Yeah, I know that’s a heavy title. I only styled it that way because I took the song very seriously when I wrote it earlier this century. I wanted something mythic and epic, something that captured the intensely tragic nature of the relationship of two people tied together by slavery, in the sense of Booker T. Washington (who grew up within a mile of where I grew up in West Virginia) when he said, “You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him.”
The obvious religious analogy was the story of Cain and Abel from the Jewish scriptures, called the Old Testament by Christians. Cain slew Abel, but he was cursed by this murder to wander in his resentment.
I feel there are better moral interpretations of this story, but I also feel that it readily evokes the relationship between slave-owning whites and unfree blacks. And the birth of Adam and Eve’s third son Seth, from whom we are all descended according to this story, symbolizes a way forward from the tragedy of Cain and Abel. Seth is where America needs to grow forward.
I wanted to incorporate the scriptural Hebrew puns on the names of Cain and Seth. Cain’s name is very similar to the Hebrew word for “acquisition” and Seth’s name is very similar to the word for “appointment.” I also wanted to play on other themes from Genesis, particularly the fact that Cain was a planter who deflected God’s questioning by asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In American history, the planter Cain was indeed Abel’s keeper.
I also wanted to tie the Cain and Abel story to American imagery. I incorporated the colors of the US flag in the lyrics, but not in a condemnation of Old Glory; simply as a recognition that slavery has to be reckoned with in American history. Tellingly, it’s the same flag that flew over the the Union forces that emancipated slaves. It’s a tragic yet redeeming history. Slavery persisted, and today persists, outside the lands over which the US flag flies. But, in America, it is outlawed and rightly condemned. A victory.
In an attempt to evoke the tragic beauty of America, I decided to mash up the details of the Cain and Abel story with the lyrics of the populer Katherine Lee Bates hymn, America the Beautiful. Thus the “spacious skies,” the “amber [red] waves of grain,” the “purple mountains’ majesty,” the “fruited plain.”
I wanted to ask whether, in fact, we could “crown thy good in brotherhood.” Could we be good brothers, despite the legacy we have inherited from Cain and Abel in the plantations of grain, cotton, and sugar cane.
I believe we can. The only way a crown can be held among brothers is to rise above the tragedy of history, and take on the mantle of Seth, who was appointed to Eve as a new start after the murder of Abel by Cain. Recognize that Abel was hopelessly murdered, and Cain is hopelessly lost. We cannot be their descendants. We must choose to be free from those legacies, neither held down nor holding down, and come together in our common future as Seth America.
I hope you enjoy this song.