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Why Haven't I Ever Heard of Judee Sill

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Joel, in the "New Stuff Worth Hearing" thread, mentioned a singer named Judee Sill, and asked why we have no thread on her. Thom chimed in with a recommendation of another singer for fans of Sill's.

I know that because I just searched on "Judee" in preparation for linking to this story about Rhino's reissue of Sill's work.

I probably read the earlier A&F mentions of Sill here, but frankly, when I searched today, I expected nothing to come up. When a mention DID come up, and it was an A&Fer asking why we have no thread devoted to Sill's music, I decided to launch this one.

Because beyond what the linked article tells me, I know nothing of her as a person, and I've never heard a single song by her. But I think that needs to change, based on what the article says:

Sill's lyrics might be described as high hippie Christian, cries of "Kyrie eleison!" melding with references to angels and astral planes. Her words are very much of their time and place -- and yet, even at their weakest, they more than suffice to decorate her unpredictable and irresistible compositions, which are nowhere near so easy to pigeonhole. According to Michele Kort, the author of Rhino's excellent liner notes, Sill insisted she wrote "country-cult-baroque -- country for the pedal-steel guitar, clip-clop Western beats and the twang in her voice; cult for the esoteric nature of her concerns and her small-but-fervent audience; and baroque for the Bach-like melodies she favored."

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Christian, I also mentionned Judee Sill for my reissues of the year. Whether you choose The Rhino's Abracadabra or the two straight originals from Water (Judee Sill, 1971, and Heart Food, 1973), you should really like it, if you love Joni Mitchell's music especially. I noticed you love country music, so you will love Judee too, as there's a country thing in her music. As if Nick Drake was influenced by Gram Parsons, or Joni Mitchell by Townes Van Zandt.

I can't say much about her lyrics, but they look evidently poetic to me when reading them in the booklets. If you enjoy reading many things about her life and personality, you will LOVE Dreams Come True as well (it's my case anyway). It's a won-der-ful packaging with photos, family's souvenirs, unreleased songs - including the album that she was recording before the car accident that lead her to a slow self-destructive death (taking drugs to relieve the pain).

But her music isn't sad to me, it's bright, tender, peaceful, high, spiritual, inventive. In short: it's soul music. So Judee's soul was less "lost" than most of us on Earth, since her music reminds us what soul is.

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Oh man. Will this be the time that I finally let out all the thoughts about Judee Sill that have been percolating in my brain since I first heard "Jesus Was A Crossmaker" a couple years ago on NPR? Probably not. But as I think I've said before, I haven't fallen in love somebody's songs like this for years. Like a lot of people who grew up listening to CCM and then had that dawning realization that there was a lot more & better music out there, I'd been looking for someone who'd make Christian music unnecessary. In recent years, on a broader cultural level, that person has been Sufjan Stevens. But I was so surprised to see that - just maybe - Judee Sill was that person (maybe there have been others, but again, for me there's something special about her -- maybe her beautiful voice, maybe her high-church sensibilities, or maybe it's just that she wasn't being overanalyzed by evangelical pundits in her day) before Christian music was even starting to become the ugly, commerical thing it mostly is now.

"The Donor" just floors me every time I listen to it. The interplay of those simple piano lines and the building chorus, the sweetness and tenderness of the voices praying lord have mercy (Kyrie Eleison) -- the beautiful desperation of it!

Hearing the few concert recordings of her made me like her even more -- the way she speaks is like the way she writes songs: she's totally wrapped up in the divine, in religious language, to the point that it's mundane, ordinary. She makes plain comments (in a sort of nervy, skittish voice) like "This is a religious song about the end of the world" and "I knew that even that bastard wasn't beyond redemption" and "it's got a lot of Pentecostal licks that I learned when I was the church organist in reform school...it's true, I swear," and thens she plays those beautiful songs and oh man! I'm rambling. It's still hard to articulate why she's so captivating to me.

