The common wisdom behind the American popularity of “Dominique” is that it satisfied the nation’s desire for gentle, comforting music in the days and weeks after President John F. Kennedy’s Nov. 22 assassination. Yet the early 1960s, for the most part, had already been an era when softer music dominated. Folk music and girl groups were in vogue, and easy listening still had a firm foothold atop the charts. In fact, the Ur-garage record “Louie Louie” held the #2 spot behind “Dominique” for part of its run, so Americans were clearly also in the mood to rock. So what was it that attracted American audiences to a French-language acoustic folk song about a Thirteenth-Century saint?
The United States has a long history of anti-Catholicism, stretching back to Puritan anti-toleration legislation and intensifying with the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century waves of Irish, Italian, Polish and Latin American immigrants. Even as late as his 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy faced prejudice from some Protestants who feared he would serve as a puppet of the Pope. But with his secular presidency, personal charisma and glamorous family, Kennedy modeled the new face of Roman Catholicism, one that appealed to mainstream America.
Roughly coincident with Kennedy’s presidency was the Second Vatican Council, which sought to update and revitalize the Catholic Church by bringing in modern influences. Pope Pius XII had issued the encyclical Musicae Sacrae in 1955, which endorsed the non-sacred religious music that was beginning to become popular. Young novice Sister Luc-Gabrielle, who entered the Belgian Fichermont Convent accompanied by the guitar she called Sister Adele, was emblematic of Vatican II’s friendlier, more accessible image. With the permission of the convent and Philips Records, she recorded an album intended to be distributed solely to Fichermont’s visitors. Philips recognized the quality of the recordings and released them publicly. “Dominique,” a tribute to St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican order to which Sister Luc-Gabrielle belonged, became a huge hit internationally, even in predominantly-Protestant countries.
Despite its unusual origins, “Dominique” is no schmaltzy novelty single. Sister Luc-Gabrielle’s pure soprano and genuine sense of joy in the material, complemented by the clean, simple production, makes for an engaging listen. The melody is exceptionally sticky, and the hooky chorus (“Dominique, -inique, -inique”) helps break the language barrier. The song is a rare example of religious-pop that can be appreciated by a secular audience: there’s neither the explicit rectitude of traditional recordings, nor the limp pandering that would come to characterize Christian Rock. Actually, “Dominique” has more in common with the old American folk songs then being revived by the likes of Joan Baez: the religious content is important, but it’s a given of the narrator’s life rather than a conscious choice of subject.
A record by a Belgian nun topping the American pop charts would have been a strange occurrence at any point in Hot 100 history. But in the wake of the assassination of the USA’s first and only Roman Catholic president, it seems oddly appropriate that the nation turned to a record by a nun about a saint. It helped that the record’s gentle and pastoral sound fit in naturally with the folk records populating the charts. At the same time, though, the folk revival’s insistence on looking backwards made it just as in danger of becoming calcified and esoteric as the Catholic Church had been pre-Vatican II. With its clean production and upbeat spirit, “Dominique” was a clear alternative to the overly-reverent covers dominating the folk scene. A nun may seem an unlikely exponent of modernity. Yet through both her religion and her music, The Singing Nun helped participate in the ’60s break from the past and push toward the future. 7
Hit #1 on December 7, 1963; total of 4 weeks at #1
102 of 979 #1′s reviewed; 10.42% through the Hot 100