A few months ago, I had the opportunity to produce a recording for Michael Vincent a dear friend of mine with whom I’ve shared a diverse journey of 30 years that began in a liberal baptist church in San Francisco where we shared, fellowship, worship, and a calling for justice – politically and practically – in the areas of homelessness, poverty, refugee sanctuary, gay rights, and economic justice. That journey continued into a small studio in Sonoma where 25 years ago I recorded his first record album (actually it was released on cassette). That particular part of our journey together ended this past year in a studio in Sonoma County (Prairie Sun Recording) where got together with some amazing players from Sonoma County and a group of folks from Beth Eden Baptist Church in Oakland to make what both of us consider the pinnacle of our cooperative recording journey.
The album, called The Longest Time, is a tour through a wide ranging series of styles and topics, but focuses much of the time on the lives and perspectives of the people who are largely left out of the “Great America” envisioned by the current occupant of the White House and his acolytes.
The concluding song on the album is a 7 minute and 17 second epic ode to the contemporary history of the American Civil Rights Movement called Backwards Land.
When Michael first played this song for me, I loved it’s heart and hated it’s execution. I rejected the idea of this song for the album because it felt misplaced in our current culture; it was so very very… white.
But I couldn’t let it go… The idea behind the song was so very timely – as The Donald sat in The White House as the designated BOTUS (Bully of the United States), and white supremacists marched with tiki torches and shouted nazi slogans, and unarmed black men were being murdered by police across the country – my heart and mind wouldn’t let go of the fact that, with all its flaws, this song was important.
So I began to imagine it in another way. What if it told an historical story inside a (then) 4 minute song? What if it could give a sonic context for today?
So we began to conceive of the song as a march through history. It begins in the 60s with an almost country music feel over which the words of Congressman John Lewis (then chairman of SNCC) spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. The first verse begins in that period of time when people come “to the public square” to demand justice, and moves forward in time from there. At the bridge, audio from current protests and marches is included within the transition.
As the last verse begins the key changes and the musical style shifts to gospel. An amazing gospel singer (and musical director at Beth Eden), Mickala Cheadle takes the lead to bring the song into the present when we are “here AGAIN in the public square” still fighting, still marching, still demanding freedom and justice.
Mickala leads the chorus this time and is joined by Michael and Mary Neidel ( a wonderful singer of stellar character and beautiful dedication and a dear friend fo mine). As Mickala the chorus finished my dear friend and brother Rev. Dr. Dwight Webster preaches a 60 second sermon that gets right to the point.
I want you to listen to me now because it’s important
Because YOU are important.
We are not moving backward
We are marching forward
We are not giving up ground
We are taking new ground
We are not capitulating to the forces of interposition and nullification
We are instead paving a new road
Where justice will roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream
We do not, and we will not, live in a backward land
We are taking up residence in The Promised Land!
The organ (played masterfully by Eric Young of Beth Eden) swells from under the pastor to the front as the Beth Eden choir joins in and Mickala and her choir take us home to the Promised Land.
As the song found its way to conclude the album, it sounded precisely as I had imagined in my mind when the vision of something that could truly address our world, then and now, had first come to me unbidden.
Producing this song (and this album) was a central piece of my life at this point in time. It grows out of, and intersects with the vision, the work, and the eventual completion of what began for me many years ago and has come to its newest iteration in this website and growing community.
WE do not live in a Backwards Land… WE – all of us together – are taking up residence in The Promised Land.