2010.02.10 Funeral tune raises thoughts about Norman Greenbaum

Written by David Green.


I certainly don’t attend funerals for the music, but interesting choices of songs seem to be creeping into some of the services I’ve attended lately.

A couple of years ago I attended a memorial service for a longtime friend who had spent many years as a musician, both as a solo act and member of various local groups. He had enough notice that the cancer he was fighting would eventually claim him to put his affairs in order, even to the point of planning his own memorial ceremony.

A CD of his favorite music was put together to be played during the visitation before his service, consisting of a selection of folk, rock and country songs by several different singers. A few minutes before the service was to begin, a selection by Bob Dylan came on over the funeral home audio system.

As I was taking my seat, an elderly couple came in the door and, noticing everyone else starting to sit, took a pair of chairs right behind me. At that moment, Dylan got to the harmonica solo part of his song. After listening for a bit, the woman turned to her husband and said, “I didn’t know Dan could play the harmonica, too!” I wanted to turn around and tell her, “A lot of people think he sounded just like Bob Dylan,” but I let the moment pass.

It was one of the more innovative services I had ever attended, at least music-wise. Last month, I went to another which got me thinking.

The father of a close friend had passed away and I went to the funeral. There was no music preceding the announced time of the service. As those gathered quieted down for the beginning of the ceremony, suddenly the funeral home speakers came alive with the unmistakable intro to Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.”

My friend looked over at me with a somewhat puzzled expression. She wasn’t the only one in the audience who seemed confused. I asked her who picked out the music, but she wasn’t positive. I’m sure everyone was waiting to hear what song came next. I know I was. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” maybe? But after Greenbaum’s musical interlude ended, the officiant came out, and a fairly normal funeral service followed.

Later, we found out that while other family members were searching for a clue as to what was Jerry’s favorite music, a CD containing “Spirit in the Sky” was discovered in his van. Thus, a starring role for the tune in his memorial.

Since then, however, I’ve been bothered by the question of whatever happened to Norman Greenbaum.  A little internet research turned up some fascinating information.

According to Wikipedia, Greenbaum’s first chart hit was in 1968 with a group named Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band. A song penned by Greenbaum called “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago” made it into the lower depths of the top 100. I have absolutely no memory of this song. If anyone has a copy, I’d love to hear it.

Greenbaum supposedly got his inspiration to write “Spirit in the Sky” after watching country singers Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton sing a religious song on Wagoner’s television show. It went on to sell over two million copies during late 1969 and early 1970.

In mid-1970, Greenbaum released the song “Canned Ham,” in which Greenbaum sings of his love for pig flesh encased in a metal container and how he wishes someone would buy one for him. I actually bought a copy of the single and still have it somewhere. Thanks in very small part to my purchase, it reached #46 in the United States and #26 in Canada, where canned meat apparently is even more popular than here.

Since Wikipedia identifies Greenbaum as a life-long practicing Jew, I have to wonder how he explained “Canned Ham” to his family, rabbi, and friends at the synagogue. I assume that singing about the eggplant was acceptable.

Greenbaum’s fourth and last chart single was “California Earthquake,” which made it to #93 in 1971. By the mid 1970s, he had moved to a farm in Petaluma, Calif. He still lives there today, according to Wikipedia, no longer performing, but “continues to promote concerts and lives off the royalties from his songs.” It’s nice that Greenbaum still makes some money from his compositions, but I wonder how much of a royalty he gets from a performance at a funeral?

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