The “liner notes” below tells you how this year-end playlist came to be — the you-tube compilation matches (as much as possible) a selection on a CD. Warning — none of these are “holiday” songs. The seed for these may have been planted many years ago when I heard Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee sing “trouble in mind, lord I’m blue, but I won’t be blue alway. The sun’s gonna shine in my back door some day.” When you read the liner notes below, you’ll see also that a Nelson Peery tells a memorable story in his Black Fire which placed this idea, generally of a “promised land,” in a different context. In some way I’ve been chasing that sun, that promised land, for the last 45 years or so.
There are some differences between the you-tube compilation and the holiday mix disc. The disc has a piece by Ali Hassan Kuban, “Ya Nasma Yah Halina”; also the Joe Cocker version of “Living in the Promiseland” and the Patti LaBelle version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The you-tube includes addtional versions of “Guantanamera,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “bonus tracks” by Curtis Mayfield and Sister Rosetta Tharp not on the disc.
The sun is gonna shine in our back doors some day! Let’s get busy!
Click the titles to find the you-tube selections:
4. One Nation Under a Groove, Parliament Funkadelic
5. Big Rock Candy Mountain, Harry McClintock
6. Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Judy Garland;
Somewhere Over the Rainbow Sarah Vaughan
7. Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us) (West Side Story Original Cast Album)
8. Living in the Promiseland, Willie Nelson
9. Feelin’ Good, Nina Simone
10. Land of Hope and Dreams (Barcelona), Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
11. I’ll Take You There (Staples Singers) ; Mavis Staples, Central Park, NY
12. If I Should Fall Behind, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Bonus tracks —
The Holiday disc playlist is here:Holiday mix playlist
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In the summer of 1993 Nelson Peery gave me the manuscript of his Black Fire to read. Among the many memorable passages, this one has lingered with me for 17 years: Peery has returned to Minnesota from hoboing across country, returned to high school, graduated, and enlisted in the army. It was 1942, and he was headed to Fort Huachuca.
“I’m only eighteen, but I know you, America. You whore mother of democracy, you who strangle the dreams you’ve birthed. I know your wheat fields and copper mines and hobo jungles. I’ve left sweat on your prairies and, as an eagle, perched on the pinnacle of your Rocky Mountains, I’ve seen your splendid beauty from Kansas to Oregon. Grant me one wish. Be more good than beautiful. Show me yams and cotton and steel and coal unstained by corruption and tears. You would be a gentle thing without your thugs and lynch mobs. Some day I’ll tear out your claws, come close, and love you.”
He speaks to me of the “promised land” betrayed and of fighting for the fulfillment of the promise. With “promised land” in mind I put together this collection of music. While they refer to the strangling of dreams, these selections in their own ways strive toward achieving the promise. Some are explicit, some are not. Without a doubt, I have projected images I have built while listening to these songs.
What is “the promised land”? I think I remember my mother singing the chorus to “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” which became for me the archetypal longing for the way out. For the poverty stricken seeking a new life, it can mean the place of voluntary exile, the place with streets paved with gold, and that is the back story of “Midnight Train to Georgia.” The protagonist of this narrative could not make it in LA (“he wanted to be a star, but he didn’t make it very far”). People I knew in the projects of L.A. and the fields of the San Joaquin Valley came to California to make it. They sent money “home.” As long as they stayed in the “golden state,” they never considered it home, yearned to take their own midnight train to Arkansas or Michoacan or wherever they came from.
Ali Hassan Kuban’s character in the song, “Ya Nasma Yah Halina,” yearns to return to his homeland, now a place of desire after the disappointment of Cairo. In a real sense, the exile’s fantasy about the new land disappears in the longing for home, the cultural context from which the emigrant left. The same contradiction is seen in two other of the selections on this mix: Lila Downs version of “Pastures of Plenty/This Land is Your Land” (where the narrator interrogates the protagonist about the conditions of his/her migration) and the dance sequence “Somewhere.” The tension of “Somewhere” is accompanied elsewhere in West Side Story by the tension between longing to return and the perceived material advantages of the place of exile (see “America”).
I love the reinterpretation of these Guthrie songs by Lila Downs – the energy she gives to these revisits the immigrant experience. What was an internal migration is brought to the global context today. She turns the ironic pastures of plenty (for whom?) into a demand that they become plentiful for all. After a central section in which she repeats that “this land is your land is my land is your land” (you’d better not forget it) her voice strikes like a hammer, that these pastures must always be free. It is my country, after all. Freedom is a key to the promise of her song, a material freedom that flows from access to my plentiful pasture land.
Like the previous songs, “Guantanamera” celebrates the potential of “my nation.” “Yo soy un hombre sincero” sings the narrator of this selection, whose ideal campesina identifies “con los pobres de la tierra” — with the poor of the earth — and sings about her beautiful Cuba, like Guthrie’s view of the United States. But Guthrie and Jose Marti both find their nations lacking at the same time: be more good than beautiful might be something they would say.
