Eavesdropping on the Goodspell

Shirley Ann Lee's Someday

Her voice is charged with the buttery sparkle of the crown she calls for. Gospel princess Shirley Anne Lee, after fleeing a tumultuous marriage in Los Angeles and relocating to Nashville, records a two-line song about a revelation coming to life in the self: I will wear the starry crown, someday/someday, I should wear the starry crown.She trails off from the couplet into rehearsal and woodshed, and an unnamed coach she runs the sketch by ensures that the bare bones are all she needs, no contrived lyrics just the doubling somedays, a  piano flourish, a return to the couplet’s emblem of a lit-up head dress, and the song lands completely— a fairy tale with no plot so that the listener’s imagination can fill in the journey between someday and someday with her own rise to glory, and bridge the chasm between the crown and its wearer with her own days.

In the Book of Revelation, the wearer of the “starry crown” is visited by a seven-headed dragon, as if her illumination ushers in battle and fire, an evil eye but also purification by its rabid heat. The woman is said to be clothed in sun, with the moon under her feet, as if she is earth itself and being harvested for bounty or receiving some private anointing that only believers can witness. She is pregnant and gives birth to a son that the seven-headed dragon scoops up upon arrival and delivers to the heavens to rule the earth while the woman flees to the wilderness. Having just fled herself with her own son, maybe the verse refers to escaping treachery in Lee’s adaptation, appropriated for her personal hero’s mission. The idea of ‘someday’ is stranded in the band of lights it depends on to arrive in the mind of a woman, a cosmic misfit of a future contingent on a reconstituted self. The exiled self rescues the self, someday, the verse promises, even if that rescue looks like theft and escapism, the enlightenment of neutralizing and placating opposing forces from within is what keeps the starry crown buzzing and worthy of itself. The best part of Lee’s recording follows this mythological self-realization; it’s the candid and a little clumsy discussion of where to travel next in the song. 

With the same reserved glimmer in her tone Lee admits, this all I’ve got in the writing and then plays another riff, almost whispered, I should… wear a crown. Her attentive audience of one suggests, have you considered using music to fill in the rest? Her son is playing in the background, Lee agrees, hushes him, and mutters, it’s a pretty beginning though. The din makes it prettier, the someday or summoned day, interrupted before the dragon can bleed on them and finish the prophecy, that of a woman who gives up being a god to become a servant of god, that of what happens when you let your creative power overpower you. Dragons appear in esoteric texts like the Iching as signs that change will be forced where it is not invited in its natural rhythm, that self must light the self on fire eventually or some outside force that is far less forgiving will intervene and perform that magic ritual in a manner that feels punishing for its abruptness. A quiet and softly interrupted myth is thus born in a Nashville basement circa 1968, then sampled deftly on Kanye’s 2018 song “Ghost Town,” which allows the someday to revolve and scatter prayerlike until it reaches the territory of courtship and longing. Both songs tap into and interrogate the gap between what is deserved and what is received and both are church music turned autobiographical. 

Shirely Ann Lee’s “Someday” is how a home should sound on Sundays, or an open field awaiting its dragon, or a woman awaiting her crown of lights like a window to fly out of, her sun and shadow coordinates as fertile as April, as secretive as winter. Her divine form thus captioned by cosmic interruptions that almost shatter her own sense of her divinity. The plain mysticism of this gospel makes it more potent than any song that genuflects to god. Lee positions herself as the hero of her own future, steals her agency back from her belief system and decides she should be the one to light her path and embody her great day in the morning. Faith in the self becomes faith in the future here, and the eternal force that animates that self— the star-crown or dragon demanding the birth and rebirth of its rightful wearer. 

I think the earliest desire to loop phrases and captions in black music stems from subtle gospels like this, and the need to chant them when we were culturally and geographically separated from our natural understanding of chant and refrain, or how to naturally reproduce ourselves on our terms through the momentum of a seed phrase, how to bloom. To unwind a web of syntactic oppression it makes sense to create coils of sound that cradle and shield soft visions and private dreams, and emphasize those fantasies over trauma and catastrophe. Loops are safe spaces and they occur in cadences of black speech and then lean into song with such ease you forget you’re not having a conversation with Shirley when she starts summoning her dazed yet regal return to the future. Her voice levitates and the soul listening gyrates reverently with its declarations.

The whole imagination perks up with promise and then retreats into quiet satisfaction, the song ends before it can turn tragic or too exact. Song formats have been mostly regimented and normalized to eliminate shimmering interludes like “Someday” making it past rehearsal tapes and looping as whole songs, but get out of the radio and into a church basement where what a song is just your manner of getting closer to god or your life force, not a way to escape or sell ad space. In Shirley’s tone, there’s a weariness and spaciousness that turns energetic and sensual similar to the way Alice Coltrane’s chants evolve within the span of a ‘song’ or Lorez Alexandria’s breathless drag and restraint when she interprets standards, a feminine temperament that suggests wearing the crown of lights without being weighed down by it, both lighthearted and intent. They reject flourish but still use all the space each note and concept has to offer. These women transmute the predictable tones of yearning, which grind and ache and tremble, and access the other side and sound of that habit, where you have what you want the moment you declare it and seduce yourself and your listeners with the playful modesty of true fulfillment. Such are the gospels according to women who sing and chant to soothe themselves, and you’re lucky if you get to eavesdrop.