Bible belters: Songs inspired by biblical stories lure many singers

A few weeks back, I mentioned the Bible-based song that Pete Seeger wrote, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” — based on the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes.

That got me to wondering what other pop songs had their origins in biblical stories and passages. Here’s a small sample of what I found, starting with the Byrds’ hit version of the Seeger composition.

The biblical songs actually cover a wide range of topics and treatments, some containing merely passing references and others featuring an elaborate story complete with a moral.

• Nick Noble outlines a philosophy of life that he knows will work for him, he says, because “The Bible Tells Me So”:

Have faith, hope and charity.
That’s the way to live successfully.
How do I know?
The Bible tells me so.

The ‘early years’
The creation story — and particularly Adam and Eve — seemed to attract a lot of singers and songwriters:

• Bobby Comstock’s “Garden of Eden” offers a quick lesson on dealing with temptation.  

• Gene McDaniels, meanwhile, gives thanks for God’s handiwork in “A Hundred Pounds of Clay.” 

• So, too, do Mel Torme and Peggy Lee in “The Old Master Painter.”

The “first couple” get vastly different treatments from the likes of Paul Anka and Bob Marley and the Wailers and, of course, a racier take in Cole Porter’s clever “Let’s Misbehave”:

When Adam won Eve’s hand
He wouldn’t stand for teasin’.
He didn’t care about those apples out of season.

Bible stories
Other singers turned to some of the well-known Old Testament stories:

• Neil Sedaka finds a modern application for the story of Samson and Delilah in “Run Samson Run.”

• Brook Benton offers one of many versions of the tale of Nebuchadnezzar’s “fiery furnace” with his Top 20 hit “Shadrack.”

• The Irish Rovers recount the charming story of a pair of animals that missed the boat in “The Unicorn.”

• The Gershwins detail three biblical adventures — David and Goliath, baby Moses and old man Methuselah — in “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Here’s Bobby Darin’s take on the “Porgy and Bess” classic.

• The Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer collaboration, Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” performed here by Ella Fitzgerald, focuses on the stories of Jonah and the whale and Noah and the Ark.

• The “Jacob’s Ladder” story has produced any number of musical references — from Huey Lewis and the News to Pete Seeger’s take on the traditional spiritual.

Musical extravaganzas
There are at least three biblically based stage musicals as well. The first two here morphed into movies as well:

“Godspell,”  a series of parables based largely on the Gospel of Matthew. “Day by Day” is the best known of the songs.

• And, of course, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock musical, which included “King Herod’s Song.”

• And finally, back to the Old Testament for “Two by Two,” the 1970 musical retelling of Noah’s Ark that starred Danny Kaye and Madeline Kahn. Here’s a sample of “Why Me?”

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Edward Eubanks on 06/04/2010 - 08:44 am.

    Ira & George Gershwin “It Aint Necessarily So”

    The stories you’re li’ble
    to read in the Bible
    They aint necessarily so.

  2. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 06/04/2010 - 10:50 am.

    The is also this nice Psalm (137) set to banjo music, from Don McLean (of “American Pie” fame)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGKgCAKnzYo

  3. Submitted by John N. Finn on 06/04/2010 - 11:41 am.

    “Mercy Seat” by Nick Cave and covered by others including Johnny Cash. Much of Cave’s work is influenced by the Bible.

  4. Submitted by Corey Anderson on 06/10/2010 - 03:26 pm.

    Makes me think of that 80s pop song “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister: “Kýrie, eléison, down the road that I must travel/Kýrie, eléison, through the darkness of the night” From Wikipedia: Kýrie, eléison means “Lord, have mercy” in Greek, and is a part of many liturgical rites in Eastern and Western Christianity. Kýrie, eléison; Christé, eléison; Kýrie, eléison is a prayer that asks “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy”. According to [lead singer Richard] Page the entire song is, essentially, a prayer.

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