Denton singer and composer Lanelle Blanton looked to the United States’ past to create Promised Land, the fourth cantata she has created through Trinity Presbyterian Church.
Themes of forced relocation, exile and slavery — as biblical as they are — were lifted this time from an ugly episode in American history: the Trail of Tears.
Blanton wrote the music and included arrangements of historical hymns “Amazing Grace” and a spiritual called “Promised Land,” as well as arrangements of a traditional Cherokee song. Retired Presbyterian minister and writer Marvin Williams wrote the story about fear and faith. The church’s choir, soloists and a trio of flutists will perform the cantata during morning worship and again at 4 p.m. on March 30.
Blanton has had a lifelong interest in Native American history and culture. One of her grandmothers was said to have spoken Cherokee, “though she never said a word about it or a word of it in front of us as children,” Blanton recalled.
And while no documents exist to verify it, she said family lore points to an unofficial adoption of her Cherokee grandmother into a white family.
“There were a number of adoptions of Indian children, adoptions that weren’t official, done in parking lots and things like that,” Blanton said. “I always thought it was probably true.”
In the 1980s, Blanton wrote 13 melodies inspired by Southeastern American Indian music — for voice and flute and drum accompaniment — and performed them in a concert at universities, colleges and junior colleges for years.
Promised Land tells the story of “a mythical family” of American Indians who were driven from North Carolina to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. The tale, and variations of it, have surfaced often enough that Blanton said it probably has some basis in truth.
The story is about a Cherokee family — a husband, wife and two children, a boy and a girl. After the Indian Removal Act of 1830, U.S. soldiers drove members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations from the Carolinas to Oklahoma. Promised Land finds the two children starving and their parents sick — especially their mother.
“This all happened during the worst weather, the worst storm, the region had ever had,” Blanton said. “It was terribly cold, a lot of snow and ice.”
The groups of American Indians were plagued with disease, starvation and exhaustion, and Blanton said history reveals that European colonists chased the sickly groups away from their homes and towns — often at gunpoint. Promised Land sees the two children struggling.
“The two children are looking for something — anything — to eat. They sneak off away from the group. They just aren’t able to find anything to eat,” Blanton said. “They are dying, and as they’re dying, they hear this faraway singing, and it somehow gives them energy.”
The children discover a community of runaway slaves deep in the woods, away from the arduous trail. The slaves nurse the children back to health, and the children start to miss their parents. The runaway slaves have misgivings, but share a secret with them: Simple crosses fashioned from sticks and leather laces high in the trees lead to the trail.
The children are reunited with their parents.
Promised Land is 50 minutes long. Blanton said she wrote it with voices from Trinity Presbyterian in mind for some of the roles.
“We have this extraordinary soprano in our choir, Dianne Randolph, who had a career in New York. She played Bess in Porgy & Bess for years and went all over with it,” Blanton said.
Randolph will sing the role of the runaway slave who looks out for the Cherokee children. A boy and girl who attend Trinity Presbyterian, ages 6 and 8, sing the roles of the children.
Blanton wrote parts for the Cherokee parents, and a repentant soldier who “turns a blind eye” to the children’s escape.
“That character is based on the famous soldier who was on the trail named John Burnett,” Blanton said.
Burnett wrote about his experiences on the Trail of Tears, and of his affection for the Cherokee people as they journeyed, when he was elderly. The Trail of Tears led to the deaths of 4,000 to 6,000 Cherokee Indians. More than 16,000 Cherokee people were driven from their ancestral home. By 1837, about 46,000 American Indians were driven from their land in the southeastern states. Among the people exiled from their homes were black American slaves on the westward trek. The forced relocation opened some 25 million acres of land that was resettled mostly by white settlers.
Blanton said writing the music and working with Williams, who provided both the narration and the poetry, brought about the inevitable: falling in love with the characters.
“You do. You fall in love with them a little bit,” she said. “That can be an emotional thing. When I was writing the music for the children, there were moments where, well, the only thing I could do was cry.”
Sometimes, the composer said she had to step back from the project because the Trail of Tears, which many American history scholars describe as ethnic cleansing, is difficult to come to terms with. Add to the harsh historical details the story of lost, starving children embraced by runaway slaves, and Blanton said she found the cantata was full of the human condition’s push-pull between justice and atrocity.
“When you’re writing something that brings you into that kind of grief, that grief allows the music to be true, and real,” Blanton said.
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
THE PROMISED LAND
What: Cantata concert performed by the Trinity Presbyterian Church choir and soloists, and an art exhibit
When: 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. March 30
Where: Trinity Presbyterian Church, 2200 N. Bell Ave.
THE SONG OF THE TRAIL OF TEARS
Composer Lanelle Blanton said the hymnals at Trinity Presbyterian Church include a version of “Amazing Grace” with lyrics in Cherokee. That hymn led her to other, more accurate arrangements.
When European immigrants came to North America, they brought Christianity with them, and enormous numbers of American Indians converted. When English, Scottish and Welsh immigrants brought famous hymns to the continent, part of the native assimilation naturally included singing those hymns in Indian languages.
During Blanton’s Promised Land cantata, the famous hymn will be performed in Cherokee.
“To this day, the Cherokee people call ‘Amazing Grace’ the song of the Trail of Tears,” Blanton said.
— Lucinda Breeding