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Soul Sundays: Touch the Hem of His Garment

April 4, 2010

Sam Cooke – Touch the Hem of His Garment

I thought I’d experiment with a new category for some tunes (alliteration? check!) and what better way to start than with soul music and Sam Cooke. My interest in the song, “Touch the Hem of His Garment” was recently piqued by a joyful rendition by Basia Bulat, a Canadian folk singer (the “workingman’s Joanna Newsom” as I like to call her).

Now, of course, most human beings will recognize this tune as one sung by immortal Sam Cooke. Cooke recorded it on Feb. 2, 1956 at Master Recorders Studio in Hollywood with the Soul Stirrers (great name). Legend has it Sam was not exactly prepared for the recording session upon arrival, when he, in haste, grabbed a Bible (I guess they bibles lying around the studios in those days), read a story from the Book of Matthew, and then wrote the song on the spot.

How true tale is we cannot be entirely sure, but likely it’s a bit of a stretch. Cooke was most likely channeling the Christian hymn “She Only Touched the Hem of His Garment“, written by George Root in the late 19th century. The braided relationship of soul and gospel is well-known and hardly worth recounting here.

The story in the song itself is definitely real (well it’s in the bible). In Matthew 9:20-22, we learn that Jesus is coming back to Galilee from his tour of the land of Garasenes (Exit 15 off the Turnpike). He’s getting the paparazzi treatment as the boats dock and a crowd gathers. A woman, who has been bleeding for 12 years (people bled for longer back in those days) – the uterine sort and no one has been able to heal her, is eager to see Jesus. She manages to make her way through the crowds and touches the “hem of his garment” and is magically healed (no more bleeding). Jesus immediately asks, “Who just touched me?” to which the crowd plays dumb. It is significant he singles out her touch, since he’s being touched by dozens of people at this moment. He clarifies, “‘Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.'” (8:45-46) Finally, the woman admits it was her and throws herself at his feet. Jesus then replies, “‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.'” (8:47-48)

There are two significant issues here – the first being that an “unclean woman” has touched Jesus – women are who “bleeding” were considered unclean by the Jews and this was not a kosher thing to do (no pun intended). In theory, Jesus has every right to be angry with her, but he is kind to her instead. And second, Jesus attempts to disabuse her of the notion that his clothing or person have some magical/supranatural properties. Instead, he implores her that it is her faith that has in fact healed her. There is a delicious tension here between the physical and metaphysical plain and slippery slope of worldly objects serving as conduits for faith versus becoming objects of faith unto themselves. If I was a Protestant or Catholic I might explore this more or perhaps care more.

What did she actually touch? She reportedly touches the “edge” or in Greek “kraspedon” of his “garment.” This word edge is likely referring to the fringes or tassels (Hebrew for tzitziyot) and garment refers to the second of two layers of clothing, a cloak (or Tallith or Goltha), one wore in the days of Jesus. The first layer was a simple tunic and the second layer, the cloak had four tassles attached to it, which were required by Jewish law (long story). So in theory Cooke could have sang “she touched the tzitziyot of his tallith,” but it just doesn’t seem have the same ring…not sure why.

Back to Cooke’s song – there are a few striking things about it. First, upon initial listen, you’d probably think it was just another love song (I know I did the first few times), due to Cooke’s crooning and the lush doo-wop background vocals. I’d argue even once you learn it’s a “gospel” song, there still remains a quiescent romantic (or even erotic) element to it. The imagery of a woman seeking out this man in a fit of passion so she can touch his garment to have “sex” healed against this musical backdrop does more than make one think of churches and crosses I bet (you can almost picture the hormone charged teenagers from ’50s listening to this through the AM speakers, trying to figure whether they should start praying or panting). Second, also notable is that Cooke makes the woman the clear protagonist in the story, as we hear very little from the “lord” in his version. When the lord asks who has touched him (his one cameo), instead of the terrified, meek woman from the Bible afraid she’s going to catch a backhand, we see an almost exuberant, defiant woman “standing” there (not on the ground) “crying” out that she is now “whole” (the lord’s reaction is left out altogether). In many ways, it feels like a triumph. Does this mean Cooke has managed to transcend the somewhat troublesome image of a subordinate woman and her male savior (which certainly one can find in the Bible version) into something more? Is Cooke’s version still a gospel song in the end? Is it erotic, liberating, or holy? I’ll let you decide. Long live Sam Cooke.

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