when he got to the church, there was a note on the door that said, ‘The pastor’s on vacation’.”
These two things, plus his own memories of cowboy movies where the baddies “always wanted to be buried with their shoes on”, started to resonate and connect with Greenbaum.
“I said to myself, ‘Well, I’ve never written a religious song. I’ve written some oddball songs, but some serious song, I can do that.’ I just sat down, and it all came together.”
The lyrics took just 15 minutes.
Speaking of lyrics, the line Never been a sinner / I never sinned rattled Christians.
“When I said I can do this, that didn’t mean I could do it perfectly. It wasn’t my religion; I just did it. I didn’t think twice about it,” Greenbaum, who was brought up Jewish, said.
“I took some of the seriousness out of it, but I didn’t do it as a joke or against anyone. I guess people can take offence to almost anything.
“There was the song about the plastic Jesus on your dashboard. They liked that one.”
He admits that the song “turned out OK”, particularly as nowadays many churches include it in their services.
“To be blunt, I don’t think it’s on the shit list,” he said.
Greenbaum said that people were attached to the song because you can take it the way you want.
“Some people take the Jesus part more than the ‘spirit in the sky’ part,” he said before admitting he took ‘spirit in the sky’ part as the more meaningful one.
“We know we’re going to die — unless we just die on the spot — and you make plans. They tell the family, ‘Play this at my funeral.’ You would think that’s kind of a downer, but it actually has the opposite effect.”
Greenbaum said it was a good feeling, that he wrote something important and comforting.
So popular is the song at funerals… “two or three funeral homes use it as a commercial,” he said.