Sister Golden Hair, Surprise!

10-sister-golden-hair (click to take you to a Soundcloud link of Sister Golden Hair).

According to some website I just went to, on this day in music history, June 14, 1975,  the pop song “Sister Golden Hair” by America went to the top the charts and although it only lasted a week, the song kind of cemented America’s reputation as bankable radio stars. Here’s a live version on Burt Sugarman’s Midnight Special

Since I no longer believe in the term “guilty pleasure” I will search for a new term to explain my qualified pronouncement of this song as a classic. Produced by George Martin, and written by Gerry Beckley (who along with Dewey Bunnell and Dan Peek, formed the core trio of America), the song was a breakout from their fifth album, Hearts (a lot of their albums from this era had one word titles beginning with the letter H).

All three were the children of American soldiers but grew up in London, where the eventually picked up some acoustic guitars, and took a decidedly Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young sound, especially on their debut single, “A Horse With No Name.” With its impenetrable lyrics, and Neil Youngish lead vocal, that song created an image of the band that was apparently at odds with their mid-Atlantic influences; while they did love the California sound of the Beach Boys they were equally influenced by The Beatles, which is why after three albums they went ahead and hired George Martin himself to produce them. Their first collaboration, the album Holiday, yielded instant results  such as “Tin Man”, by Dewey Bunnell, which climbed to #4, and “Lonely People”  which got to #5, and fully merged the Neil Young vocal style with a Beach Boys/ Beatles blend that they had sought in the first place, it even had strains of “Take It Easy” by the Eagles. Radio went nuts.

“I was aware,”  Bunnell told Rolling Stones’ David Rensin, in November 1973, “that I sounded like Neil Young on ‘Horse With No Name’, but I never put anything on. In fact, now I try to use a different voice so that I won’t be branded as a rip-off. It’s such a drag, though, to have to not sound like someone when you can’t help it in the first place. A voice is a voice, right?”

“All of our musical landmarks came before CSN&Y,” added Gerry Beckley, in the Rolling Stone piece. “I remember buying their album and getting off, but nothing’s really excited me since the Beatles and the Beach Boys.”

The band flew to Sausalito, north of San Francisco, to record their fifth album Hearts (their second with Martin) which was released in March of 1975.  “Sister Golden Hair” opened with a chunky acoustic guitar strum against a doubled slide guitar figure that was clearly influenced by the intro of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” The backing vocals on the choruses, however, are pure Brian Wilson/Beach Boys. The song shot up to number one despite no one being really sure what the song was about. Was it really about his “sister”? Was it about an African American woman with a blond wig? Was it about a nun?  Like most hit singles by the band that once sang about “Plants and birds and rocks and things…” the meaning was left wide open to interpretation. Beckley will only say that it’s “all poetic license. With ‘Sister Golden Hair,’ as far as my folks were concerned, I was writing a song about my sister, and I couldn’t quite fathom it; they must not have listened to the lyrics.”

On a lighter note, a visit to Songfacts.com, produces a plethora of mostly wrong assumptions about the origins of the song, sent in by fans.  Here’s a light sampling:

“I always thought the song was about how he had messed up a relationship. He had left his girlfriend and left town for a while “I’ve been too too hard to find” but he is back now and wants to patch things up “but it doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind”. He tried faking that he didn’t need her but he can’t live without her. He wants her to meet him in the middle to show she still cares about him and can forgive him. As for the altar bit, it’s not about leaving her at the altar, he feels too guilty and depressed (about what he has done to this woman) to go to church on Sunday (to confess his sins).” – Cedar, Perry, OK

“I always took the Golden Hair Surprise lyrics to refer to the fact that her head was NOT covered in blonde hair and that perhaps she was a brunette or redhead, but other, um, parts of her were in fact Golden Haired.” – Robert, Austin, TX

“Well I tried to make it Sunday but I got so damned depressed that I set my sights on Monday and I got myself undressed” I take this to mean that the guy is imagining his wedding day with this girl and it scares him and then he “sets his sights on Monday”‘ (the day after) it hopes that afterwards would be manageable. He is getting himself undressed after a day of work or whatever.” – Michael, Omaha, NE

“My take, is a man who finds out the women he loves is a man, hence the surprise. Also a women sure can be a friend of mine, reference to male friendship, not mutual consented sex…just thinking…” – Keith, centerport, NY

“…the singer likes this golden haired girl a lot, but he isn’t sexually attracted to her. She wants a serious relationship with all the trappings, possibly leading to the altar, but the singer doesn’t want that at all. He loves her like a sister, and he needs her in his life. But he can’t manage a sexual relationship with her, and he’s quite frank about it ( “I tried to fake it. I don’t mind saying, I just can’t make it.”) What he wants is for her to love him a little, not a lot, just enough so he knows she really cares. In turn he will offer his devoted friendship, but nothing beyond that. The key word is “Sister”. This is not a reference to a nun, but a reference to the nature of his ideal relationship with her.” – Al, Baltimore, MD

