Song Swarm – Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down
If you were to put me on the spot and demand that I choose one all-time favourite song, I suppose my default answer would be “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”, the Kris Kristofferson version.
One may argue about whether it would feature in a shortlist of best song ever; still it resonates with me on many levels, including as a soundtrack in a particular time in my life. And it is, of course, a great song which ought to feature in a shortlist of best song ever.
Like many early Kristofferson songs, it was first recorded not by the composer but by others, because early in his career KK didn’t regard himself primarily as a singer. In fact, he thought he was a terrible singer. In the event, his limitations are also his strength, with that whisky-soaked, soulful voice giving his lyrics a sense of having been lived. But KK knew he had good tunes and that he wanted to write songs for a living.
It might have been different. The son of an army officer, Kristofferson was earmarked for a military career, and served a stint as a helicopter pilot for Uncle Sam. Before that he was a Rhodes scholar, graduating from Oxford with a degree in philosophy. He was offered a job lecturing at the military academy at West Point. Instead, he left the army, and, having been inspired by a meeting with Johnny Cash after a concert, Kristofferson moved with his family to Nashville to try his hand at the music business.
Things did not start promisingly: in 1966 he landed a job at Columbia Records — as a janitor. But in between sweeping floors and polishing door handles, he gave Cash some of his songs, thereby violating strict company policy. Cash was encouraging but didn’t use any of the songs — in fact, according to Kristofferson, Cash said that he threw them into a lake. Still, it was the genesis of a profound friendship.
A year later, Kristofferson flew helicopters again, for an oil company. He also began a tentative recording career with Epic Records, and finally his songs were started to be recorded by other artists. One day, Kristofferson decided to try and impress Cash again, so he flew a helicopter to Cash’s house to give him some tapes. Cash wasn’t home, though that didn’t stop him from telling a great tale about Kristofferson exiting the chopper with a demo in one hand and a beer in the other.
Still, Cash started to create a buzz around KK, referring to him repeatedly on his TV show. Cash’s introduction of Kristofferson at the Newport Folk Festival especially helped kickstart KK’s recording career.
Cash, of course, recorded “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (as he corrected the title) in 1970, and won a Grammy for it. Cash resisted pressure to change the line “wishing, Lord, that I was stoned” to “…I was home” in deference to the song’s writer; he however had the kid “playing with”, not “cussing at”, the can that he was kicking.
The song was originally recorded the previous year by Ray Stevens, who had a minor hit with it. Following Cash’s hit and KK’s version, several artists tried their hand at the song, with varying degrees of accomplishment. Some are featured here, and many tend to play loose with the lyrics. Alas, the one version I’d really like to hear I don’t have, that by Hank Ballard.
So, here are 36 versions of Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down, some of them live recordings.
Ray Stevens (1969) • Johnny Cash (live • 1970) • Johnny Cash (1970) • Kris Kristofferson (1970) • Roy Clark (1970) • Freddy Weller (1970) • Lynn Anderson (1970) • Mark Lindsay (1970) • Sammi Smith (1970) • Janis Joplin (1970) • Tom Jones • Glen Campbell & Nancy Sinatra (1970) • R. Dean Taylor (1971) • Waylon Jennings (1971) • Hank Snow (1971) • Margie Brandon (1971) • Ernie Smith (1971) • John Mogensen (as Søndag morgen 1971) • Kristofferson & Friends (1973) • Pavel Bobek (as Nedělní ráno • 1973) • Frankie Laine (1978) • Johnny Cash & Kris Kristofferson (live • 1980) • Johnny Paycheck (1980) • Louis Neefs (as Zondagmiddag • 1980) • David Allan Coe (1998) • Shawn Mullins (1998) • Alvin Youngblood Hart (2003) • Kris Kristofferson & Foo Fighters (2005) • Floyd Red Crow Westerman (2006) • Jeff Walker und Die Flüffers (2006) • Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (2006) • Mark Chesnutt (2010) • Jerry Lee Lewis (2010) • Marissa Nadler (2010) • Willie Nelson (2011) • Brandi Carlile (live • 2012) • Gretchen Wilson (2012)
(PW in comments)