At the Jazz, Justice and Gospel concert last Saturday, we were privileged to hear many fabulous musicians, among them Marco Torres who performed a heartfelt original composition. “Behind every song is a story,” he told us, and allowed us into his story, beautifully told in pitch and rhythm, tempo and tune.
Songs come to us from so many different stories – different lives, places in history, journeys with God or journeys feeling alone and abandoned. Stories of struggle, work, love, Resurrection. Stories from different cultures that we often know only distantly.
One of my favorite contemporary composers is Pablo Sosa. A classically trained musician, minister, and native of Argentina, his congregation was plunged into poverty and several people were “disappeared” during a period of violence. In an atmosphere of political intimidation and terror, the response by many was to remain silent, yet Sosa responded by writing music in traditional styles and dances that allowed people to bravely and boldly sing out their stories of fear and faith. His well know “Gloria, Gloria, Gloria” (New Century Hymnal #758) is based on a popular dance in Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina, and women whose husbands had disappeared would gather in a public plaza and dance this joyful dance alone, imagining their missing partners.
Another song I recently learned is “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.” I heard it on the radio news, being sung at a protest at the Massachusetts State House. I looked it up on YouTube and saw videos of this chant being sung in the Civil Rights marches, even as beatings, dogs, and fire hoses personified the hatred against which the marchers sung. This song was taken from an old Spiritual, and words were added that gave people the voice they needed to name their oppressors. “Ain’t gonna let Jim Crow…Ain’t gonna let no jail house…Ain’t gonna let Bull Connor turn me around.” When we sang it together last Sunday, here in Lowell MA, I thought of the words of Bernice Johnson Regan, founder of the Freedom Singers, performing at the White House. She stopped mid-song and turned to her audience of politely listening dignitaries, declaring, “You have to actually sing this song… cause you can never tell when you might need it”
And then there is the Biblical story of Paul and Silas. After receiving derision and an unjust beating they were thrown in jail, where they “prayed and sang praises to God.” In this action packed narrative, an earthquake then breaks open the jail doors, and their terrified jailer receives grace, knowledge, and the bravery to show compassion.
Some earthquakes are larger than life, and some are small movements of the heart. Some songs are sung boldly and some alone in the dark. Some allow us to weep with joy or sorrow, some are dirges and some are dances, some are prayers and some are praise. But all have rich stories to share. When we sing together, we hear the stories of others, listen and learn and then share them and make and remake them as our own. “After a song…the differences between us were not so great. Somehow, making a song required an expression of that which was common to us all.” Bernice Johnson Reagan.