“John Lewis offered a sense of direction, a sort of compass in wild times,” folk duo Dan and Claudia Zanes reflect. With their new song, “Let Love Be Your Guide (For John Lewis),” equal parts mournful and brimming with hope, the musicians honor the late statesman around the one-year anniversary of his passing.
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In the early days of the pandemic, the pair determined to “release a video of a song every day until it was over,” they remember about their Social Isolation Song Series. “It felt like a small way of staying connected and offering something positive. We thought it would all go on for a month or two but when we released our last video after 200 continuous days, the storm was still raging around the world.”
13 days following Lewis’ death (on July 17, 2020), his funeral saw a television broadcast, alongside an op-ed he had previously written for The New York Times. Titled “Together You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation,” the heartfelt piece struck Dan and Claudia on a deeply personal level. Already writing new songs, they discovered “it was getting harder and harder to find old ones to say what we wanted to say in those charged times,” they share.
“After watching the funeral and reading the op-ed, we sat down at our kitchen table and [this song] poured out. His message was so clear and so moving we didn’t have to come up with a lot of new ideas,” the duo tells American Songwriter. “They were all right there! We pulled out the central theme and started singing. The rest fell into place quickly.
“The summer of 2020 was a challenging one. Many white people were starting to realize things about our society that everyone else has known all along,” they continue. “There was certainly a lot of navigating going on. Necessary navigating. Pain, frustration, anger, impatience, denial. For the white folks, let’s not forget how fired up everyone was last summer when the reality of systemic racism became clear, and there was a sense of new possibilities in the air. The urgency has faded but the possibilities still exist and─if we want to know freedom for one and all─we need to continuously work together with commitment, clarity, humility, and joy.”
As a duo, Dan and Claudia Zanes have been making music together soon after meeting in late 2016. Dan, a Grammy Award winner, and Claudia, a music therapist and jazz performer, meet in the middle with their own unique styles, intertwining into a special sort of concoction. Across their work so far, including a 2017 release titled Night Train 57: A Sensory Friendly Comic Folk Opera, commissioned by the Kennedy Center, they peel back the layers of humanity in probing, provocative ways.
As with the case of their song series last summer, they frequently immerse themselves “in the songs of our past” to discover their songwriting creativity. “Haitian folk tunes, seas shanties, Gospel music, and sacred folk, jazz, Ian and Sylvia, Lead Belly, children’s music from here and there─it was all a central part of our daily life,” they observe. “So, when we needed to write─and we needed to a lot during the summer of 2020─music was already flowing freely through us.
“We can say we do our best writing when we’re deep in music on a daily basis. Fortunately, that’s the way we generally roll. We’re so grateful that when we started having conversations with Folkways about making a record, they saw these songs as having been born in a particular time and place but holding themes that will continue to resonate. The music of the Folkways catalog lives in our hearts and is fundamental to who we are as musicians and as people so this is the place for us right now.”
“Let Love Be Your Guide (For John Lewis)” serves as the title track to a forthcoming album, out September 10 on Smithsonian Folkways.