The Promised Land (2011)

The Promised Land is an uplifted and soulfully rendered collection of Spirituals from the African-American folk tradition. 

These nineteen songs were chosen based on my personal connections with each one as well as the story at which they collectively aim. I cannot remember a time when these songs did not direct me towards a universal human narrative that speaks to the rich redemption of the human spirit, regardless of the obstacles faced. But something unexpected occurred when studying these works this time around. I began to touch some of the stories that might live beneath the surface of these praise songs, work songs, shouts and hollers.

“Sweet Little Jesus Boy” became about a newborn infant who would know great toil in his lifetime, but would nonetheless remain a regal and cherished child in the hearts of those who cared for him. “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word” was sung through the eyes of a woman watching in disbelief, indignation, and finally resigned mourning as a loved one is beaten and laid to rest. “Steal Away” is sung from the dark cover of night forest, calling away those who might be ready to face the terrifying and arduous journey of their escape to the north.

Whether the matter be painful or humorous, expressing the truth of one’s humanity directly was not possible for the 19th century slave. By necessity, these stories had to have been sublimated and intertwined in the story of the savior of the slave’s master, allowing a full spectrum of self-awareness to be expressed. In this light, “Ain’t Got Time To Die” takes on a tinge of sarcasm and “I Got Shoes” becomes a potent manifesto of ultimate liberation: “I have everything I need to exist in this world. You may not see it, inside I am already free and walking, singing, flying all over this land. Not everybody who lays claim to this so called ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ will ever come to know in his heart what that type of freedom truly means.”

The Freedom Suite narrates the story of one who seeks liberation “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” The subject recognizes his place and simply reiterates a rejection of his condition. When he embarks on his path, he wades in troubled waters, both a practical throwing off of scents and a spiritual rite of passage. He’s lost to a dark wilderness, but has heard of something better, and can only do his best to get there. A ghost of a chance is offered as “The Gospel Train” approaches, which at once represents both the Underground Railroad and a path to an enlightenment. It might be a rough ride, but it is afforded to anyone willing to “get on board.”

Finally, the listener is asked to “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” In the language of the old Testament, it means being prepared for whatever opportunity may come your way. In the language of the Underground Railroad, the lit lantern in the window meant a safe space to the weary fugitive, even though such flagrant compassion could mean the very life and well being of the one extending that helping hand. In the language of my time and of my intention, this song begs us all to be prepared to do and pursue whatever is required to accept that we are all in this together, that we cannot turn our backs on our own journeys any more than we can neglect the needs of our neighbor. The voices of our past tell us not to get weary, not to give in. They say, with all the wisdom and conviction of our forefathers and foremothers who sit in the spaces bend time, that the divisive journey of our past will soon be over, and the time for the evolution of our collective story is now. May their voices lead us to The Promised Land.

Less Than Holy

I have two hands
that work just like yours
my thumbs point in both directions
I have two legs j
ust as long as yours
they reach from my hip to the floor
I have one heart
it works much like yours
It cries both for joy and rejection
I have one soul
that longs just like yours
To knock on heaven’s door

I’m surprised at how anatomies
of body and mind
Are supposed to be the symphonies,
the great ties that bind
But instead it seems that some of us
are being maligned
For leaving behind the bigotry
To believe love is blindness and poetry
So school me,

What gives you the right to tell me
that my heart is anything less than holy
And what gives you the right to tell me
that my love is anything less than worthy
And what gives you the right to burden me with your self-righteous testimony
And what gives you the right to tell me
that your love is the only way to love?

I had a thought a minute ago
That this bullshit talk was over
I heard a song a second ago
It went "we shall overcome"
I heard a vow some years ago
That didn’t say husband, wife or other
I think it said that a union
Was when two came together as one

I’m surprised by how civilities
on the steady decline
Are exchanged for inhumanities
that defy every line
And every way in which we measure
how to greet the divine
In the lives of the people we meet each day
And I fear for the tithes we will have to pay

Light (O, Let Your Light Shine Bright)

people tell you what they want, what they want
and people tell you what you need, what you need
and the way they say to you what you want, what they need
is supposed to somehow say who you ought to be

if i told you what i want, what i want
oh, would you run away from me, from me?
and would i let that change what i see, what i see
if you ran away from me?

o, let your light shine bright for a moment
just let your light shine bright for a moment with me
o, let your light shine bright for a moment
if you just let your light shine bright

i will tell you what i want, what i want
and i will let you say what you need, what you need
to the best of your ability
would you tell me what you need?