“OBVIOUSLY – the song is about finding out that Sister Golden Hair is a dude – SURPRISE! …” – Dona, Ladysmith, MN

“No. NO. NO. Sister Golden Hair is the real life story of a young man (Beckley) not ready for the altar (military service) looking out the window at his beautiful golden haired sister who is playing in the sandbox in the yard and knowing may miss her become a beautiful young woman. If you look at the album cover you will see the story illustrated. The house on the cover is the back of their home in Norcross Georgia. Her hair today is just as golden as the song describes.” – Paul, Carrollton, GA

“Okay I have taken into consideration the masturbation theory, but really, who can masturbate when they’re depressed, right? Anyway, seriously, he “tried to make it Sunday and got so damned depressed” because he can’t see her…” – Cristina, st. louis, MO

“Alright Everyone. I think that we are letting our selves get carried away just a little bit. First off, the song is not about someone who is masturbating. There is one line that could refer to this and that is the line that says he got undressed. That doesn’t make sense if you take it in context. Superseding that line he says he was depressed. This is why he got undressed. What that means is that he was just too sad to get out of the house to see her, and that seeing her hurt too much, so he got undressed and got back into bed. Second, the song is not about a nun. Just because he uses the word sister doesn’t mean it’s a nun. Nowhere in the song does it refer to A. Catholic School or Church. B. The context of the song isn’t about forbidden love. If it was he would probably use those words or something like it. The song refers to a love that for some reason did or did not work. Third, the song is not about his sister. He uses the term sister golden hair, as a poetic way of saying a heavenly girl that is blonde. Yes he uses the term sister as in the meaning of nun. It doesn’t mean she is a nun it means she is of that status. She is pure. It’s like calling her an angel. He even is quoted as saying that his parents thought it was about his sister and they must not have read the lyrics. The song is truly about two lovers that became friends. He regrets this and wants what he has back. He was suppose to meet her on Sunday as a “friend” but it was too hard. “ Well I tried to make it sunday, but I got so damn depressed That I set my sights on monday and I got myself undressed” The second part is that he is telling her he just wants to date her again, he isn’t asking for marriage. Then under his breath he says but I do agree theres times because in his heart he really does want to marry her. “I aint ready for the altar but I do agree there’s times” The next part says that she was a good friend even if not a lover. That the friendship made him realize how much she meant to him. “When a woman sure can be a friend of mine” Then he goes on to say how much he loves her. “Well, I keep on thinkin bout you, sister golden hair surprise And I just can’t live without you; can’t you see it in my eyes?” Next he apologizes for being a bad listener. Part of the reason they broke up was that he wasn’t there for her, but he still cares about her even though he didn’t show it. “I been one poor correspondent, and I been too, too hard to find But it doesn’t mean you aint been on my mind” Next he wants her to meet him in the middle, less than engaged but more than friends. He wants her to show some emotion for him, that she actually still cares for him in that way. He can no longer pretend just to be friends. “Will you meet me in the middle; will you meet me in the air? Will you love me just a little, just enough to show you care? Well I tried to fake it, I don’t mind sayin, I just can’t make it”- Alan Gocha, Detroit, MI

“It is so obvious, to me at least. The guy is suffering from ED. He needs Viagra! He tried, but he just can’t make it! And he’s trying to convince his girl to go along with his problem. It’s just hard to hear this song… if I were in his position, I sure wouldn’t be singing about it! Keep it in your pants dude.” – Allan, Brentwood, CA

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8 Responses to “Sister Golden Hair, Surprise!”

  1. What do you mean you no longer believe in guilty pleasures? I love ’em. For every Sun Ra, Can & Ornette Coleman there’s always a Steve Miller, ELO & Neil Diamond around the corner to wrap you up in a warm pop music blanket.

    • pulmyears Says:

      Dan, I said I no longer believe in THE TERM “Guilty Pleasure” in that I will no longer feel guilty for something unhip that I like or love. You’ve known me all my life, and you’ll recall I used to take it hard when I liked something uncool like 10cc and got ridiculed by my Sabbath loving friends…. those days are gone. No more guilt.

  2. 10-4. My comment was not meant to put you down. Sometimes I shoot before understand something. And, yes I remember those fun lovin’ 10cc days of yore. Thank you for introducing me to them. My blog is named after a song from “How dare you” – Don’t Hang Up”.

  3. I heard a long time ago that Sister Golden Hair was a song helped by Bill Mumy, who had a “golden haired sister” played by Marta Kristen. He was platonically attracted to her but she didn’t return the feelings.

  4. good acoustic guitar…

    […]Sister Golden Hair, Surprise! « The Pulmyears Music Blog[…]…

  5. MrCoffee Says:

    I just assumed that “Sister Golden Hair Surprise” was a native American woman with blonde hair (hence the “surprise”, as in “surprise, the father’s a caucasian, and not her husband. A nice way of putting it).

  6. Your way of explaining the whole thing in this paragraph is truly pleasant,
    every one be able to simply be aware of it, Thanks a lot.

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