donny hathaway


Monday, October 27, 2014
Donny Hathaway – “A Dream” from Everything is Everything (1970 Atco)


Before there was John Legend, there was Donny Hathaway. And before I knew who Donny Hathaway was, I heard references to him in hip-hop lyrics, (most notably in Brother Ali’s “Shadows on the Sun”: that’s when the greatest hits of Donny Hathaway / got interrtupted by a drive-by shooting half a block away).

What I didn’t know was that, of course, I knew Donny Hathaway’s music already, from oldies stations and grocery stores from somewhere, but I’d definitely heard the song “The Ghetto” before. Still, I hadn’t connected the name to the music, and wouldn’t for years. Thankfully his continued presence in hip-hop lyrics coincided with a budding interest in sixties and seventies soul, and so here we are.

A person looking to Donny Hathaway for soul perfection may prefer to look a bit further than “A Dream,” which is something of a rambling stroll into British folk ballad territory. There’s harp, oboe, and atop it all, the plaintive vocals of one Donny Hathaway, a tragic figure whose life ended in suicide. Here he embodies a character who dreams of loving someone for the first time, and there are moments where it seems to border on the sexual: “I tried to hold you close / like a man of experience / but it seemed you already knew / this would be my very first chance / to hold someone…I wanted to make love to you.” Okay, so that’s not really bordering on anything, that’s straight up about wanting to have sex, which makes this later part extra tricky: “Then I saw you in the shower of rain that came from the sky.” Innocuous enough, but Hathaway pauses after “shower,” which makes things just a little bit freaky to these ears.

In the end, the encounter is just a dream, which you may have guessed from the rather uninspired title, and the narrator goes back, presumably, to a destitute existence. We know that, despite Hathaway’s reported depression and ultimate demise, at least he had a family, so it’s difficult to say exactly how autobiographical this song is, and also, in cases of mental illness, I really don’t like to speculate from an armchair.

I can say in the end that this song is fine, which is why, I suppose, it remains. Hathaway is an important part of American soul music, and this song is a part of his canon, and for that it has earned its spot in my library. I could do without the oboe, though, which is nearly always the case.