I wasn’t allowed to ring the bell. I could pass the offering plate and collect communion cards, but when it came time for the Lord’s Prayer, I could only listen as the congregation prayed in the sanctuary and watch as my father rang the bell in the narthex. He was often an usher, and sometimes I helped him, but I was never allowed to sound the bell. He’d ring it in time with those who prayed in church so that those who weren’t there knew when to say the Lord’s Prayer from afar.
I think of the church bell from my childhood whenever I hear “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.” If my throat hasn’t tightened by the first “sleeping city sidewalk,” when the singer confesses just how down-and-out he is, then it’s the “lonely bell” ringing “through the canyon, like the disappearing dreams of yesterday” that does the trick. Kris Kristofferson wrote the song, and Ray Stevens recorded it first, but Johnny Cash is always one I want to hear talking about the far-off sound of a church bell while he wails about having beer and cigarettes for breakfast.
The song is more depressing than anything you’ll hear on country radio today, but it doesn’t start that way. First there’s a comedic litany of all the singer does to get ready after raising hell the night before, putting on his “cleanest dirty shirt” and trying to do something about his hair and face. Saturday night has given way to Sunday, and the song is about how the sights, sounds, and smells of a new day don’t just make us regret what we’ve done wrong, but can make us mourn all that we failed to do right. The comedy ends as soon as the singer finds himself smelling the fried chicken of somebody else’s family supper, watching a father play with his daughter in the park, listening as children sing hymns at church school, and then hearing the echo of a bell like the one I grew up listening to my father ring.
There’s nowhere that Johnny Cash can go that he doesn’t see the kind of Sabbath life he could be living, and no place where he can’t hear the sounds of a better way of being in the world. You can’t help but believe him when he says, “I’m wishing, Lord, that I was stoned,” or to feel even sorrier for him when he settles into his refrain: “‘Cause there’s something in a Sunday, that makes a body feel alone.” Soul and body both long for a better place to be, and the singer can't even articulate all that he's lost or even when he lost it: it's definitely more than just one bad night he’s recovering from, and you get the sense that this kind of coming down will take more than one Sunday. But he's still searching, and the song's wrench and hammer routine come from the possibility that this Sunday morning might change next week's Saturday night.
The reason that I like the Johnny Cash version best is that he offers more than gloom: his somber lyrics are cheered improbably by an ecstatic orchestra. As he talks about waking up from his rough-and-tumble night, horns and strings and a bell tree stir, stir, stir and toot, toot, toot, and ping, ping, ping in the background. Together they sound like a country-music carousel that carries us up and down, but also round and round, until by the end our heads are spinning: the happy-clappy slapstick of the music fighting over and over again with the run-down, dragged-out-of-bed sadness of the words.
Cash’s “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” is as surreal as The Pilgrim’s Progress on ice or musical version of The Lost Weekend. It’s a perfect conjuring of the friction between what we ought to do and what we end up doing, and not just on Saturday night. The song is like a church bell that doesn't ring once, but echoes over and over.