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Oh man. Will this be the time that I finally let out all the thoughts about Judee Sill that have been percolating in my brain since I first heard "Jesus Was A Crossmaker" a couple years ago on NPR? Probably not. But as I think I've said before, I haven't fallen in love somebody's songs like this for years. Like a lot of people who grew up listening to CCM and then had that dawning realization that there was a lot more & better music out there, I'd been looking for someone who'd make Christian music unnecessary. In recent years, on a broader cultural level, that person has been Sufjan Stevens. But I was so surprised to see that - just maybe - Judee Sill was that person (maybe there have been others, but again, for me there's something special about her -- maybe her beautiful voice, maybe her high-church sensibilities, or maybe it's just that she wasn't being overanalyzed by evangelical pundits in her day) before Christian music was even starting to become the ugly, commerical thing it mostly is now.

I just picked up the Asylum reissue a couple days ago. I need to spend a lot more time with this music, but it's haunting, and different. The Joni Mitchell comparisons are apt enough, but there is, as Joel mentioned, a "high church" vibe in various places, as well as the usual trippy hippie sentiments that so characterized the time when this music was recorded (early '70s).

I vaguely recall Judee Sill from back in the day. In fact, I'm fairly certain that I saw her open for Graham Nash and David Crosby, although the trippy hippie accoutrements are clouding my brain, and I really don't recall much about her performance.

The early '70s, for all their excesses, were an interesting period from a spiritual standpoint. Songwriters could and did write about their faith fairly openly, and FM radio, still in its early, freeform stages, played it all. It was a strange hybrid, theologically, with the usual countercultural pettifoggery (One Toke Over the Line (Sweet Jesus)) wedded to credal statements and praise songs, but it wasn't at all unusual for faith and art to mix at the most popular levels. I think Judee Sill is very much of that time and mindset.

And not to open this can of worms again, but it does, yet again, raise the question of the need for the CCM industry. Christians were doing just fine recording their songs and having them played on major radio outlets. What happened? A lot of things, but very few of them related to an anti-Christian bias in the music media, methinks.

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The early '70s, for all their excesses, were an interesting period from a spiritual standpoint. Songwriters could and did write about their faith fairly openly, and FM radio, still in its early, freeform stages, played it all. It was a strange hybrid, theologically, with the usual countercultural pettifoggery (One Toke Over the Line (Sweet Jesus)) wedded to credal statements and praise songs, but it wasn't at all unusual for faith and art to mix at the most popular levels. I think Judee Sill is very much of that time and mindset.

And not to open this can of worms again, but it does, yet again, raise the question of the need for the CCM industry. Christians were doing just fine recording their songs and having them played on major radio outlets. What happened? A lot of things, but very few of them related to an anti-Christian bias in the music media, methinks.

Interesting to note about 70's radio. I wasn't alive then and didn't really know. One thing I find is that most of what you read about Sill is ultimately more interested in her drug use, criminal record, and alleged interest in "the occult" and something call Rosicrucianism (sp? some kind of bizarre old Christian sect a la the Da Vinci Code) than her baldfaced Christian-ness. Like Andy, I think that has nothing to do with a bias against the things of faith, but at this point in my life, her exploration of faith is the bigger deal for me.

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I'm commenting long after the fact, I know.

Judee Sill was unquestionably tragic, gifted, poetic, and she did have a spiritual side. But she was definitely NOT a Christian, or even a very nice person, it seems (the link in the original post will give you an idea. In another Web bio of her, the photo is topless...) There was a very strong and destructive root of bitterness running through her life (Hebrews 12:14-17.) I think abusive would be a fair description of her personality. How much she actually reformed while she was sober, I don't know. Spiritually, she was like many New Agers today: they're attracted to spirituality, but they don't much care what kind, and they'll borrow from anywhere; it might be Chirstian, or it might be witchcraft. Christianity was one of her interests, but the occult was another. The actual state of her soul only God knows, but it could not have been good.

I'm not trying to run her down, and I'm sure she did have her good points; what I'm trying to say is that, while her music was sympathetic to Christianity, it's far from unalloyed, and may contain dangerous spiritual elements. ("Jesus Was a Crossmaker," for instance, is NOT Christian, and the Lord is known to be particualer about how His name is used...) Beautiful though it was, I'd be cautious about taking it too closely to heart.

===================================================================================

Joel, in the "New Stuff Worth Hearing" thread, mentioned a singer named Judee Sill, and asked why we have no thread on her. Thom chimed in with a recommendation of another singer for fans of Sill's.

I know that because I just searched on "Judee" in preparation for linking to this story about Rhino's reissue of Sill's work.

