Amy Ray sings “Become You,” the title track of the Indigo Girls’ new album, while fingering a 500 year old wound. “I heard you sing a rebel song, sing it loud and all alone,” she begins. “…I see you walking in the glare down the county road we share. Our southern blood, my heresy, damn that ol’ confederacy.”
When Ray sings that verse, I see my friend and CounterPunch contributor Kevin Gray on the statehouse lawn in South Carolina, with a Confederate flag in one hand, a Nazi flag in the other, both in flames. She couldn’t come closer to that spirit if she’d lit the match. “The center holds, so they say.” “It never held too well for me,” responds her Indigo partner, Emily Sellers, her voice muted as a conscience. Then Ray summons her nerve and explains: “The center held the bonded slave for the sake of industry. The center held the bloody hand of the executioner man.”
When Ray sings that line, I see the face of my brother Byron Parker, executed by the state of Georgia last December. And I see the faces of the SNCC Freedom Singers, who always, it seemed, looked up for the light while their voices blended.
At the end Ray makes a declaration, “It took a long time to become the thing I am to you. And you won’t tear it apart without a fight, without a heart,” and then for the last line, no anger, no exultation, no freedom, just pain: “It took a long time to become you, become you.”
When Ray sings that, I see my father’s face. Yet “Become You” isn’t a song about being trapped so much as it’s a song about freedom. It can’t be a freedom song in the great tradition of “We Shall Overcome.” You need a movement for that. But it’s a brilliant attempt to testify about what the civil rights movement left undone. It is, as Craig Werner, author of the great Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America, recognized as soon as he heard it, the great record about the South that Tom Petty and Michael Stipe have groped to make for years, and it’s that not only because it’s so beautiful but because it hits the issue head on.
Just as I discovered “Become You,” the news came that Dorothy Love Coates, leader of the Gospel Harmonettes, had died in Birmingham, Alabama, the hometown she never left except for extended journeys on the gospel highway. Dot’s brilliant songs–“That’s Enough,” “The Separation Line,” “No Hiding Place,” “The Hymn” and above all, “Strange Man,” her rendition of Jesus as fully human miracle–portray a religion that carries you through all life’s tribulations and promises a salvation identical with justice. In short, they define the social gospel. It’ll take more than “Become You” to replace them, but it’s a great start.
Dot sings her songs in a uniquely powerful voice, using a preacher’s cadence that makes all the old stories come alive and brings new ones into focus. Just before we learned that she’d passed, Daniel Wolff, author of The Memphis Blues Again, and I were talking about “The Hymn,” from the VeeJay album below, where Dot sermonizes on topics including the assassination of JFK and the bombing murders of four little girls in 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. She has no answers except “In God’s own time and in God’s own way he’s gonna make everything all right.” But then she turns to a song, a very very old one. “It’s getting late, late in the evening,” she sings, in a voice meant as a reminder. At the end, she sings still another tune. “I got my cross on my shoulder, Lord, comin’ on home, comin’ on home.”
I don’t know how many roads home there may be. Dot’s has unquestionably led her where she wanted to be. Amy Ray’s very different route has just taken a leap. Both of them have blessed us by letting us share their route. They leave me feeling that to honor them we need to ask ourselves one question, albeit the fiercest of all: “Are you coming along?”
(what’s playing in my office):
1. The Soul of the Gospel Harmonettes / Peace in the Valley, Dorothy Love Coates and the Gospel Harmonettes (VeeJay/Collectables)
2. The Best of Dorothy Love Coates and the Original Gospel Harmonettes (Specialty/Fantasy)
3. Become You, Indigo Girls (Epic)
4. The Gospel Sound (Columbia, includes “Strange Man”)
5. 1000 Kisses, Patty Griffin
6. By the Hand of the Father, Alejandro Escovedo (Texas Music Group advance)
7. Truth, The Jeff Beck Group (Epic)
8. The Best of Both Worlds, R. Kelly & Jay-Z (Jive/Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
9. Stop Breakin’ Down, Baby Boy Warren (Official)
10. Global, Carl Cox (FFRR/Warner)
Dave Marsh’s Previous DeskScan Top 10 Lists: