The Little Black
(Click on the above Song Title to hear the MP3 Music file; 7 MB)
by William Blake, from his Songs of Innocence, 1789
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav'd of light.
My mother taught me underneath a tree
And sitting down before the heat of day
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east began to say:
Look on the rising sun: there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.
And we are put on earth a little space
That we may learn to bear the beams of love.
And these black bodies and this sunburnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove,
For when our souls have learn'd the heat to bear
The cloud will vanish we shall hear his voice,
Saying: come out from the grove my love & care
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.
Thus did my mother say and kissed me.
And thus I say to little English boy.
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:
I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our fathers knee.
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me.
Notes on This Performance
Music Copyright by Stephen James (1994); commissioned by Duncan Brown to honor his wife Carla Brown’s Birthday in 1994. April 13, 2008 marked the first professional performance of this work, and the first recording.
Composer Stephen James is a Massachusetts-based composer, pianist, organist, and choral director.
Tenor David Portillo is currently a member of the Ryan Opera Center of Lyric Opera of Chicago. He made his Lyric Opera debut in September in the role of Gaston in La Traviata. Later in the season he sang the Sargeant in Il Barbiere di Siviglia as well as cover roles in other productions. Mr. Portillo is a native of Texas.
Pianist Wayland Rogers is a singer, conductor and teacher as well as a composer. He received a 1986 Grammy nomination for Best Chamber Music recording with the Chicago Symphony Winds. Presently he is Music Director at North Shore Unitarian Church in Deerfield, IL, and faculty member at North Park University in Chicago.
By Duncan H. Brown
William Blake wrote the Songs of Innocence and Experience to illumine
what he saw as two states of the soul. Innocence was marked by optimism,
kindness, sweet expressions…and innocence. Experience, on the other hand, was
marked by death, disease, decay and cynicism.
Songs of Innocence includes poems like The Little Black Boy. The speaker in the poem is young, innocent, and kind, in spite of the racism and slavery that were his lot in 1700s England. While he seems to proclaim his superiority to “little English boy” (because the black boy can better bear the beams of God’s love as personified by the sun), this does not make him proud. He describes their bodies as clouds or a shady grove obscuring/shielding them from God’s love. At the end of the poem, he proclaims their unity and equality, and says that he will shade the white boy until he can better bear God’s love. He suggests that the full experience of God transcends race and color; “When I from black and he from white cloud free.”
Please search for “The Little Black Boy” on Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org) for further thoughts on this poem.
Background on How This Music Came to be Written
By Duncan H. Brown
the late 1990 through the mid-1990s, I sang in the choir at First Parish in
Framingham (Unitarian Universalist) in Massachusetts. For several of those
years the choir director was Stephen James. As time passed I learned that James
was a composer as well as a talented pianist and organist and choir director.
We sang his Mass for one of the choir's annual Music Services, a
beautiful classical piece with some modern flavors.
I learned that David, another tenor in the choir, had commissioned James to
write some songs to be sung by his wife, Deborah, accompanied by piano. This
became the germ of an idea. It seemed amazing to me that I could commission a
talented composer to create a work at my behest. I felt like I had fallen into
a time warp, propelled back to a Vienna street, and had run into J.S. Bach and
asked him to write a cantata dedicated to my wife.
So, I approached James, and he agreed to set one of my favorite poems, Blake's The Little Black Boy, to music for high tenor (me) and piano. A few months later James had finished, and then I hired him to teach me how to sing it. We worked for a few months, with the composer doing his darndest to get an amateur up to the task of singing a challenging and beautiful piece. Then, on Carla's Birthday, we trekked upstairs to the apartment of our neighbors, a sweet old couple, where the composer accompanied my singing on an old upright piano. Carla was surrounded by friends and family as we performed the song.