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#61: Al Hibbler’s “He”

31 March 1956

#1 for 2 weeks

written by Jack Richards and Richard Mullan

The last time we talked about religion on this blog, I hated it. The last time we talked about Al Hibbler on this blog, we were dismissive. By logic, the combination of these two mediocrities — just in time for Easter 1956 — should create nothing but the most intense loathing from me. And yet for some reason, I think this may be the best song we encounter in this chapter.

Religious experience is hard to encapsulate. Every person has a highly different experience of salvation, a fact that most religious songs fail to take account: every so often, along comes a song that hijacks the listener’s experiences, one that presumptuously claims to speak on behalf of the average joe in an attempt to make people like it more. There are two ways to resolve this: one is to go as vague as possible, generalising to the point where the song degenerates into a series of meaningless platitudes that pander to the lowest common denominator. The other is more interesting: instead of trying to describe a particular journey towards/of faith, it simply shows that faith in action, demonstrating how people express their devotion to God, and letting those emotions bleed through the lyrics. Al Hibbler’s “He” takes this latter course: there are no mentions of “I” in the lyrics, just a constant “He” who seems to inspire a whole bounty of emotions within the narrator — emotions which he strains to articulate in the song.

Chief amongst them is awe: we have been told many times that God is an all-powerful being, but here the full scale of that omnipotence is brought to our attention: “he can turn the tides and calm the angry sea”, “he can paint the clouds and turn to grey the blue”, and so on. With such grandiose proclamations comes grandiose accompaniments: the orchestra has been turned up to eleven in this production, with tubular bells and a full-scale choir backing up Hibbler as he makes his way through the lyrics, one sentence at a time. That stateliness has torpedoed many a 50s #1: the need to agonise over every single emotion means that songs feel like a second- or even third-hand account rather than something that one can actually live through. Here, though, it feels the correct choice: Hibbler sounds like he’s trying to come to terms with all of this greatness, and what it means to him — does this so-called God even care about him? The evidence is all there, but it’s just so difficult to parse: in the face of something big, the temptation to suggest that one small individual doesn’t matter is immense.

It’s at this point that the other unfathomable emotion in this song comes into play. It’s not very visible at first, but gradually we get hints of it through the lyrics. “Saint or sinner calls and always finds him there”, and “though it makes Him sad to see the way we live/ He’ll always say ‘I forgive’”. That “I forgive” is not just a simple statement: it’s the point where Hibbler’s He becomes relatable, connected to the listener and the narrator himself. Instead of some remote, unapproachable deity, this is one that a believer can look to in times of trouble, no matter how rough things have gotten. And it makes an impression on our narrator: the backing singers murmur “I forgive, I forgive…” like memories that just won’t go away. It slowly dawns on him that this is what matters, that what he’s feeling is hope: hope that he can be saved, hope that he still matters to someone. It replaces the doubt and awe in his mind…

… and in a flash, that realisation of salvation becomes an impossibly tender moment. Hibbler lifts his head up high, and shouts to the heavens: “I… for… GIVE!” That moment is where those two slightly conflicting feelings, awe and hope, come together for the singer: the realisation that hope is possible, even attainable, for any sinner no matter wretched they are. That discovery can be one of the most powerful feelings for any person, whether or not they believe — it’s a moment of triumph over adversity, over whatever demons are plaguing you personally. The song sells that triumph, conveys just how earth-shattering an experience it is: swirling strings, shouting choirs, ringing bells… the perfect picture of hope. And you exit the song believing — if not in whatever faith you profess, then at least in the power it holds.




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