Lara Downes Explores the Many Resonances in Roots Music

Lara Downes | Credit: Max Barrett

In liner notes for her new album, Some of These Days, pianist Lara Downes expresses the 14-track CD’s origins and significance. A line in an African-American spiritual, “Welcome Table,” provides the album’s title and the final track is an adaptation by Downes of the composition by African-American composer Florence Price (1887–1953). Following a pull quote from the refrain, Downes reveals her purpose and shares a personal narrative:

“All of God’s children gonna sit together, some of these days.” (“Welcome Table”)

The conviction in these words — the hope and faith in them — is why I’m even here at all. I was born because my parents believed these words.

They met at a sit-in, my mom and dad. San Francisco, in the late 1960s. He was a Black man from Harlem and she was a Jewish girl from Akron. They fell in love and got married and had three golden-brown babies, all in the hope and faith that their daughters, and all the children, of all shades of black, brown and beige, would sit together in freedom and fairness — some of these days.”

The albums’ spirituals and freedom and protest songs trace a dark history of oppression, but sing forward to hope, courage, strength, faith, and enlightenment. Downes says in an interview this multigenre collection that intermingles the songs with classical, jazz, folk, country, and R&B musical traditions expands an authentically American story. Spirituals, she suggests, are the first examples of original, indigenous American folk music. Collaborations on the CD feature guest artists: Toshi Reagon, Howard Fishman, PUBLIQuartet, and the Chapin Sisters, in arrangements by Downes, H. T. Burleigh, Hall Johnson, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Nina Simone, and Billy Taylor.

Downes spoke about the album, slated for release on April 3, and her ongoing My Promise Project, which has had her traveling nationwide to engage with young people and through music, spark and support their activism and agency in the pursuit for social justice.

The lyrics obviously reflect songs that originated in slavery and speak or respond to human bondage. How does that impact the songs’ musical details?

I’ll turn that around. What I identify in this music is found in all American music. For me, it’s deeply and instinctively emotional. I, too, have learned and grown to blend traditions. It’s a complex mix of melody and rhythm and harmony — all of them get used, borrowed, and translated. This is the first music that was really developed in this country. It has traditions that came with the slaves from Africa, but as American music developed through the blues to jazz, the musical elements developed differently in different branches. If you listen to R&B, or across other branches to rock ’n’ roll and country music, you find the many places this music has gone.

Marian Anderson, interpreting spirituals and sharing their evolution in the concert-hall tradition was an important moment in classical music. As a woman of color and classically trained musician, it remains important to me. Anderson bringing spirituals onto the concert stage: That’s my gateway into the tradition. I’m most interested in places where the older vernacular of spirituals and the concert tradition intersect.

What principles apply as you select and organize a CD’s overall architecture?

That’s mostly an instinctive process. But there are thoughts as well. For example, the starting point was very intentional. [The album’s first track, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” integrates Downes’s piano track with archival field recordings made in 1939 by Alan Lomax and Ruby Terrill Lomax, the famous American-music collectors. Sung by Clifford Reed, Julia Griffin, and Johnny Mae Medlock, the recording is archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.] It’s chosen to honor the history and the people who have pulled these songs through history. These are singers who are prisoners in a state prison — a work farm in the Jim Crow South. It’s a direct lineage to slavery. I wanted that place of legacy and ancestry. The voices are so haunting, so ghostlike.

Where did these songs come from? Who did they belong to? What was interesting for me in writing the record notes, the motivation for me is really the relevance and timelessness of these songs. The messaging in them: there’s the pain, reaction to oppression, always hope, always a vision of a better place. All of those things are relevant and current today. As I was writing the notes for “Motherless Child,” there were migrant children being torn from their families at our borders. That just shook me.

[Listen to Downes’s recording of “Sometimes I Fell Like a Motherless Child.”]

As you perform the piano arrangement by Stephen Buck in collaboration with the recording of the singers, what is your approach?

It’s constructed so the piano enters in a ghostlike voice and doesn’t interrupt or overpower the voices. In places, it’s taking the lead from the voices, which are obviously in a melancholy lane. It’s pulling back to an inward journey on the circumstances and history within those words and notes. It’s a meditation. And then I hand it back to the singers. It’s a tribute.

Please talk about Margaret Bonds and Troubled Water, her adaptation of the classic spiritual, “Wade in the Water.” What must you understand and master to play the piece completely, not just technically?

The history. You have to know where Margaret Bonds was coming from. Bonds and Price are fascinating because they lived through a transition in America that was profound. The time and places where they were able to do their work was a fleeting moment: mass migration had big cities redefining themselves. There was a flowering in Harlem and in Chicago, with black writers and musicians coming together to work in harmony. The work that came out of it was so resonant. As artists performing their work, we communicate all of the history and story and experience that’s inside the music we’re privileged to play. We’re conduits.

Margaret Bonds

What do you most appreciate about Bond’s compositions?

