"If in the twilight of memory we should meet once more, we shall speak again together and you shall sing to me a deeper song."
~ Khalil Gibran
The Bridge of Songs
Black is the Color
Originating in Scotland in the early 19th century, Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair was carried across the Atlantic by immigrant settlers to the highlands of North Carolina and Southern Appalachia. For nearly 200 years this ballad has paid tribute to the ideal of love, embodied in the physical attributes of a lover who has gone away. I believe it is this song's alluring beauty that gives it the power to span centuries and connect viscerally with us today, and I wanted my interpretation to kindle that connection with its timeless passion.
Fear a' Bhàta (The Boatman)
Written by Sine Nic Fhionnlaoich on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland in the 18th century, a young woman awaits the unknown return of her beloved from a fishing expedition at sea. The ancient Scots Gaelic language is an integral part of the texture of this ballad, giving imagery to the woman’s anxious longing amidst the hostile setting of unforgiving waves and high cliffs that threaten the safe return of her fear a' bhàta (man of the boat). However, it is the steady, pulse-like rhythm of the tide that is the constant, connecting the two lovers and giving hope of the young man’s return. It was my desire to evoke that pulse, like a heartbeat, in the underpinning of this new arrangement.
V’la l’Bon Vent (Go, Good Wind)
Brought to Acadia by French voyageurs in the 17th century, this song has been passed down through Canada’s history for more than three hundred years. In the French language, it is a story rich with symbols (three ducks, a king, death, and the loss of silver and gold…) that illustrates the struggle of the common people of the time, uniting in social revolt against a divine-right monarchy, famine, poverty, and the oppressive power of the wealthy. In each refrain, the symbolism of l’bon vent ~ the coming “good wind” ~ reminds the people that change is near, and to persevere. The song was later adopted as a work song by emigrant pioneers paddling their canoes through the uncharted waterways of the New World. As history repeats itself and common people continue to struggle, songs to bolster hope and perseverance also live on.
In 1993, the Zimbabwean musician and social justice activist, Oliver Mtukudzi, wrote this song to tell the story of Neria, a young widow in the Shona culture who fights victimization by her husband’s brother and overcomes overwhelming adversity to win back her human rights, her children, and her life. The song expresses a gentle yet powerful urgency not to give up and to always have hope: Neria, Neria, usaore moyo ka Neria, Mwari anewe (Neria, Neria, don’t be disheartened, God is with you.)
Wayfaring Stranger / Hold On
I linked these two spirituals with a rising, instrumental “bridge” on banjo to interpret my inspiration for this piece: From the time we are born, we are all wayfaring travelers; all human beings struggling alongside each other on this rough journey through life, all seeking our way home. Though at times we might feel orphaned, abandoned, and utterly alone - we are not. Bridging the two songs transitions the listener from being the lonely Wayfaring Stranger to joining up with our sisters and brothers. With the call to Hold On, we are urged to not give up and to believe that together we are stronger and better able to build a world of peace and justice.
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home… This spiritual dates back to the mid-1800's and was born from the depths of human souls who knew unfathomable suffering as enslaved people. Despite that suffering, there is no bitterness nor call for retribution found in its verses - only magnificent courage and hopeful vision, symbolized by a bird’s flight, together with the unwavering trust that freedom is near. As I was arranging Motherless Child a verse from W. C. Dix's Christmas carol, What Child Is This? came to me and found its place within. I sing this song on behalf of all those throughout history who have experienced forced removal or displacement from their homes and homelands, removal of their human rights, and family separation because of sale, human trafficking, war, or other political agenda.
Written by Dirk Powell following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the voice of this song sounds older than its years; It could have emerged from other floods throughout history where people have suffered loss and displacement. The chilling reality is that massive flooding is on the rise as climate change is increasingly manifested in extreme weather and climate events. Although Dirk Powell's solemn narrative presents a waterbound victim who has lost everything, Powell gives his character grit and the resolve to survive.
The Water is Wide
This ballad originated in Scotland in the 1600’s as Waly, Waly and went through numerous adaptations before becoming the ballad that we know today. Over the centuries it has most often been considered a tribute to love. However, the words speak, more accurately, to the challenges of human love, and water not only becomes a metaphor for what can separate us, but also for what connects us. I have sung The Water is Wide in a traditional way for several decades. However, while exploring the song for this album, a new interpretation began to flow out of me that erased the boundaries of time.
Nine Hundred Miles
Written by Cisco Houston, this song reaches out from “the lonesome track” where a railroader, far from home and separated from those he loves will do whatever it takes to get back. Though a modern ballad, it is written in the folk tradition and honors music's history of strengthening the spirits of those laboring or on assignment far from their homes and families. Songs have the power to assuage yearning and give us hope that a day of release will soon come, together with a return to that place we call "home".