Jonathan Edwards - "Sunshine"

by Bruce Pollock

They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Jonathan Edwards.


Artist: Jonathan Edwards
Writer: Jonathan Edwards
Album: Jonathan Edwards
Year: 1971
Chart Position: #4 (US)
Label: Capricorn (first released on Atco)
When he was a struggling folk singer living in a type of songwriter's commune in Boston in the early '70s, Jonathan Edwards ignored a bit of cogent advice from a fellow suffering neighbor named Joe Dolce, whose later claim to fame in life had the title "Shaddap You Face." As was his habit, Edwards played him a bit of his newest creation, called "Sunshine," soon after completing it. "I was living in a nest of musicians and songwriters," Edwards said. "Each of us had a bedroom that was sort of circled around the kitchen and everybody was always sitting at the kitchen table with a pad of paper and a guitar. We'd all play whatever we came up with for everybody. So I played the song. I didn't have a chorus yet so 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. So my friend Joe Dolce said, 'How much does what cost? No, go back to your room. That doesn't make any sense. Go back to your room.' I went back to my room but that was all I could come up with. It seemed to make sense at the time, and it's made sense to a lot of people ever since, most of all to me."

Going on 40 years now "Sunshine" has been an essential part of his show, usually closing out the first of his two sets. However familiar, the actual meaning of the song is still an open question. "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," Edwards said. "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.

"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. 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. I'll always remember that incredible sunrise in D.C. when I played it at the foot of the Washington Monument on May 2nd, 1971. We went to the Mayday antiwar rally and by the time I got the chance to play, it was May 2nd. The sun was coming up and the National Guard was arresting people for protesting, for being on the grounds of the Washington Monument. 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."

This was back when the song was first released on Atco, six months before it became a hit on Capricorn. Edwards' experience with his original label was not favorable. "Atco had no clue what to do with a kid in a leather vest and a cowboy hat singing bluegrass songs," he said. "They also had Danny O'Keefe and they didn't know what to do with him, either. We have since done some shows together and he's one of my biggest heroes. Atco actually put out a promotional single with "Sunshine" on one side and "Good Time Charlie" on the other side. I definitely think it would be a collector's item today. If I have any copies left, I'll send you one."
Jonathan Edwards:
The furthest thing from my mind was singles or radio play or anything else. I never bought into that dream. I just was trying to make music and follow the songs where I felt they led. And nothing has changed with my philosophy. A lot of the songs I wrote during those years I never dreamed would be heard by anyone. I just was writing for the pure sake of having something to say and finding a venue to say it in through the guitar. When I first started playing out, I did a whole guerilla marketing thing where I went around to all the colleges in New England and just plugged in my sound system, guitar and microphone wherever I could find an AC outlet, and sang until somebody said, "Are you authorized to be here?" Those early crowds that would come to me like magnets, informed me of where to go with my songs, and what songs were working and what songs needed more work or should be dropped.

My recollection about "Sunshine" is that we had been in the studio for about a year. Everybody was tired and we were working late hours. We were leaving the studio every day at 6 or 7 in the morning. One morning the engineer and myself were the only ones in the studio and we were trying to find some blank tape, because tape was really expensive and we didn't have any money. So we were trying to reuse the stuff. And he accidentally erased a song that we had worked on that day. So he said, "Hey, man, do you want to do that one again?" I said, "Not really." He says, "Well, do you have anything new you'd like to put on?" I said, "Yeah, let me try this one." So I did 'Sunshine' and it sounded good. I added bass and then we put drums on the next day.

I think the song was buried down deep in the album, like the 7th cut or something. So it was news to everybody when some DJs in New England started playing the song as an album cut. So then Capricorn hurried up and put a single out on cheap vinyl with the demo on the other side, and it took off. I was living out in Harvard, Massachusetts. I had finally succeeded in renting a farm out in apple country. I was loving life, raising chickens and raising hogs and writing songs and being a child of nature. Suddenly I was in the van, and I was in airplanes, and I was in hotels, 250 nights a year for three or four years.

