Freedom Songs is inspiring. Anecdotal and historical set-ups are spare and illuminating, not the least because of the artist’s warmth and passion. Unique arrangements, a perfect fit to material, enable rock, pop, blues, spirituals and protest songs to follow one another without a ripple of dissonance. Choices are well researched, moving, and, yes! extremely entertaining. This is not a polemic, it’s uplifting. If civil rights were taught like Natalie Douglas’ show, we might have a whole generation of knowledgeable, concerned citizens. Even as our audience claps and bobs, issues are raised, colors are described, perspective offered. Send her to the schools someone!
Calling it “a show of my heart” Douglas begins with songs by Max Roach/Oscar Brown Jr., and then Stephen Stills; an unabashed anthem followed by the dark poetry of what a field day for the heat/1000 people in the street. “You can’t fight or run if you’re singing,” she comments. The deep, rich voice needs no warm up. It rises from her soul like a force of nature. Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” is next. It seems Sir Paul came up with the lyric you were only waiting for this moment to be free in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King. Douglas found the song changed for her in light of that knowledge and performs accordingly with vigor we’re unaccustomed to hearing on this tune.
Later, “Why? (The King of Love is Dead),” written by bassist Gene Taylor upon learning of King’s death, evokes the artist’s tears. The song is one of mourning, but also determination.
Nina Simone’s locomotive “Mississippi Goddamn” rhythmically insists change is too slow! too slow! like the repeating sound of a workingman’s hammer or a judge’s gavel. Verse is wrenching. Douglas’ focus is intense. She delivers and then some, leaving one breathless while she, amazingly, is not. Despite the fact “I Am Woman” is declaratory, it takes on warmer tone. Look how much I gained is accompanied by a cat grin. “Paul McCartney, Nina Simone, and Helen Reddy in a row?!” Douglas exclaims. A sign of iconoclastic taste. She tells us her childhood career goal was “hippie,” and that now she’s a proud “screaming liberal.”Most of the audience clearly shares her views.
Surprising numbers include Ervin Drake’s 1940’s contribution, “No Restricted Signs in Heaven.” Apparently the writer of “It Was a Very Good Year” “has long been an agitating liberal.” The terrific lyric manages to be both humorous (necessary to get it published) and incisive in its appalled observations of national bigotry. Bravo Mr. Drake. And “Any Once Upon a Time” (Rob Abel/Chuck Steffan) a ballad about marriage equality during which I conjured a vision of thousands of notes in bottles being sent to sea in prayer. It’s a song that should be performed often these days. Douglas’ creamy voice is filled with empathy and hope. “Nobody’s free till everybody’s free,” she says quoting voting rights activist and civil rights leader, Fannie Lou Hamer.
A haunting rendition of the iconic “Woodstock” is offered with gravitas. What the vocalist does with the word “garden” elicits chills. It’s earthy. Douglas reaches into collective memory. You were there, you read about it, saw photos or films. The event caused change. She’s able to do same thing with protest songs, blues, lyrics brightened by faith. Prejudice we may never have personally experienced becomes universal, a part of group responsibility and awareness. It’s a gift. “Look for the Union Label,” (you’re unlikely to hear this again on a cabaret stage), suggested as “a repurposing of “We Shall Overcome,” is followed by a buoyant “If I Had a Hammer” with an arrangement as textured as it is rousing.
Paul Simon and Bobby Darin selections are gentler and more optimistic. Douglas’ interpretation is pristine. “Things will be okay in the end. If things aren’t okay, then it’s not the end.” One of the original, then teenage, Freedom Riders is in the audience. She thanks him sincerely for his courage.
Ending as uniquely as the show began, “This Little Light” segues into a song called “Now” (Jule Styne/Betty Comden/Adolf Green) with which Lena Horne addressed her audience as opening act for Frank Sinatra: We want more than just a promise/Say goodbye to Uncle Thomas/Now, now now! The music is- wait for it- “Hava Nagila” (literally “Let us rejoice”), a traditional Jewish folk song. Imagine that.
Performed with elegance, conviction, pride, and great good humor, Natalie Douglas’ Freedom Songs is not to be missed whenever and wherever it should return.
Freedom Songs: Election Edition
Mark Hartman Musical Director/Piano
Joe Choroszewski-Drums, Saadi Zain- Bass, Sean Harkness-Guitar,
Brian Nash-Keyboards/Vocals, Romelda Teron Benjamin
October 22, 2012