What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?

I once knew a woman whose ambition it was to play the harp but life and raising a family got in the way so she told me she would play it when she got to heaven instead.  I have not seen or thought about this person for thirty years until this week, when I heard a beautiful scratchy old song on the radio, sung by a Texan called Washington Phillips.  The recording is almost 100 years old and it sounds as though he’s singing in an empty shed with a tin roof, whilst scrunching crêpe paper in his hand.  But I found it all the more appealing for that.  I loved the wistful and nostalgic atmosphere that the far-from-perfect sound quality conjured up.  Phillips speaks the first line, then starts singing, slowly, in an old-school gospel blues style. In the background, a zither plays; it sounds like an especially light and airy piano.  If stardust were real and it made a noise when it fell from the sky, it would sound like a zither.  And what better soundtrack for pondering heaven than the sound falling stardust? He doesn’t overdo the emotional side of the song, does Washington – no, he sings it straight and simple.  I can imagine him: pitching his head to one side, staring into a cobwebbed corner of the room and setting his mind to wondering. Which is exactly what I did as I listened to him sing to me from the vault of history.  His words tell us he is thinking of friends who were burdened by cares, or disease, or poverty when they were alive on earth – after all, this was a time when living a heavenly life might have been a far-flung hope for many black Americans like Washington Phillips.  And whilst he doesn’t give an answer as to what they his loved ones are playing at up in heaven, we know it’s something good.

I don’t think you need to adhere to any particular faith or to believe in heaven for this to be meaningful song.  It’s a song that provides a long full stop for reflection, a pause to let one’s imagination roll into the contemplative pleasure of resurrecting the dead.  What are they doing?  With fathomless possibility open to me, the images that appeared were all simple, peaceful and everyday.  They were smiling and laughing, sitting quietly doing a crossword, taking a walk on a warm afternoon, stopping to blow on the seed head of a dandelion and watching the feathery bristles separate and catch the breeze.  All in all, it looked like one of those perfect days on earth that we might pass by without noticing.  In my reverie they weren’t supping cocktails from a coconut shell (though one of them might well have been drinking a very fine malt) and they almost certainly weren’t playing the harp.

What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?

I’m thinking of friends whom I used to know,

Who lived and suffered in this world below

But they’ve gone off to heaven, but I want to know

What are they doing there now?


Oh, what are they doing in heaven today,

Where sin and sorrow are all done away?

Peace abounds like a river, they say.

But what are they doing there now?


There’s some whose hearts

Were burdened with care

They paid for their moment with fighting and tears

But they clung to the cross trembling in fear

But what are they doing there now?


And there’s some whose bodies were full of disease

Physicians and doctors couldn’t give them much ease

But they suffered ’til death brought a final release

But what are they doing there now?


There’s some who were poor and often despised

They looked up to heaven with tear-blinded eyes

While people were heedless and deaf to their cries

But what are they doing there now?


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