Lighten up, you might say here. Lighten up, don’t be so serious. Of course these are serious things. But just as the protagonists in these first four songs celebrate when they can, perhaps those celebrations are the germ of the future promised land. Curtis Mayfield would say “It’s All Right to Have a Good Time.” In the next selection Funkadelic puts it this way: in “One Nation Under a Groove,” the song insists “nothing can stop us now.” “Feet don’t fail me now” could be a call to display dancing prowess – and it could be urging “us” not to stop wherever we are going, wherever we are dancing our way to.
Well then, where are we going? We’re not going where we came from, though that has some elements of what we dream of (going home). Harry McClintock cranks out the classic utopian theme in “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” which necessarily transposes our own present experience to the future. Home is where you get thrown in jail, can’t even bum a cigarette, and so forth. Imagine cigarette trees, jails you walk out of as soon as you walk in, policemen with wooden legs. From the dreams of the hobo emerge what the new world might be like. We can laugh at some of these projections; but as with all humor, it has a sharp edge that bears listening more carefully.
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” has a more literal imagined future (though we know that Dorothy fell into a magical Oz). Frank Baum’s original story criticized the monetary system of the late 1800s and celebrated the populist revolts. The film version brought the critique into dust-bowl era Kansas, where flim-flam artists like the wizard, venal power brokers like the witch were easily identified.
“Somewhere,” the ballet sequence from West Side Story, brings the story to the 1950’s streets of New York, and posits two working class kids, members of different gangs (Puerto Rican and Anglo) who fall in love, yearn to end the killing, get caught up in it anyway, and dream of “a place for us.” Listening to the nightly news in communities fraught with death and destruction today is not much different from the yearning in this song. The lovers sing to each other, somewhere there’s got to be a place we can be free from violence, free to make a place for ourselves (more than an undercurrent is the failed dreams of immigrants to inner city New York). “Hold my hand and I’ll take you there . . .” Somewhere . . .
Joe Cocker and Willie Nelson in these two versions of “Living in the Promiseland” again raise a contradictory phenomenon. A call to the nation to live up to its (neglected) promise. “our dreams are made of steel.” ”There’s room for everyone, livin’ in the promiseland.” “The prayer of every man is to know how freedom feels.” The voices are wistful, a dream unrealized (Give us your tired and we will make them strong.) Again, to know how freedom feels!
Nina Simone sings “Feeling Good”. “It’s a new dawn, a new day, it’s a new life for me.” Sleep in peace when day is done. Descriptions of the natural world hearken back to the bluebirds over the rainbow. “Freedom is what I mean.” It is a cry of defiance but also a cry of accomplishment, of realization, of experiencing what the new world, the promised land would be. This theme of freedom is a distinct promise. It echoes to me, from more than 50 years ago, watching on TV when the southern cop, confronted by the children fighting for civil rights in the face of fire hoses and attack dogs, asked what do you people want? To whom a lone child replies “feedum.”
“You don’t know where you’re going, but you know you won’t be coming back…Meet me in the land of hope and dreams.” The idea for this mix germinated the first time I heard Willie Nelson sing “Living in the Promiseland,” because I connected immediately with Bruce Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams.” Springsteen tells us who will be accepted into this promised land. Sinners, whores, gamblers, the outcasts of society are welcome. No dreams will be thwarted here. This is a kin to Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” where the train to the land of hope and dreams requires no ticket, just get on board.
The Staple Singers will take us there, “I know a place, there ain’t nobody cryin’, ain’t nobody worried, ain’t no smiling faces lyin to the races.” Mavis calls out “help me,” because she can’t do it alone, even if she can lead. “I’ll Take You There” but “You got to help me” and her ecstasy communicates the joyful future. If the “I’ll take you there” from West Side Story is hopeful but nebulous, Mavis Staples is definitive, certain. You can believe she knows where she is going.
“I’ll wait for you, and if I fall behind wait for me.” Bruce Springsteen returns with the E-Street Band to make sure we know if we fall behind, they’ll wait for us (if we wait for them). “There’s a beautiful river in the valley ahead” sings Clarence Clemmons after his saxophone solo and each band member takes his/her turn pledging their commitment to each other in reaching the promised land. For me the Nils Lofgren/Patti Scialfa duet at the center of this performance also centers the meaning of the song, in its crystalline beauty. Hearing this live at the United Center years ago was, I think, one of the defining moments of my musical experience. The sheer emotional joy of the vision of the land of hope and dreams, the recognition of the fear that I cannot make it by myself, but the knowledge I have others I can rely on.
This is not intended as an exhaustive compilation of music. It is severely limited by my own musical experience, but it is greatly enriched by conversations with Diana, and with the encyclopedic e-mail friendship collectively known as “Strat.”