I wrote the song The Promised Land to sing during the memorial service at a church homecoming. The church I grew up in has a homecoming celebration every year on the second Sunday in June. Most of the people that go to this church are related to my mother. The same goes for the people that come to the homecoming celebration every year. For several years, I had been asked to sing special music immediately after the memorial section of the service. I usually tried to sing something that fit the tone of the memorial. I wrote this song probably about a year after my mother had past away. I wanted to try and write something special for her. As I approached writing the song, I thought about a lady in the congregation we called Aunt Erin who had written something special for homecoming. She read it as the memorial service every year when I was younger. I thought about how poetic her writing was and wished that I could set that to music. I never tried very hard to find her memorial service. I’m not sure but her memorial service could have died with her. I hope not.
I also thought about a man named Mr. Bill that had did the service for several years after Aunt Erin passed away. His was not the same each year, but was always very touching. One very memorable service had to do with a stroll he took through the cemetery prior to the homecoming where he remembered things about the people buried there. There were things from his services that I wanted to pull into my song too.
The main idea that I started with for the song was hope. A lot of the memorial songs that I had done over the years were sad. The songs were about funerals and missing the people that had died. I wanted a song with promise. I wanted to write about people looking into a place where there is a better life. Not just people who had recently passed away, but the people that are still alive. Hope for us all. Writing it for a memorial service meant that I maintained a solemn tone. I think I achieved this with what is now known as The Promised Land (Part 1). Check out the lyrics here.
I wrote the song and recorded it relatively soon after that. I have performed it several times and I’ve always gotten a good response to it. As I continued to record my songs, I was always looking for different things to do with the arrangements. The Promised Land is the only song that I have revisited with a completely new idea. The new idea had its roots at least 15 years earlier.
In the late 1980’s I was working for a company where I had to swing shifts. Most of the time I would work 2 weeks on day shift, 2 on evening shift and 1 on midnights. My odd hours had me going into work at odd hours. Sometimes on my way home from evening shift, I would scan the radio to check out new music. I found myself stopping on channels playing African-American gospel choirs. I loved this music. I loved the messages and the arrangements. Soon, I started buying CDs of some of my favorite artists. One day, I found myself staying an extra hour in Wal-Mart just to hear a performance by some of the members of the Mississippi Mass Choir. They were there promoting a new CD. I loved getting to meet them. When I listen to religious music, I’m more likely to listen to this than contemporary Christian music. Maybe it shows in the songs that I write.
I started kicking around an idea about re-recording The Promised Land with a gospel choir arrangement. This would become one of my most ambitious projects. Before I even considered recording this, I had to sit and actually transcribe the harmony parts for the choir. I had never done this for any of my other recordings. Even on songs like Bound for Glory where I have five voices singing backup, I did those vocals without a score, stacking the harmonies as I recorded them. For The Promised Land, I used a standard gospel choir three part harmony for the arrangement and gospel choir chord progressions in key places. I was also careful to let the energy build in the song.
For the recording, instrumentation was important. I have to include an organ in the mix. The song opens with the gospel chord progression on the piano and the organ wailing. It quickly gets into the grove for the vocals to take the spotlight. Recording the choir vocals was a lengthy task. I wanted it to sound like there was a whole choir there with me. You hear 12 voices on the recording with 4 on each of the harmony parts. I don’t remember how many retakes there were to get 12 good recordings. If you listen to some of the individual choir takes, you would not believe they made it into the final recording. My family heard me during this recording and thought it was going to turn out terrible. Some of the retakes were due to adjustments from my original arrangement. For the most part, I was able to stick to what I had written. The logistics for recording the choir part was to record one vocal for each of the parts to assure that the harmony sounded the way I wanted it, then go back and add 3 more vocals for each of the parts. Yes, all of the voices in the choir are me. And I’m playing all the instruments. With the multiple background vocals and instruments, I was pushing the limits of the track capacity of my meager recording equipment. I was happy with the final results.
I knew that I would eventually release these songs and thought it would be best to do it on the same album. The second version became known as The Promised Land (Part 2). I struggled to decide if they should be separated on the album or side by side. I decided that Part 2 should be immediately after Part 1 because they are compliments. Even with the different tempo, they tell the same story. The upbeat feel of Part 2 emphasizes the hope and promise I wanted to communicate in the original version.
So now when I play these songs for friends, I always ask which part they like the best. Which one is your favorite?
Singer, Songwriter, Entertainer, Storyteller