“Don’t wait for the last judgment – it takes place every day.”
– – Albert Camus
Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus was a proponent of the absurdist philosophy that people should continually strive to find meaning in the world, despite the fact that the uncaring universe can never provide it. What a fantastic example of mutually exclusive outcomes. Before you blow a valve in our medulla oblongata trying to derive meaning from that worldview, just understand that his reference to the “last judgment” is from the Abrahamic concept of a Final Judgment over individual souls and all of humanity. For instance, Revelations 20:11-12 tells us, “Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.” Yikes! French existential philosophy and Biblical verses are a pretty heavy opening for a humble pop music blog…but don’t judge us! We’re cynically using profound concepts to shamelessly plug our latest offering, “Judgment Road,” an Americana-rock song about how each of us has built up a karmic debt that must be paid when the final judgment is rendered. We know what you’re thinking: “What? Not another song about the inevitability of a dreadful final judgment!” But it does raise the musical question: Judged by whom, or what? A higher being? A jury of our peers? Three D-list celebrities on a singing talent show? Well, against our better judgment, we’ve decided to take a quick look at judgment as a musical theme.
Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged
It should come as no surprise that spiritual music contains the richest vein of judgmentalism. Bach’s Cantata No. 168 is titled “Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort,” which translates to “Give an account of yourself! Word of thunder.” Catchy title, that. The composition is overflowing with guilt and regret, with such jaunty wordplay as: “I shudder with horror when I look into my conscience and see that my accounts are so full of faults…cover me from God’s angry judgment.” Now you know why Johann was known as the master of understatement. Not to be outdone, G. P. Telemann’s oratorio “Der Tag des Gerichts” keeps the deep depression vibe rolling with funky fresh rhymes like, “Let them repent lest they be cast into hellfire at the day of judgment.” Clearly, those baroque composers didn’t fool around with lyrics about pretty girls and fast cars. Not while there were souls to be saved, by God.
Along similar lines, The Sensational Nightingales gospel number “Standing At The Judgment” opens with, “Oh, look at the people standing at the Judgment, they got to be tried.” Uh-oh. It sounds like some poor bastards are “goin’ down to Hell just to get their doom,” while other lucky bastards are “goin’ up to Heaven now to get their crown.” Hmmm. We assumed they served holy wine in Heaven, but didn’t realize that you could also get Canadian whisky. (Incidentally, Crown Royal was first introduced by Seagram’s in 1939, so we don’t know what they served in Heaven prior to that.) By the way, in Revelations, angels will blow on seven trumpets, signifying hail, fire, burning mountains, meteors crashing to earth, falling darkness, the arrival of winged, scorpion-tailed warhorses to torment the damned, deadly plagues, horrific earthquakes, and oceans and rivers turning to blood. And we thought Mardis Gras was wild. To tell the truth, if there are going to be trumpets on Judgment Day, we’d just as soon hear them in an inspiring performance of “When The Saints Go Marching In” by Louis Armstrong than have them ushering in a catastrophic apocalypse full of fire, blood, and earthquakes. But maybe that’s just us. Actually, in the pop idiom there is some disagreement about whether trumpets will play a role during those final crucial hours. In “The Very Last Day,” The Hollies contend that “the judgment falls on all mankind when the trumpet sounds the call.” However, Coven’s #26 1971 hit “One Tin Soldier,” the judgmental theme to the painfully 1970s movie “Billy Jack,” insists that “there won’t be any trumpets blowing come the Judgment Day.” Oh, well. We might not know the answer to the trumpets/no-trumpets question until the final moment. Luckily, we may have a few thousand years to prepare, since Zager and Evans’ dystopian 1968 hit “In the Year 2525” pinpoints the year 7510 as the the time when God will finally “look around himself and say, ‘Guess it’s time for the Judgment Day.'” Well, that’s certainly something to look forward to. In fact, Judy Garland’s rousing rendition of Harold Arlen’s evangelical barnstormer “Get Happy” joyously encourages the congregation to “shout hallelujah, c’mon get happy, get ready for the judgment day.” The ledger of her life must average out a little better than ours, because she sounds like she’s really itching for the end times to hurry up and get here. Judy was not known for being as sober as a judge, so maybe she was happy because she heard that Crown Royal is the beverage of choice in paradise.
