From the recording Cradle of Light
On my bike one spring evening, after struggling up the long, winding hill, I stopped to rest at the old one-room school house that had fascinated me for years. Built after the Civil War on land owned by former slaves, it had just been restored after long decades of decay.
The song focuses on contrasts, the long evening shadows cut by bright sunbeams, the neglected gray boards now painted bright white, the gravestones marking a birth. The speaker talks directly to Lucy Simms, just graduated from the Hampton Institute and back to our valley to teach at the school. Can we muster the courage and hope she had? Or the tenacity? She taught for fifty-six years.
This is one of those songs that took years to write. I tried so many melodies and chord progressions; I changed guitar tunings a half-dozen times. I got most of the lines on the first try, but I kept rearranging their sequence. And I waffled on the instrumental intro and outro, but they represent my bike ride, and I can't help feeling they're important to the story somehow. I hope it's all settled down now.
I should mention the influence of Grace Pettis, an amazing singer-songwriter. This song started as an exercise in a class she taught. She helped me weed out some of the competing ideas, and though it can't approach the pierce-your-heart quality of her writing, she encouraged me warmly.
Oh, by the way, old pal Beth Nealon adds a smooth touch on organ, sanding down the rough splinters that I chipped up with guitar, dobro, octave mandolin, and bass.
While you're listening, you can read the lyrics below, and then enjoy these slides about the school-and-chapel's history and restoration.
Long’s Hope Copyright 2014 Dave Nealon
The forest edge and half in shadow
A roadside respite on winding hill
Limestone and moss and scattered violets
In patterns stitching a graveside quilt
A one-room school long years abandoned
In slanting stanchions of evening light
Acre of rest and restoration
Unchiseled headstones, the cusp of night
Lend me your vision, light from your eyes
Brave hope of winning, eyes on the prize
A child slave till Lee’s surrender
Rendered a scholar at Hampton Roads
Under the Oak Emancipation
Till education calls you back home
Against long odds at Long’s Hope chapel
The former chattels now own the land
You born in bonds now serving freely
Primers and prospects in children’s hands
Bold from the ocean home to the mountain
Climbing above abuse and disgrace
They say for courage there’s no accounting
But you reckon promise in every face
Gray clapboard walls, white painted lumber
Yet few remember the history here
The silent bell no more recalling
The tolling memory, sweet-bitter years
For you a birth, new-laid foundation
Risk and potential, and half in light
For me repose, a contemplation
And half in shadow, the cusp of night