By Douglas John Imbrogno | WestVirginiaVille | sep24.2020
There is a moment that catches my breath in the music video above of “Lay That Burden Down,” a new song by Ron Sowell and Jon Wikstrom. It is one notable moment among many in this collaboration between Ron, our WestVirginiaVille media production team, a host of talented musical folks, and the inimitable singer, Doris “Lady D” Fields of Beckley, WV.
The moment comes early. Here it is below. The date is March 7, 1965, the scene is the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Lewis and other civil rights leaders have walked across the bridge, intent on marching the 54 miles to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery.
They have undertaken a non-violent protest over voting rights and the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, killed the previous month by a state trooper while trying to protect his mother during a civil rights demonstration.
A line of state troopers awaits on the other side of the bridge. As the two contingents approach one another, a trooper wags his finger in the air. A wooden baton juts forward in his other hand.
The finger says: ‘You can’t come this way…’ There’s an unspoken word of condescension and racist bullying finishing that sentence. You can imagine words that might finish the sentence yourself.
On the right side of the photo, Lewis—he’s in the tan overcoat with a rucksack—peers ahead. He looks alert, maybe resolute. He appears prepared for whatever is to come, even if perhaps hiding a quaking fear. The fellow to his right pulls at his nose or lip—he knows this could go badly. Is it a nervous gesture, anticipating violence?
The troopers, the shock guard of American racist policing on this day, soon deliver the beat-down they are trained and paid to administer. Armed with nightsticks and other objects, they beat more than 500 civil rights marchers on a day that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” It horrified viewers nationwide who watched on television.
Lewis suffered a cracked skull. He was soon back to protesting after being released from the hospital.
I like to think that the young John Lewis, facing onrushing troopers sent to halt the civil rights movement in its tracks, had his eyes focused beyond those state-sanctioned thugs. He looks to be gazing beyond them, to that “more perfect union” which Abraham Lincoln conjured in his inaugural address in 1861 (in a speech he sketched out in the homely back room of his brother-in-law’s store back in Springfield, Illinois.)
There was a reason Lewis returned every year of his life to the Pettus Bridge (named after a Confederate officer and prominent Ku Klux Klansman of his day). Lewis undertook the long march for racial equity, risking his life and well-being—as present-day protesters and supporters of racial justice do—to confront America.
Or maybe to phrase it better, to awaken white America from its determined slumber. And to disrupt and expose the lies which, as James Baldwin once noted, ” gave birth to more lies,” sustaining the belief that if you are white “you mattered more than others.”
Raising up the life and words of John Lewis is not to turn him into an icon. Electing somone an icon can excuse the rest of us from the hard work of change as we stand in awe of iconic figures—and then go about our usual ways.
That protest on the Pettus Bridge in 1965 was a call by Lewis and everyone paying attention to wake up. And to live up to what Lincoln, in that inaugural address so long ago, described as the still unrealized dream of a nation animated by “the better angels of our nature.”
When John Lewis died earlier this year, his horse-drawn, flag-draped casket crossed the Pettus Bridge one last time. You can see it in the video. When the black top hat of the driver leading the horse-drawn casket comes off, well ….
It’s another one of those moments.
Ron and Jon’s tune, and Lady D’s passionate interpretation of “Lay That Burden Down,” channel the spirit of Lewis. His words are a challenge to “lay down” the burden of hate. As Lewis once famously said:
“Never, ever be afraid to make some good noise and get in some good trouble … necessary trouble.” ~ John Lewis
And as he also said, in a quote that finishes the video—in words that ring ever more powerfully true in these scary days for the 250-year-old experiment of the American Republic:
“Your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful, nonviolent tool to create a more perfect union.” ~ John Lewis
5 QUESTIONS: Ron Sowell on “Lay That Burden Down”
“Lay That Burden Down”
WRITTEN BY: Ron Sowell and Jon Wikstrom
VOCALS: Doris “Lady D” Fields, lead vocal
Dan Bailey: guitars, bass, programed drums
Dave Shrewsbury: piano /Hammond B-3
Ron Sowell: harmony vocal
Produced, engineered, mixed & mastered by Dan Bailey, Elmridge Productions
MUSIC VIDEO: Produced by Bobby Lee Messer and Douglas John Imbrogno
FOR REPUBLISHING & USAGE RIGHTS: firstname.lastname@example.org
A VIDEO PRODUCTION OF: WestVirginiaVille.com
NOTE: All scenes with Lady D shot in West Virginia.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: What was the original inspiration for this song? How did it come to be?
RON SOWELL: The impact of John Lewis’s death, and more importantly his life of courage and commitment to non-violent change, touched me deeply. When I heard his quote—”Hate is too heavy of a burden, we’ve got to lay it down”—I felt a jolt of electricity and the song began to emerge. I then enlisted the help of my long-time writing partner, Jon Wikstrom, to help me finish it. Together, we crafted the final version.
WVVILLE: What do you hope people take away from it?
RS: I am hoping that it keeps John Lewis’s message of insisting on equal rights for everyone through non-violent protest alive. He’s gone now, so it’s up to us.
WVVILLE: What is the role of artists and creative people in times of crisis?
RS: The artist’s role, as always, is to express truth as we see it, to look past the superficial surface issues for the deeper meaning. To comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.
“I refuse to spiral down the rabbit hole of despair.”
WVVILLE: These are intense, even desperate times, politically, in the life of America. How do you personally keep your spirits up and keep faith in the future?
RS: I believe that the only things that we can control are our own thoughts. Everything that has ever been created began with a thought. Our society is an amalgamation and creation of our collective thoughts. Therefore, my personal responsibility is to contribute a positive compassionate vision of America. So, I center my thoughts on being gratetul for all that I have and for all that I envision to be. I refuse to spiral down the rabbit hole of despair.
WVVILLE: In addition to John Lewis—obviously—who inspires you to do what you do?
RS: I have living examples all around me in my own community. I also draw inspiration from my favorite songwriters and artists, from writer philosophers such as Eckhart Tolle & Wayne Dyer. And from the examples in history of Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Jesus, Buddha, and most recently Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to name a few.
SONGS of WEST VIRGINIA | “I Know I’m Home”: The tune “I Know I’m Home” kicks off a new WestVirginiaVille series showcasing original “Songs of West Virginia.” The tune was co-written by Al Smith and Ron Sowell, the leader of the “Mountain Stage” band. Sowell was a wandering minstrel who landed here and found some harmony. And stayed for good.
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