Many listeners have found meaning in this song, with some believing that it was a repudiation of Christianity. So what did Edwards have in mind when he wrote it? He told us in 2013: "I used to get letters back in the day, letters from English classes and different science classes telling me about the deeper interpretations that they had come up with - the meaning of life, you name it. That was always entertaining. But what it has left me with is the wisdom to not answer the question, because everyone's interpretation is way more creative and interesting than my original impetus for the song. So you go with it."
This is the kind of song that only a struggling folk singer could write. Edwards was living in a kind of songwriter co-op in Boston when he came up with it. In this setup, each occupant had his own room surrounding a kitchen where they would write, perform, and critique each other's work. When he played this song at the table, Edwards didn't have a chorus written, so he made one up on the spot.
In our They're Playing My Song
feature, Edwards explained
: "I just went, 'How much does it cost? I'll buy it.' I was talking about freedom and talking about authority, my constant questioning of authority. 'How much does it cost? I'll buy it? Time is all we've lost. I'll try it. He can't even run his own life, I'll be damned if he'll run mine.' That just came out as I was playing the song for these people."
One of the other writers in the room was Joe Dolce, who would reach #53 in 1981 with the novelty song "Shaddap You Face." Dolce told him the chorus made no sense, and that he should go back to his room and try again. Fortunately, Edwards ignored this advice.
Edwards recorded this out of necessity when one of the tracks he put down near the end of his 1970 sessions for the album, "Please Find Me," was accidentally erased. Instead of redoing that song, he did "Sunshine." Pleased with the results, he and the engineer overdubbed bass and added the drums the next day.
Edwards was signed to Atco Records, which was a division of Atlantic. They released "Sunshine" as his first single early in 1971, but it flopped. The song got some traction, however, when disc jockeys in New England started playing it off the album. Six months after the Atco single was released, it was re-issued on the independent Capricorn label with a demo version on the B-side. This time, the song was a hit, shooting to #4 in the US.
Edwards, however, was not motivated by hit records. "I just was writing for the pure sake of having something to say and finding a venue to say it in through the guitar," he told us. This didn't go over well with Atco, which tried unsuccessfully to squeeze more hits out of him. The closest they got was "Train Of Glory," which stalled at #101 three months after "Sunshine" peaked ("Stop And Start It All Again" made it to #112). Edwards, who left his business affairs to his manager and signed whatever documents were placed in front of him, was locked into a ludicrous 14 album deal with Atco. His second album, Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy, was released in 1972. Edwards thought it was a great album, but Atco was bewildered. The next year, he released Have a Good Time for Me, then bought an organic farm in Nova Scotia where he moved with his family. His next recording was a duet on the song "Wheels" with Emmylou Harris, released on her 1975 album Elite Hotel. Her boyfriend (and later husband), the producer Brian Aherne, helped Edwards get a deal with Warner Bros. and produced his next two albums: Rockin' Chair (1976) and Sailboat (1977).
When he performs live, Edwards usually ends the first of his two sets with this song. "I often say, and it's true, that if I had never done another song in my life, I'll be happy to have come and gone with that," he told us. "It was an anthem to many people and it helped a lot of people through Vietnam. It helped a lot of people through the drug culture of the last part of the '60s and the early '70s. It helped a lot of people cope with a lot of things that were going on during those tumultuous years. And I feel very proud to have done that and very happy with my contribution to our culture."
Edwards performed this song at the Mayday protests on May 2, 1971. With the slogan, "If the government will not stop the war, we will stop the government," the demonstration was organized by a group called the Mayday Tribe, with the goal of shutting down the government by blocking off key areas in Washington, DC. When the protests started on May 1, the government had thousands of troops ready and made mass arrests, which carried into the next day when Edwards played at the Washington Monument. "The sun was coming up and the National Guard was arresting people for protesting, for being on the grounds of the Washington Monument," he recalled. "It was my turn to play and I just started playing that song. We got to the end and my bass player and I looked at each other and we went, 'Let's just start it over again.' So we just kept playing that song. Because there's no better song for the soundtrack of that movie. It had just come out. Some people had heard it, some hadn't, but everyone heard it that morning, including the National Guard."