Judee Sill was one of the musicians signed to the David Geffen’s new Asylum record label in the 1970s, alongside Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Linda Rondstadt and the Eagles. That she is less famous than those artistes is largely due to the fact she released only two albums and died prematurely, at least partly from drug use, in 1979.
However, I clearly remember the first single released from her debut album being played regularly on the radio: “Jesus was a Cross-Maker”. This was the golden era of the singer-songwriter and also the time of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, Christian narratives welded to pop/rock music. Equally the gospel influences of black soul artistes like Aretha Franklin were often admired and copied by white musicians from different traditions. The title of “Jesus was a Cross-Maker” certainly made this listener (plus many 1970s music show presenters ) think this song was one of those examples.
Sill’s singing and playing were very attractive, but these distinctive features and the song’s brisk tempo led to another consequence which is familiar to anyone who has listened to and loved pop/rock music any time during the last half-century: you cannot hear every word of the lyrics.
It was many years later, in the internet era, when, finally seeing the lyrics written down, I realised that the title phrase is the only reference to Jesus and that the lyric does not seem to have any particular Christian meaning or relevance.
One interpretation offered by Michael Crumsho in the Dusted music website is that the lyric is about “gaining higher momentum from the lower periods in one’s life, spurred on from the fact that Jesus Christ was in fact (depending upon your views of Jesus as a historical figure) a cross maker.”
Artists from the past who have died young or who are perceived to have become neglected are often the features of TV or radio programmes which blend factual information with the presenter’s autobiography or personal exploration. Judee Sill was the subject of such a programme in 2014 presented by the journalist Ruth Barnes.
This programme provided some new information about “Jesus was a Cross Maker”. John David Souther, another West Coast musician of the period with whom Sill was having a relationship at this point in her life, said that Sill specifically told him that the song was written about their relationship. So that might mean the song’s references to “bandit” are metaphorical references to Souther’s emotional influence over her rather than recalling her own dramatic youthful criminal exploits. It probably means that the reference to “Jesus” does not directly point to the Bible, although another contributor to the programme suggests that Sill had a genuinely wide interest in religion and spirituality which informed many of her lyrics.
The present-day internet allows many free opportunities to remind ourself what Judee Sill sounded like. Unlike Ruth Barnes, I tend not to regard her as a forgotten major figure, certainly not as important as Joni Mitchell. However, it is certainly easy to appreciate her songwriting as better than that being produced by most 21st century artistes, and to wonder whether that decline in quality might be caused partly by the erosion of the literary and cultural foundation once provided by the Bible and other religious texts.