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.