Song as Altar: Breath and Grief in Brightwell & Moran's "Land of Plenty"
Woody and I wrote this song while looking back over the events of the year 2020. This was in the spring of 2021, so we were also privy to all of the post-election events and the social/political intensity of that winter. Woody had come up with lines to the last verse first, and we began to work backwards from there.
We wondered how we could possibly encapsulate the scope of that tumultuous year in just a few passing verses. Our strategy was to drill down to the most essential flashpoints that illustrated the sea change our country was experiencing. So we focused on the COVID pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the presidential election.
As we wrote the first verse, the subject of the breath was front and center. The original COVID virus wreaked havoc on the lungs, and there were accounts all over the media of people having to be put on ventilators and often dying anyway. Referencing a sickness that “takes your breath” was a way to invoke COVID without having to say (or sing!) the name. And it gave our account a visceral quality that other sanitized terms like words like “pandemic” did not.
Getting into the second verse, it was clear that breath also figured prominently in the story of George Floyd. Indeed, it has been a through line in the stories of the many black and brown people who have died at the hands of police. Repeating the words “I can’t breathe!” became a rallying cry for those who gathered to mourn Floyd’s death and demand justice and accountability.
Then we were left with the issue of the election that fall, which ended up being framed by the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We grappled with the very real concerns about what might happen with the election itself, as well as the appointment of a Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justice. The media focus on counting ballots and the ensuing “big lie” about widespread voter fraud had us on the edge of our seats. This moment illustrated yet another way that our collective “breath” was affected — in this case, actually holding our breath in suspense.
In Chinese medicine, the lungs are considered to be the repository of grief. Any issues with our breathing, respiratory system, or lungs are often related to unprocessed grief and loss. 2020 was a year of great loss for us as a country and as a society. And, interestingly enough, many of the most important moments hinged upon the breath.
Perhaps the breath will also be a force to guide us back to ourselves. We are in dire need of inspiration, and also aspiration: what will catalyze us into action, and help us determine what kind of people we want to be in the world? I say this individually as well as collectively. What kind of world do we want to live in? Raise our families in? Do our work and fulfill our vocations in? Pass on to future generations?
Take a deep breath everyone…
Early January, no one knew
Just a footnote in the nightly news
Turned into headlines as the numbers grew
Sickness takes your breath then the rest of you
We isolate in fear
They said it couldn’t happen here
Hide behind a mask in the land of plenty
With the spring of 2020
"I can’t breathe," said the man on the ground
Nine minutes passed, that cop held him down
All eyes watching that Minnesota town
One life lost, but our conscience found
Brought us to our knees
Crowds filled up the angry streets
Blood on their hands in the land of plenty
Say his name in 2020
Heavy is the head that wears a golden crown
Tips the scales of justice to the powerful and proud
Held our breath, made every ballot count
But the madman wouldn’t lay his weapons down
Did it crush the American dream?
A cold wind to wipe the slate clean...
All we took for granted in the land of plenty
Winter Solstice 2020