Donny Hathaway – A Song For You.
Donny Hathaway has a voice which fuses opposing emotions. Pain and joy, sorrow and hope, regret and thankfulness: his voice is a voice of emotional truth. But the soul personified in his voice reveals an inner battle. He suffered from severe bouts of depression, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and, in 1979, at the age of 33, he committed suicide. Despite this, he left a small catalogue of soul music, all of which can be regarded as expressions of paradoxical emotions. The song in which we best hear this is ‘A Song For You.’
Originally written by another troubled soul, Karen Carpenter, Donny takes the song and, like the most gifted musicians do, makes it sound wholly original, as if he himself has written it. In it he showcases not only a rare vocal range – going from near baritone to falsetto with ease – but also his prodigious piano playing. The extra licks are like afterthoughts not uttered in words. The string instruments that accompany Donny and his piano give a humble setting for him to express his pain and, by slowing the original songs pace slightly, his voice takes over the melody so that it is as if the music is reacting to his voice.
The pain in his voice demands that the listener meditate on his words. ‘We’re alone now, and I’m singin’ this song to you.’ By doing so, the pain draws the listener further into the music. This is best evidenced at 3:55, with the long-range pain as he sings, simply, ‘I love you.’ Yet this is not a joyous expression, but one full of hurt and regret. It is also an indication of the turmoil within, his mental health problems resulting in a fragmented self, where the utterance of ‘I,’ is in fact a prompt for metaphysical questions such as whether there is a persisting self, and what truly defines our identity.
The lyrics not only express Donny’s emotions but, in turn, consider the emotions of the subject – that is, the listener – with the haunting line, ‘and when my life is over, remember when we were together,’ a sorrowful reminder that Donny has indeed passed away, but also of the beauty he leaves through music. ‘A Song For You,’ becomes, then, an intimate dialogue between Donny Hathaway and the listener. This intimate dialogue should be a principle aim for any musician, yet remains an altogether rare occurrence. Donny Hathaway achieved this ideal consistently.