I probably read the earlier A&F mentions of Sill here, but frankly, when I searched today, I expected nothing to come up. When a mention DID come up, and it was an A&Fer asking why we have no thread devoted to Sill's music, I decided to launch this one.

Because beyond what the linked article tells me, I know nothing of her as a person, and I've never heard a single song by her. But I think that needs to change, based on what the article says:

Sill's lyrics might be described as high hippie Christian, cries of "Kyrie eleison!" melding with references to angels and astral planes. Her words are very much of their time and place -- and yet, even at their weakest, they more than suffice to decorate her unpredictable and irresistible compositions, which are nowhere near so easy to pigeonhole. According to Michele Kort, the author of Rhino's excellent liner notes, Sill insisted she wrote "country-cult-baroque -- country for the pedal-steel guitar, clip-clop Western beats and the twang in her voice; cult for the esoteric nature of her concerns and her small-but-fervent audience; and baroque for the Bach-like melodies she favored."

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I dunno, man, she obviously had a lot of problems, but I don't see "Jesus Was a Crossmaker" as "un-Christian" -- it's a song about, as she says in the BBC recording, about how "even that bastard" (i.e. a former boyfriend) "wasn't beyond redemption."

I have no desire to start a back-and-forth about whether or not it's OK to listen to music made by somebody who was a jerk, or immoral, or wasn't a Christian, but Sill's music is beautiful and it makes me think about God, and that about does it for me. By the way, Dreams Come True, the posthumous collection produced by Jim O'Rourke, was reissued in June. Not sure if it includes the 70-page booklet that came with the 2005 release.

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I love that she referred to her music as "country-cult-baroque." A nifty little label.

(Whoops, just notice that Christian already noted that, sorry.)

Edited by MLeary

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Well, Joel, that pretty well sums it up. If something brings you closer to God, it might be a good thing to stay with. I do the same thing (take Judy Collins' magnificent recording of "Amazing Grace" with the military choirs, for instance.) But I believe there's a whole spiritual world out there, both good and bad, and all I'm saying is that it should be explored cautiously and with your eyes open. Once you know, it's up to you how to proceed.

===================================================================================

I dunno, man, she obviously had a lot of problems, but I don't see "Jesus Was a Crossmaker" as "un-Christian" -- it's a song about, as she says in the BBC recording, about how "even that bastard" (i.e. a former boyfriend) "wasn't beyond redemption."

I have no desire to start a back-and-forth about whether or not it's OK to listen to music made by somebody who was a jerk, or immoral, or wasn't a Christian, but Sill's music is beautiful and it makes me think about God, and that about does it for me. By the way, Dreams Come True, the posthumous collection produced by Jim O'Rourke, was reissued in June. Not sure if it includes the 70-page booklet that came with the 2005 release.

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CRAYON ANGEL: A TRIBUTE TO THE MUSIC OF JUDEE SILL - September 22.

Track list:

01 Ron Sexsmith:

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I'm having trouble enjoying the record, maybe because I just like the original songs so much. Marissa Nadler desecrates "The Kiss."

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I'm having trouble enjoying the record, maybe because I just like the original songs so much. Marissa Nadler desecrates "The Kiss."

Yeah, I believe that, Joel. It's a reaction I frequently have to tribute albums; the performances just don't measure up to the originals. But since I'm not familiar with the originals, I have nothing to compare the tribute versions against. I just know that there are some fine songs here, and I'm certainly motivated to check out Judy Sill's albums.

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I'm certainly motivated to check out Judy Sill's albums.

I am all for that!

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Anyone else heard this yet? I still find myself unable to forgive Marissa Nadler but maybe it's because I never heard her before and don't know if she is just doing her usual thing or what. Final Fantasy manages to pull off "The Donor" with grace and ease -- I didn't think anybody would be able to cover that song.

A woefully short introduction to Sill (and this tribute album) for those who don't know her at Good Letters.

Edited by Joel

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I pulled this thread up after searching on "Judy" (I was looking for Judy Collins-related posts) and linked to Joel's Good Letters post, which I couldn't remember reading. The most recent comment -- the first one immediately below the post, from Jim Bredouw, is one of those where-did-this-come-from fascinating bits of revelatory detail that I love to see. 

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