After the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th — in which there was a riot incited by our sitting president — there is great despair for our country. Despair and concern that is appropriate. We face many dangers to our democracy, especially over the last two weeks of his term, if he makes it that long.
But there was also hope that the winds of change were blowing. Hope grounded in the memory of what those ordinary citizens who came before have shown us is possible. Hope as attempts at voter suppression failed, and the people used their voice to stand up for democracy, walking across the bridges built by past heroes like John Lewis.
A simple country refrain from a gospel song written by the great Ralph Stanley in 1960 kept playing on a loop in my head during this week. The first line of the chorus is pure country poetry: The darkest hour is just before dawn.
“The sun is slowly sinking
The day is almost gone
Still darkness falls around us
And we must journey on
The darkest hour is just before dawn…”
One doesn’t have to believe in the gospel context of the song to understand and appreciate the meaning of trial, loss, and rebirth. This week we saw the inevitable culmination of our trial of four years; a period of lies, hatred, and division. As we came face-to-face with the fact of the fragility of the American ideal, our loss was clear. But in the special elections in Georgia, in the coming back of Congress after the insurrection to certify the will of the people, and in the beginning of the difficult discussions around what American democracy means, we see the glimmer of dawn and rebirth.
The definitive version of The Darkest Hour is undoubtedly by Emmylou Harris, with Ricky Skaggs singing harmony, from her 1980 Roses in the Snow album. When Skaggs comes in at the 2:00 mark to take the lead, it sends chills down your back.
This live version from 2007 by Emmylou is a treasure in many ways, not the least of which is the band. The late Mike Auldridge is on the dobro, while his former Seldom Scene bandmate Tom Gray is playing bass.* Ricky Simpkins on the fiddle and Keith Little on the mandolin round out the players. Plus her heartfelt introduction about how there is a comfort in the grim fact of loss that makes us embrace life even more is a reminder, if we needed one, that Harris can both choose and sing the most meaningful songs from the country music canon like nobody else.
There is also a lovely live version by the band I’m With Her. Sara Watkins takes the lead, but the harmonies are what make this worth a listen.
And because the last line of the first verse speaks to the fact that even while darkness falls we must journey on, this 1997 version of Bob Dylan’s classic The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bruce Springsteen, with his moving introduction of the times in the 1960s when the song was written, and the times in 1997 when he sang this tribute, and — I’m sure he would agree — the times in 2021 when we face challenges to all that is best about America, seems oh so appropriate.
Keep journeying forward, with hope and work for a better world.
More to come…
*Personal Note: Tom Gray is a friend that I came to know from his years where he was helping out his daughter Julie at the Silver Spring farmers market. Tom was always ready to stop selling the best eggs on the planet to talk some music, so I had to make sure I wasn’t taking him away when Julie was busy. Since she has scaled down her operation, we don’t see Tom in person anymore, although he has a robust online friends group. A member of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame for his work with the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene, Tom is one of the kindest “stars” you’ll ever want to meet. It is great to see him in this video.