This week’s Free Ride* muses on the voice of Donny Hathaway, who would have turned 66 today (for a reflection on the tragic ending of his life, check out a post from my Daily Passages blog a few months ago). Hathaway, known for cranking out some great r & b duets with Roberta Flack in the 70s, also gave us some treasured solo recordings. His vocal style and phrasing influenced many artists, including the likes of Stevie Wonder and George Benson, not to mention the “First Daughter of Soul,” Donny Hathaway’s Grammy-winning daughter, Lalah. The one song he is most associated with is Someday We’ll All Be Free, written by his friend Edward Howard and recorded in 1973 on what would be Hathaway’s last studio album. This signature song was not an instant hit, failing to make the charts, but slowly became interpreted as an anthem for the black pride movement, and was used by Spike Lee for the closing credits of his Malcom X movie. Years later, it regained popularity when Alicia Keys covered it in a live performance as a tribute to American heroes days after the 9/11 attacks. The lyrics certainly lend themselves to these political interpretations:
Even though the song has been appropriated as a soundtrack for larger than life struggles of political liberty in the past three decades, it was not originally intended to be that kind of anthem. Edward Howard wrote it as a very personal word of encouragement for Donny Hathaway, who struggled mightily with clinical depression and schizophrenia. Howard wrote, What was going through my mind at the time was Donny, because Donny was a very troubled person. I hoped that at some point he would be released from all that he was going through. There was nothing I could do but write something that might be encouraging for him. Hathaway’s wife, Eulalah, spoke of the personal impact of the song: He loved that song. Donny literally sat in the studio and cried when he heard the playback of his final mix. It’s pretty special when an artist can create something that wipes them out. It strikes me as instructive that a song such as this has the power to speak to the dreams of freedom in both deeply personal and broadly political ways. It gives us a clue that our internal and external relationships with freedom are strongly intertwined. This was certainly true of Donny Hathaway; when he suffered through some of his more troubling episodes of schizophrenia, he was haunted by intense terrors of racism. For him, freedom from the internal demons of despair were inexorably tied with freedom from the external demons of racism. My hopes and prayers are that the lyrics of the song will be realized for all people who suffer both from the disease of mental illness and the dis-ease of civil injustice, from depression and oppression. Lay your dreams right up to the sky. Someday we’ll all be free.