Music As Truth: Thoughts on “Goin’ Home”

Sometimes it seems that music does religion better than religion does. Which is to say it elicits depths and ranges of soul-stirring emotion (wonder, rapture, joy, universal brother-and-sisterhood) that all religion aspires to but so often falls short of when it focuses more on doctrine and notions of absolute truth and exclusivity.

As much as we may cleave to and even argue over our musical preferences, I can’t find any listings for “The Music Wars” or “The Folk Music Crusades” on Wikipedia, and dinner party conversations are rarely if ever fractured by an otherwise gracious guest’s semi-bellicose insistence, after that second glass of wine, that jazz really is the one true music.

These thoughts occurred to me again the other night while glorying in the second “largo” movement of Dvorak’s Ninth “New World” Symphony, and the many interpretations of it offered by an astonishing array of artists, all with their original takes on this compulsively hummable classic. Symphonic, choral, operatic, jazz, folk, spiritual—singers and players of every style and age have honored this gorgeous song with its haunting, melancholy plaint of a soul seeking rest.

Dvorak wrote the original instrumental score a year after coming to the United States from his native Bohemia (now Czech Republic) in 1892 at age 50. His twin inspirations were his encounter with the Negro spirituals and Native American music of the time and the deep homesickness he felt for his native land. Almost 20 years after the symphony’s 1893 premiere in Carnegie Hall, the main melodic line of the second movement was turned into the song we know as “Goin’ Home” by Dvorak’s pupil and associate William Arms Fisher, the lyrics of which appear below.

I love the fact that soulman Sam Cooke, basso profundo Paul Robeson, English boys’ group Libera, Norwegian soprano Sissel, early jazz pianist Art Tatum, tenor sax virtuoso Stanley Turrentine—along with virtually every symphony orchestra in the musical world—have all done their interpretive magic with this song and made it their own. All these and more are available on You Tube. (Including a pathos-drenched version sung by a female mental asylum patient in the 1948 movie classic, “The Snake Pit.”)

One song, its composer’s “truth” ringing out from the black ink on a page of sheet music. Interpreted and elaborated, “practiced,” observed and adored, its performances serving as a locus for people to come from miles around to gather in a spirit that resembles nothing so much as worship, with spotlights trained on a stage where the music’s interpreter holds forth and gives it expression.

One song, a thousand languages and musical styles.

One song, speaking to the particular internal life of each artist, of each appreciative listener, filtered through their own experience, their own sensibilities, their own truth. Elaborated in a burst of color and rhythm and nuance not quite like any other.

One song universal, expressed in various languages, containing and speaking to multitudes, from every tribe and tradition. May it ring.


Goin’ Home

Goin’ home, goin’ home,
I’m a goin’ home.
Quiet-like, some still day,
I’m jes’ goin’ home.
It’s not far, jes’ close by,
Through an open door.
Work all done, care laid by,
Goin’ to fear no more.
Mother’s there, ‘spectin’ me,
Father’s waitin’ too.
Lots o’ folk gathered there,
All the friends I knew.

Nothing’s lost, all’s gain,
No more fear or pain,
No more stumblin’ by the way,
No more longin’ for the day,
Goin’ to roam no more.

Mornin’ star lights the way,
Restless dreams all done.
Shadows gone, break o’ day,
Real life begun.
There’s no break, there’s no end,
Jes’ a livin’ on.
Wide awake with a smile,
goin’ on and on…

Goin’ home, goin’ home,
I’m jes’ goin’ home.
It’s not far, jes’ close by,
Through an open door.
I am goin’ home…..
I’m jes’ goin’ home….


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3 comments to Music As Truth: Thoughts on “Goin’ Home”

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Thanks Andrew, as you know I am a HUGE music guy – but there is so much out there I know so little of, Going Home for one… reflecting on your post it strikes me that music reveals another kind of truth, an emotional – perhaps "spiritual" truth – the ineffable but oh so real kinds of truth that stirs in the depths of our beings… in poking around YouTube for versions of this classic – I ran across one that blew me away – famed Canadian poet/singer Leonard Cohen's latest album has a version, significantly modified lyrics from those you posted but in the same Going Home motif – also printed in the New Yorker as a poem with the link to the video… Cohen's voice is almost gone at age 75 or whatever, he whispers the lyrics which gives them a different kind of gravitas… give a listen/look at:

    Love the site my friend!

  • Walt McKeown  says:

    Good words, Andrew, and excellent lyrics, a real comfort for those who believe there is something after death. A reverse lyric would prove nothing either and be much less comforting. It almost sounds like a Southern US blues boy made that up. Was Fischer black and/or from the South?

  • Moon  says:

    Of course, there's the Stones, who did an interpretive version of Goin' Home.

    "When you're 3,000 miles away, I just never sleep the same

    If I pack my things right now, I could be home in 7 hours…"

    Music is more than a "soundtrack of our life." Music digs and unearths feelings which cannot be evoked any other way.

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