Filtering by Category: Gospel

"Dark Clouds": my song for Ella May

As I researched Ella May Wiggins in order to write a song for a cd commemorating her life and work (see posts: about the project, the cd release party, and the Gaston Gazette article), I was fascinated by the fact that Ella May Wiggins (a white woman) chose to live in Stumptown (a majority black neighborhood) during the segregated south. Her advocacy was not only for poor whites but poor blacks as well, so I wrote a song with a gospel, call and response feel. I used a simple structure with the repeated response "dark clouds are lookin' like rain" and a methodical, driving rhythm so that the song sounds as if it could be used on a picket line or in a field picking cotton. I recorded the demo using only finger snaps and mostly sing it a cappella. It’s meant to be sung by a group in a loose, improvisational style with people making up vocal riffs or even verses on the spot.

The verses I wrote do not directly refer to Ella May or the Loray Mill strike. I used general descriptions of injustice to refer to historical (as well as current day) problems such as the increasing disparity between rich and poor and the violence visited upon those without power ("shoot you down" referring to Ella May and numerous other historical activists as well as unarmed black men that have been killed by police). The oft quoted "Nothin’ to lose but chains...” is a direct reference to the Marxist roots of the strike. The song is unapologetically dark and defiant to pay homage to those who have lost their lives fighting for justice. But the last verse contains an edge of hopefulness that if we can all pull together we could perhaps avoid the coming storm.

"Young lady, I believe you've got some soul in you."

I had the opportunity to sing this solo (Precious Blood Medley) in a shared Palm Sunday service between 1st Baptist Church West and Park Road Baptist Church in 2006 and 2007. It's a rough recording (you can hear the guy who recorded it singing along at times), and I am singing over a full choir (with no microphone). The acoustics in the church and the high notes at full volume helped. If you listen to the end you'll hear me sing a high C (the note at the very top of my range at the loudest volume I can muster--my entire body rocked back and forth with the effort).

Singing with an African American choir with a very palpable history of generations of blood spilled—murdered—during slavery and in the many years of injustice that followed, made me feel it in my bones. I am chilled by the thought of ancestors of mine who took part in oppression and murder (or stood silently by) and, perhaps, of my own ancestors who suffered and died in oppression. Who wouldn't want to be liberated from that evil?

And so when the elderly black gentleman approached me after the concert, I could see he had something weighty on his mind. He just stood there quietly looking me up and down; my heart sank a little. I thought maybe I had offended him. Why had they let a white woman sing that powerful solo? Finally he smiled and said "Young lady, I believe you've got some soul in you." He couldn't have summed up that moment more perfectly for me. I just beamed back at him and said, "Yes, sir. I believe I do."