"Deep River (Live at Le Guess Who?)" by Beverly Glenn-Copeland, from Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland, released by Transgressive Records in 2020.
Buy direct: https://beverlyglenn-copeland.bandcamp.com/album/transmissions-the-music-of-beverly-glenn-copeland-2
We will end in jubilation, but we begin in prayer. A single, solitary voice — a simple, five-line verse — an earnest plea for deliverance and grace. As this voice stands before us, naked and exposed yet confident and assured, we hear both the vulnerability and the strength that come with prayer, the humility and the awe that one feels when addressing and communing with a higher power, like the humility and awe that we feel in the presence of this miraculous voice. And so, as this voice asks for grace, it is also itself an act of grace, and thus serves as a kind of grace, a blessing of the performance now to come.
And that's not all, for this opening prayer, it should be noted, was also an invitation. As much as it was calling upon a higher power to come down and bless this musical gathering, it was also calling on us, its audience, to come over and take a seat at the table. "Don't you want to go to that Gospel-feast?" it asked. And that, as I see it, is the point of this performance: to get us to share in its beatific vision, by itself being something beatific to behold.
And so it welcomes us in and leads us along, with its steady djembe beat, its wide and open chord voicings, and its slow descending bassline. Without our even noticing it, we have crossed over into a new and beautiful musical space. It's a transition that, coincidentally or not, mirrors the song's lyrics, which are all about crossing over, across the great divide of a deep river, into that home over Jordan, into campground, into that promised land. In short, the lyrics, and their delivery, are an embodiment of the radical hope for a better life beyond this one, and this music is helping us keep our faith in that other life, by showing us the glorious sound of freedom and salvation.
Yet the true sound of deliverance transcends words and language. And perhaps this is why, in the song's third verse, the lyrics shift to ululation. Or perhaps the shift is yet a further invitation, showing that literacy is not a requisite for salvation.
And this brings us to my absolute favourite moment of the song, its most direct invitation to its audience, when the singer momentarily goes off script and breaks the fourth wall to explicitly tell us to join in.
There is just something so tender about that little instruction, something so incongruous with the singing that surrounds it. To realize that this is what the singer normally sounds like, that from a speaking voice so light and playful can come a singing voice so powerful and divine — well, it makes anything seem possible. Somehow the majestic beauty we've been hearing now doesn't seem so out of reach.
If this is how you, too, feel by the end of this performance, then that means the performance has done what it set out to do, transporting you across that deep river to the salvation on the other side. And so the song ends in a finale of overflowing jubilation, for not only has it finally reached the promised land, but it is also now here together with all of us.