Free to Be and O, Mary

“Free to Be” is the one song on our FFM spring concert program that the FFM has performed before–the kids sang it at our very first concert, in May of 2013. I’m happy for the kids who have joined us since that time to get to know this optimistic and affirming song. From a programming perspective, Free to Be has taken on a new shade of meaning for me as a result of putting it in a social justice context. It’s easy to bring to mind examples of kids who are not free to express who they really are, not free to be their best and truest selves either due to political or economic hardships or due to social norms. Imagine the kind of world we could have if all these kids were free to be themselves.

The FFM kids are also singing the African American spiritual “O Mary, Don’t You Weep.” When my daughter Claire first learned this song with the Newton Family Singers (http://www.newtonfamilysingers.org), I remember her asking over and over to hear the story about the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt (for one summary from a non-religious viewpoint, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossing_the_Red_Sea).

The text of this song is a rich mixture of various passages from the Bible; the chorus references the sorrow of Mary of Bethany over the death of her brother, Lazarus, as well as Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. The song includes memorable verses like “If I could, I surely would stand on the rock where Moses stood,” and “Moses stood on the Red Sea shore, smotin’ the water with a two by four,” and “God gave Noah the rainbow sign: no more water but fire next time.” (The part about the fire isn’t in the Noah story, but can be found in places like II Peter 3:6-7: “By the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished [as in the flood]. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless.”]

The song dates from before the Civil War, and the themes of hope and deliverance would have had a clear appeal to the slaves who first sang the song. Like quite a number of spirituals, this one gained new life during the Civil Rights movement. The FFM kids are singing and playing clarinets and string instruments using the minor-mode version of the tune, but there’s also a major-mode version. In the 1960s, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee made new words for this song to refer to the bus boycotts: “If you miss me from the back of the bus, and you can’t find me nowhere, Come on up to the front of the bus, I’ll be ridin’ up there” :

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