It’s brilliant piano writing. In Troubled Water, it’s her perceptive way of taking the groove of “Wade in the Water” and turning it into something that intersects with concert traditions. The structure and harmonizations are perfect: It travels. It pulls in post-Romantic concert writing and at the same time, it beautifully honors the spiritual traditions it’s leaning upon.

I’ve been playing it a lot lately and people go crazy. There’s an energy in it. You feel the layers of tradition and it just propels you forward. But that’s something I experience with all of this music. We are all, as Americans, intuitively connected to the complexity of our musical heritage. People find themselves in this music.

I was playing in a big hall in Washington, D.C., and went offstage during a break. There was a group of security guards, African-American guys in their 60s and 70s who just heard it through the doors. They were excited: it’s your home, your roots, your family.

What guided your selection of Florence Price’s Fantasie Negre No. 2?

I’ve recently released a series of 15 singles with newly discovered pieces of her piano work. My connection with Price is one of recognition; finding a part of myself reflected in her music. Ten years ago, really digging into American music and not find large amounts of it by African American composers, I found her music in pockets. With the reemergence of her work, I’m so lucky to have discovered it. It’s a moment in time now and a self-determined movement (by Price) in the history of classical music. Fantasie Negre No. 2, in the context of the broader vision, represents the entrance of this music into the concert tradition. When I chose it, I had in my mind her connection to Anderson, to honoring African American women and their place in history. It’s the meeting point that happened in the ’30s with spirituals and concert music, and there are others in the ’60s with spirituals and protest music coming into the album’s focus.

Composer Florence Price in 1941 | Credit: University of Arkansas Digital Collections

In a follow up email, Downes added:

“I found her first Fantasie in a compilation of music by black women composers. I want to be clear that I have been an active driving force behind the rediscovery of her work, not a passive recipient. I have been powerfully advocating for her work and I’ve been instrumental in this renaissance.”

How are you using the album in your My Promise Project’s To Be Free residencies?

This Promise Project has been alive for four years. The focus shifts for each project. I’ve been working with schools this year, although some are getting postponed right now [because of coronavirus]. The spirit of protest and the value of freedom songs is very much alive, is what I observe. Reaching younger generations is so important because the awareness they have of social injustice right now is enormous. The lessons of history are helpful and reassuring. I come to the music with firsthand knowledge from my parents. People were marching and singing these songs in the street not long before and after I was born. My mother told me this isn’t the first time things have been hard. Kids right now don’t necessarily know that. It’s hopeful for them to have connections to what is actually quite recent history. They need to hear how we’ve made progress forward and I try to remember that myself.

Lara Downes | Credit: Max Barrett

Their answers are vast when I ask them, “What is your promise in the world?” They say they can clean up the ocean, end hunger. I ask them how they can do those things. The project empowers them to realize how they can begin, and continue, to take these actions. It’s fascinating to hear their agency come forward as they connect to what has been possible before but find new ways to move forward. I need it too, because one of the things that’s hugely discouraging is how easy it is to lapse into false activism. Reposting things you see online is not action. We need small, grassroots efforts.

Do you introduce or integrate classical music concepts in the workshops?

It’s about the music and I don’t call it one genre or another at all. I play a piece by Price and talk about who she was and where she came from. To share this story with kids, mostly who are kids of color, to show how she pulled from two traditions — her ancestral traditions and the traditions in which she immersed and trained herself as a classical composer — has deep impact. No, I don’t have to talk about classical music directly. That’s the thing about music: you can share it and save a lot of words.

Is there a similar or comparable response from adults?

The workshops are targeted to young people and the CD is just being released, but in concerts with adult audiences, there’s resonance. People need hope. They need a linear American narrative with our past and including our possibility. That’s what I’m trying to share with this album. It says to them; we have tried before and we keep trying. Nobody said it would be easy, quick, or perfect. We have setbacks, and then we move forward again.

A last item: What is the significance of the performance you will be giving this summer with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra of Price’s Piano Concerto?

[The Chicago Symphony’s 1933 premiere of Price’s Symphony in E Minor was the first work by a black woman composer ever performed by a major American symphony orchestra.]

The significance is that Chicago was her home base. It’s a historically important performance because the CSO has never played this work before. The Chicago Symphony played an important role in her career. I played [the concerto] with the Boston Pops last spring and other places, but this performance in Chicago has so much resonance.

What does that mean? Resonance means vibration. The physical feeling I get as a pianist has implications, it has waves of connection. It’s complicated, and I don’t want to answer just in the context of Price. In the context of the entire album, this place in American music of uncovering voices you haven’t heard, bringing music where you find yourself … it is all about resonance. When I play it, I feel it in my body and the vibrations are going out into the room. The way I expand on these stories through the historical and cultural references — we are feeling the things that bring us together in ways we don’t always immediately recognize. It’s our childhood, it’s in our DNA. That’s what I witness in the concert hall when people lean together and breathe together. There are bigger vibrations than just the music: it’s deep, human connection.

Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by WIRED.com, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others.  She is a children’s book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.  Visit her website online at www.johnsonandfancher.com.

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