Track of the Day: ‘My Foolish Heart’ by Kurt Elling

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This song from jazz singer Kurt Elling “has been captivating me since I first heard it in 1999,” says reader Shana:

I had heard a different Elling song on the radio, and I went out and bought his Live album, recorded at the Green Mill in Chicago. The album included “My Foolish Heart,” an old standard and what has become one of my very favorite Elling songs. But Kurt frequently changes standards, adds to them, reinvents them ... which is what he did with this one. When I heard his version, I had no idea that he was including writing from St. John of the Cross. (I am so not religious, and when I was “religious,” if you could call it that, it was Jewish, and I was a child). I just fell in love with the song, the way he sang it, the emotive quality, the words and lyrics, and, not least, his astounding voice.

I’m including a link to an article written by someone who probably knows a little more than me about ancient Christian mysticism, and religion in general. Enjoy!

Here’s that someone, Mark Gauvreau Judge:

Halfway through the song, the band drifted into one of those breaks that jazz bands do, where everyone gets a chance to play a little solo. Then Hobgood’s piano drifted off, and all that was left was the low throb of the bass and drums. Elling began to sing in his five–octave baritone:

One dark night
Fired with love’s urgent longings
Clothed in sheer grace
I went out unseen
My house being all now still

On that night
In secret for no one saw me
With no other light that the one that burned in my heart
This guided me more surely than the light of noon
To where she waited for me

It was St. John of the Cross. Elling was commingling “My Foolish Heart” with a 16th–century Christian mystic. I felt a sparkler ride up my spine. …

Elling reached the end of St. John, and the band roared back to the finale of “My Foolish Heart.” This was one of the most staggeringly brilliant explorations of John Paul II's Theology of the Body I had ever witnessed. In ten minutes Elling made the point that John Paul the Great made in 500 pages: our bodily love is an icon of the love of God. St. John venturing out in “the mystic night” for God was following the same path trod by the speaker in “My Foolish Heart.”

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)