Here Comes The Judge
All of those plagues, rivers of blood and mutant warhorses sound pretty terrifying, the promise of trumpet music and Royal Crown notwithstanding. Alas, judgment over mere mortals is not rendered only at the end of times by a higher being. We judge each other all the time, though it’s sometimes frowned upon, such as when reggae-man Bob Marley pokes a finger in your chest with “Judge Not”:
“Don’t you look at me so smug and say I’m going bad
Who are you to judge me and the life that I live?
Judge not, if you’re not ready for judgment”
Old Bob really did not want to be judged, and country singer Rodney Crowell is eager to oblige him as he says, “It’s Not For Me To Judge” what someone else does. It’s a nice sentiment, but don’t you just hate the holier-than-thou attitude of those non-judgmental types? Besides, there are times when an individual’s actions must be judged, such as in a courtroom. Popular music has recounted many a tale of reprobates in trouble with the law and sentenced for their grievous misdeeds, from the speeding teenagers in “Tell It To The Judge” (“Officer won’t you give me another chance?…Tell it to the judge, boys, tell it to the judge”), to Jerry Reed’s bribe-infused plea for clemency on a gambling charge falling on deaf ears in “When You’re Hot You’re Hot” (“Hey judge, ol’buddy, ol’ pal, I’ll pay you that hundred I owe ya, if you’ll get me outta this spot…he turned around and grinned at me and said, ‘Ninety days, Jerry, when you hot, you hot!’”), to the unknown crime that results in hard time in the folk standard “Worried Man Blues” (“I asked the judge what might be my fine, twenty-one years on the Rocky Mountain Line”). Although being sent up the river, checking into the cross-bar motel, and staying at the stony lonesome is a bleak prospect, riding the lightning on Old Sparky has a n existential finality that is somehow suitable for our Judgment Day theme. And that’s exactly the fate in store for the hapless killer in “Johnny 99”:
“The Judge was mean John Brown…
Let the sentence, son, fit the crime
Prison for 98 and a year and we’ll call it even, Johnny 99…
Well, your honor, I do believe I’d be better off dead…
Think it over, judge, one more time
Let ’em shave off my hair and put me on the execution line”
Springsteen’s harrowing tale of a man driven to drink and murder borrows from the long traditions of blues and folk songs that lament how someone threw their life away and must pay the ultimate price, such as “Tom Dooley,” who should hang down his head and cry before he dies at the gallows. Despite the hopeless plights of Johnny 99 and Tom Dooley, those two rapscallions are at least suffering the consequences for heinous crimes in which their guilt is not in dispute. But perhaps the harshest sentence of all would be hanging for a crime you didn’t commit, especially at the hands of a judge who is a corrupt good ‘ol boy, which is what happens to the poor slob in “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”:
“The judge said ‘guilty’ in a make-believe trial…
That’s the night they hung an innocent man…
‘Cause the judge in the town’s got bloodstains on his hands”
That southern gothic tale has it all: sordid marital betrayal, scandalous family secrets, stereotypically corrupt local officials, and a guy with a motive but no alibi. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hanging for a crime you didn’t commit is an exceptionally harsh fate, even if judgment day includes delightful enticements such as majestic trumpet arrangements and Crown Royal at an open bar. Yeesh! Well, that profound philosophical observation concludes our little trip through the musical halls of judgment. From the baroque wrath of a vengeful God to the gospel promise of heavenly paradise, and from the folk and rock gavel of courtroom justice to the pop hanging of an innocent man, every song is judged on its own merits. Like we said in “Judgment Road,” “You give it everything you’ve got and get what you deserve.”