Bodhi Tree Concerts Presents San Diego Premiere Of 'And They Lynched Him On A Tree'
William Grant Still's 1940 cantata offers musical consideration of injustice in America
"Within Our Gates" (1915)
"Intruder in the Dust" (1946)
This weekend, Bodhi Tree Concerts presents "The Long Dark Shadow: A Musical Consideration of Injustice in America."
Music and protest have gone hand in hand for centuries but Bodhi Tree Concerts is turning to music that voices its protest through more meditative means. The concert this weekend takes its name from a lyric in William Grant Still's cantata "And They Lynched Him On A Tree."
The cantata was composed for a double chorus identified in the score as "White Crowd" and "Negro Men and Women." The story opens with a white crowd that has just lynched a black man just convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. But his life is seen differently through the eyes of his grief-stricken mother and others from the black community who reveal the man's troubled life. Since his sentence did not seem severe enough to some whites, "they lynched him on a tree; ... in the false name of justice they broke the law." As the cantata comes to an end, the two choruses merge to offer a warning that as a result of an injustice like the lynching "A long dark shadow will fall across your land."
Ken Anderson, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir, explains what a cantata is.
"It is kind of a smaller version of musical or opera," Anderson said. "It's a story told in music. It's all in music. No dialogue. It's just song to song as you sing out the story. And in this case, the cantata is very short, about 19 minutes and so the story is told through a narrator, soloist and two choruses."
Bodhi Tree Concerts has a stated vision on its website for its concerts: "To offer music as a path towards enlightenment and understanding."
For Black History Month, it uses music to explore issues of social injustice.
"The Martin Luther King Community Choir will be singing spirituals and gospel for the first half," explained Diana DuMelle, co-founder of Bodhi Tree Concerts. "And then the second half will be the San Diego premiere of a William Grant Still choral cantata called 'And They Lynched Him On A Tree.'"
That brutally stark title must have been especially provocative when Still first presented the piece in 1940. What's striking is the sharp contrast between the horror of what he is addressing and the gorgeous, transcendent music he composes for us to hear.
"There are other pieces that have been written with messages like this perhaps not as deeply impacting as when you have a piece like this where the emotion is really written into the music. And you're feeling it," Anderson said.
Also included in the concert is soloist Dale Fleming performing "Strange Fruit." The song was written as a poem by Abel Meeropol after he was horrified by a photo of a lynching taken on Aug. 7, 1930, by Lawrence Beitler. Meeropol set his poem to music and it was famously recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939 and later by Nina Simone. As with Still's cantata, "Strange Fruit" is disturbing, beautiful and haunting and addresses the horrors of racism in unflinching but poetic terms.
"It actually became an anthem of civil rights," Fleming said.
Bodhi Tree likes to highlight local artists like Fleming and the MLK Choir but also artists like Still.
"We wanted especially to shine a light on this amazing American composer [Still] who's virtually unknown right now and there's probably a reason behind that," Fleming said. "We just wanted to shine a light on the excellence of this composer."
Still has been dubbed "Dean of African-American Classical Composers," and is probably best remembered for composing "Afro-American Symphony." His more provocative "And They Lynched Him On A Tree" has been performed far less often.
Anderson, whose choir is 100% volunteer and usually performs on its own, said "Every once in a while, we get to be a part of something like this, where we get to collaborate with other musicians, singers, even an orchestra and sing a masterwork by a black composer."