The first time I remember knowing who Peter, Paul, and Mary were, I was about 8 and was watching my brother and his first wife singing the song “Lemon Tree.” Karen had long chestnut brown hair and a rich alto voice, and while I often associated her with another alto brunette named Karen – Karen Carpenter – my sister-in-law had the Mary Travers sound down too, and the song sounded great to my young ears.
Peter, Paul, and Mary – along with so many other folksingers – became part of the rich tapestry of music that filled my childhood, and they are in part why I pick up on harmonies so easily and tend to blend my voice well with whoever I am singing with. But it wasn’t until adulthood, really, that I learned about the political meaning behind their (and so many other folksingers’) lyrics.
I wonder in part if that’s because I liked so much music I didn’t pay attention to it, or if my growing up the child of Rockefeller Republicans kept me from that analysis, or – as I realized in my undergraduate course on Vietnam – the issues were so current and so present there wasn’t language or resources to teach it. I remember sitting in that college class in my early 30s with the professor doing the first-session litany of “of course you know” facts; and while the students 12-15 years younger nodded at basic information, those my age sat with puzzled looks. We recalled to the class that history went up to the Korean War and we talked about current events only after Watergate – thus shining a light into a significant gap in our knowledge.
And it was only in that class that I really came to study and understand the anti-war, civil-rights, social justice meanings of so many songs from the folksingers I had loved throughout childhood.
Which brings me to today’s hymn – written by Peter Yarrow. Sure, it’s a Hanukkah song… sort of. But wow, is it really an anti-war, pro-civil-rights song.
(A quick musical note here – please, for all that is holy, please use guitars when singing this! It just clunks along on piano, and it needs the sense of urgency and freedom that guitars provide. )
Light one candle for the Maccabee children with thanks that their light didn’t die.
Light one candle for the pain they endured when their right to exist was denied.
Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice justice and freedom demand.
But light one candle for the wisdom to know when the peacemaker’s time is at hand.
Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years.
Don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears.
Light one candle for the strength that we need to never become our own foe.
Light one candle for those who are suff’ring the pain we learned so long ago.
Light one candle for all we believe in, that anger won’t tear us apart.
And light one candle to bring us together with peace as the song in our heart.
What is the mem’ry that’s valued so highly we keep it alive in that flame?
What’s the commitment to those who have died when we cry out they’ve not died in vain?
Have we come this far always believing that justice would somehow prevail?
This is the burden and this is the promise and this is why we will not fail.
What’s amazing to me, reading this the day after FBI Director James Comey was summarily and indelicately fired, just how resonant these lyrics are to Literally Today. “Light one candle for the strength that we need to never become our own foe.” Holy cow. “Have we come this far always believing that justice would somehow prevail? This is the burden and this is the promise and this is why we will not fail” – not “must not”, by the way – “WILL NOT”.
Wow do we need this song today.
Don’t let the light go out.