Oh, the glorious sounds of Dinah Washington. I sat upright one afternoon when I heard the words and notes of “This Bitter Earth.”
Ms. Washington was born in 1924 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She left behind a powerful and enduring legacy of her torch songs when she died in 1963 of a drug overdose. Her albums spanned from 1950 to 1967. Listen to the full range of her artistry with her 1999 box set titled “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”.
Her haunting torch song “This Bitter Earth” (1960) was on the movie soundtrack of Killer Sheep, a film of African Americans set in Watts in Los Angeles during the 1970s. The song hit #1 on the R&B chart for one week and was #24 on the pop chart in 1960.
Listen to Ms. Washington sing:
The lyrics to “This Bitter Earth” are as beautiful as the melody:
This bitter earth
What fruit it bears
What good is love
That no one shares
And if my life is like the dust
That hides the glow of a rose
What good am I
Heaven only knows
This bitter earth
Can it be so cold
Today you’re young
Too soon your old
But while a voice
Within me cries
I’m sure someone
May answer my call
And this bitter earth
May not be so bitter after all
Ms. Washington, you are remembered in this time when environmentalism is part of the our common parlance. This bitter earth . . .
Who is Stevie Wonder, this gifted man who wrote and sings “Village Ghetto Land”? Stevie was born in 1950 in Michigan. He was born prematurely and while in an incubator, he lost his sight. Today, we know him as the talented singer, song-writer, instrumentalist, producer, and community activist. I would argue Stevie is one of the world’s most renowned musical artists in the world of all time.
“Village Ghetto Land” is on the “Songs in the Key of Life” LP. Tamia Records released the album in 1976. The album hit number one on the Billboard Album chart immediately.
Stevie co-wrote “Village Ghetto Land” with Gary Bird. All of the instruments were also played by Stevie. The song probably wasn’t released as a single because it never charted.
Here’s one of my personal memories of the album; I’m sure many people connect a song to a memory, an experience. I was sitting in the back of my cousin Denise’s car with her daughter Christina. We were all driving back from New Jersey headed to St. Albans–that’s in the boro of Queens in New York–on a cold day after a family Thanksgiving dinner. During the drive, Christina and I belted out all the songs from the album as we peered through the windows looking at the landscape of naked trees lining streets that became highways under fall grey skies.
Sisters Melissa and Christina
The song “Village Ghetto Land” focuses on environmental justice and racism before these terms were part of our vernacular. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” probably an influenced Stevie when writing “Village Ghetto Land” because both songs are about social justice.
Read the lyrics:
Village Ghetto Land Would you like to go with me
Down my dead end street
Would you like to come with me
To Village Ghetto Land
See the people lock their doors
While robbers laugh and steal
Beggars watch and eat their meal from garbage cans
Broken glass is everywhere
It’s a bloody scene
Killing plagues the citizens
Unless they own police
Children play with rusted cars
Sores cover their hands
Politicians laugh and drink-drunk to all demands
Families buying dog food now
Starvation roams the streets
Babies die before they’re born
Infected by the grief
Now some folks say that we should be
Glad for what we have
Tell me would you be happy in Village Ghetto Land
Village Ghetto Land
When I sing these lyrics out loud, I visualize a street that is more like a garbage dump and less like a healthy neighborhood. The sense of poverty is strongest in the images of people eating garbage and children suffering with sores on their hands probably from their playground of rusted cars.
The images take me to another place in the twenty-first century. I think about impoverished people in struggling towns, that were more like hamlets or small villages, in the shadow of chemical plants in Louisiana. I sat in the midst of tombstones in a graveyard of one of those hamlets that was populated more with the dead than the living.
Watch and listen to Stevie Wonder sing “Village Ghetto Land”: