How Norman Greenbaum Wrote ‘Spirit in the Sky’ in 15 Minutes
Norman Greenbaum recalls writing the lyrics for classic track “Spirit in the Sky” in 15 minutes, and says he accepts that it wasn’t a perfect piece of work.
The single was first released in the U.S. 50 years ago, in January 1970, and went on to spend 15 weeks on the Top 100, becoming the 22nd best-selling song of the year.
“I had come across a greeting card that said ‘Spirit in the Sky’,” Greenbaum told Rolling Stone in a new interview. “And it was American Indians sitting in front of a tipi, with the fire going and being spiritual towards what they had deemed God, which was a spirit in the sky. I think it was the Hopi. So I went, ‘That’s kind of interesting.’
“Then I happened to be watching [country star] Porter Wagoner. He had a TV show, and he did a religious song halfway through the show. One particular day, he did a song about a miner that was up in the hills, digging for gold. He hadn’t been to church [or] prayed for, like, years and years. And for some reason, he decided it was time to go back. So he took his viola, came all the way back into town, and when he got to the church, there was a note on the door that said, ‘The pastor’s on vacation’.”
Those two pieces of inspiration came together along with Greenbaum’s memories of cowboy movies where the bad guys “always wanted to buried with their shoes on.” He continued: “All this is starting to connect. I said to myself, ‘Well, I’ve never written a religious song. I’ve written some oddball songs, but some serious song, I can do that.’ I just sat down, and it all came together.”
Norman Greenbaum - ‘Spirit in the Sky’
The line “never been a sinner / I never sinned” resulted in a backlash, since the principal that everybody is born in a state of sin is central to Christian beliefs. Greenbaum, who was brought up in the Jewish faith, reflected: “When I said I can do this, that didn’t mean I could do it perfectly. It wasn’t my religion; I just did it. I didn’t think twice about it. I took some of the seriousness out of it, but I didn’t do it as a joke or against anyone. I guess people can take offense to almost anything. There was the song about the plastic Jesus on your dashboard. They liked that one.”
He added: “[Q]uite a few churches have put it into their services and they sing it quite often. So it turned out OK. To be blunt, I don’t think it’s on the shit list.”