Just at this point I had broken out as a solo act. The first gig I played as a solo was at Boston College, opening for Patrick Sky, who was a big star at the time, in front of 23,000 kids. I had never been in front of a crowd that size all by myself. I walked out and before I could even get to the microphone, somebody yelled really loud so the microphones picked it up: "You suck!!" And then everybody started laughing and I walked to the mike and I said, "Well, thank you. I usually don't get that till about the third song." And I had the audience from that point on. After a very short time, three months, maybe, everybody knew the song and I was getting large audiences myself. And then I got the opportunity to open for bands like Poco, the Allman Brothers, and then later on Loggins & Messina, and the Small Faces with Rod Stewart and B.B. King. I'd just walk out solo and I'd bring my bass player out who also played fiddle, and we'd get the place rocking, just the two of us. And that's kind of where I'm still at.

My manager at that time signed me to a contract for, believe it or not, 14 albums in 7 years. That was the contract. Actually, I wanted nothing to do with management. I wanted nothing to do with the business. At that time I just wanted to go out and play. I just wanted to go out and play and come in for dinner. But my manager informed me that I had 13 more albums to do, so I'd better get busy. Which was completely overwhelming, because I was a child of '60s. I was a hippie. I was just a free spirit running around on the road having the time of my life, loving audiences and having them love me back. So I tried to do what I was told to do. But the second album was met with complete wide-eyed bewilderment by the label, and I thought it was one of my best albums. It's called Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy. I was very discouraged at that point, because I knew enough about the business to know that if I did not have a followup single or album, that I would be gone. So I did another album after that called Have a Good Time for Me, and then I was pretty much through.

Anyway, I'd had enough. I was really tired of living in a van and a hotel. I'm much more about the earth than the airplane. And I had a life threatening illness. I don't want to go into it, but it woke me up to the fact that if I wanted to do all the things I was preaching about, like getting back to the earth and getting off the power grid and learning how to be a self-sufficient member of a family and a community, and educate my children myself, I'd better do it now. So I moved to Nova Scotia and found a farm that had never seen chemical fertilizer or insecticides and I started farming. At which point my manager said, "Well, you still owe us 11 albums." And I said, "Well, great. If you want to catch me, I'll be playing a couple of shows in Cambridge. If you want to tape those, fine, go ahead. But I don't see myself in the studio anytime soon at this level of support from the label." So they made a live album of a show I did in Cambridge called Lucky Day. And then I did kind of drop off the map for about nine months until one day Emmylou Harris called me up out of the blue to invite me to sing a couple of duets with her on Elite Hotel. And then her husband/producer, Brian Aherne, got me a deal at Warner Brothers and produced my next two records, Rocking Chair and Sailboat. And I was back on the road, renting a bus and hiring a band.

My original royalties from "Sunshine" were absconded with, because I signed everything that came across the desk. I didn't know any different. And that's a deep hurt and a deep regret to this day. But after I got rid of that manager, I finally started making some money and sustaining my lifestyle. And since then it's been great. I've had just a blast being in this business and touring around and meeting people and playing music for a living. I mean, as much as we all complain sometimes about our lot in life, at the end of the day, I'm playing songs for people. So be quiet.

July 9, 2013
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Comments: 5

  • Constance Stepanek from ChicagoI woke up this morning with your sunshine song running through me. As always, your an inspiration for my soul. Live on , live strong, deep shanti’s to you. Another “city hippie”. Play on ....
  • Will From Pearsall from San Antonio He can't run his own life I'll be damned if he runs mine! Those words are engraved forevermore. Despite setbacks I pick myself up, dust off, and keep on truckin' !
  • Bill from Pensacola, Fl"The meaning of life, you name it." wow, one of the best short interviews on this site. so much message there. just like that song.
    One of the first songs I heard, and I was really young, that had deeper meanings, just because I myself could make it have more meaning, does that make sense? When you realize a song or poem, or anything created can have more meaning than even the artists realizes.
  • Randy Mitchell from Anna, TexasGreat artist...I can't believe there was no mention of some of the other good songs in his catalog like "Shanty", "Rockin' Chair" (Gonna Get You), or "Girl from the Canyon"...all great tunes...
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaOH My! I remember hearing "Sunshine" on the radio when I was in High School. In fact I heard it the other day on SiriusXM and it took me back to those days. For us back then it was "Sunshine" Jonathan Edwards and "Roadrunner" from the "Other" Jonathan, Richman. Sorry to hear he got so hosed from management. Glad he is still around.
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