Judee Sill was a very gifted folk-singer/songwriter who never quite made it to the status of headliner. Over the late sixties and early seventies, she put out three albums in which she sang her own songs. People inside the industry were especially impressed with her artistic creativeness, unique chord progressions and surprising combinations of musical genres. They were also amazed at how she consistently undermined her career.*
Judee was a native Southern Californian, born in Studio City and raised in Oakland. Judee was eight when her father died, and her mother moved the family back to Los Angeles. Two years later, her mom remarried, but the new relationship was unhealthy and frequently violent. In her mid-teens, she ran away to escape the explosive family dynamics and hitch-hiked around the country. She also got into psychedelic drugs. She found her way back home and finished high school, but soon after, she hung out with a local young thug and the two of them robbed six liquor stores. She was caught and served nine months in reform school. It was there that she unlocked her musical gifts while playing the organ for the school’s church services.
In her twenties, Judee moved deeper into drug use and soon became addicted to heroin. For a while, she actually sold her body to support her habit. In addition to her music, it was probably her love of literature that kept her in touch with reality during those years. Her solution to bouts of depression was to read a good book. So, needing solace after a particularly painful breakup, she instinctively grabbed a book that was then popular. As she described it later in a biographical article:
“To console myself, I was reading a book by my favorite author, Nikos Kazantzakis, called The Last Temptation of Christ. In it, Jesus is portrayed as a cross maker. He’s working as a carpenter, and they need a lot of crosses because the Roman soldiers are killing off all the political prisoners. And that’s where I got the idea for my song, ‘Jesus Was a Cross Maker.’”
That was the first Judee Sill song that got the attention of the popular music industry. The song came from her experience of pain and loss.
Over the next few years, Judee wrote and recorded some very notable songs. Her musical arrangements were striking, and her lyrics were deep and profound. None of them revealed a personal faith in Jesus, but many were interspersed with phrases from the Bible or from church worship. She seemed to be always conscious of the Christian message, but unable or unwilling to embrace it fully.
At the height of her budding career, Judee suffered from chronic back pain. The pain medications ushered her back into her old pattern of addiction. Sadly, her personal journey downhill ended with her death from a cocaine overdose in 1979, at the age of 35. She died young, just like Jesus, the Cross Maker, who died at 33.
The opening scene in Kazantzakis’ book has Jesus and his brothers in their father’s carpenter shop, frantically building crosses to keep up with the Roman demand for use in the public executions of their fellow-Jews. In the developing chapters he portrays various aspects of the human side of Jesus, who was, “tempted in every way, just as we are” (Hebrews 4:15).** Jesus’ “Last Temptation,” according to Kazantzakis, was to come down from the cross and not go through with his grim mission. Do you think it’s possible that Judee Sill’s final conscious thought was, “Jesus died on a Cross of his own making; I’m dying on a cross of my own making, my drug escape. Maybe he identifies with me”?
As I understand him, Jesus the Cross Maker empathizes with the self-made crosses all of us seem destined to die on. He’s waiting for us to realize it and to accept his Cross-wide embrace.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
* An excellent biography of Judee Sill can be found here:
** This would be a good time to review the temptations Jesus faced during his time in the wilderness, just before he began his public ministry – Luke 4:1-13.