Amazing Voyage: New Don Lewis album focuses on redemption
Songs seek to heal wounds of slavery, political chaos
Don Lewis plays gospel and jazz music on this Rodgers W-5000 organ which he has in the living room of his Pleasanton home. He recorded his "Meditations" album on this instrument some years ago and, in the mid-1990s, gave concerts on this instrument as an artist for Rodgers Instruments, LLC. (Photo by Mike Sedlak)
by Jeb Bing / Pleasanton Weekly
Amazing Voyage," a new album just released by Pleasanton's much-celebrated musician Don Lewis, contains music aimed at helping the country heal its wounds over long-festering slavery issues and the current chaotic political moods now gripping the nation. The album is available on Blue Coast Music's download platform. (Photos by Mike Sedlak)
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Don Lewis, Pleasanton's much celebrated vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and electronic engineer, is releasing a new album this month, one in a new format with deeply personal music that he hopes will help heal the wounds both of the country's long-festering slavery issues and the chaotic political moods now gripping the nation.
The album, "Amazing Voyage," is being distributed on Blue Coast Music's exclusive download platform on the internet. The more traditional CDs will be available later this year.
The new album is a synthesized rendition of seven songs starting with "Amazing Grace." It includes "We Shall Overcome" and closes with "We'll Understand It Better By and By.
The songs are sequenced from those sung by Negro slaves in the Old South to tunes of reformation, rehabilitation and reconciliation that our country and the world needs right now," Lewis said.
The last song lets us know that someday we'll understand by and by when we come to an understanding of why and what was done and what's going on today and how we can change," he added.
Like many African-Americans, Lewis grew up with Gospel music as part of his heritage, accepting it as part of his fabric. Then, in 1996, he was invited to teach a course of his choice in UC Berkeley's extension program.
My assignment was to develop a curriculum for an eight-week course on 'Gospel Music: A Passionate Heritage,'" Lewis recalled. "Suddenly I was the student, not the teacher.
So began his journey of discovery, ordering and reading books, viewing PBS Black History Month videos, meeting and talking to others who had done such research. His first discovery was that he couldn't teach the history of Gospel music without looking to Africa.
Growing up in the early '40s, Africa wasn't a popular subject in my community due to portrayals of Africans in films as savages," Lewis explained. "In my family there was no memory of African heritage because, in slavery, the history and culture were erased.
As I started to research," he added, "I began to find the origins of what became the spirituals, blues, jazz and Gospel music -- all uniquely American and yet clearly rooted in African music.
For instance, he remembered playing and singing "Amazing Grace" hundreds of times throughout the years. Yet he was surprised to find in his research that the author of the lyrics was John Newton, a former captain of a slave ship transporting captured Africans to market.
On one of the voyages carrying a load of slaves, the ship was caught in a horrendous storm. Newton, who was a prolific writer, went to his cabin and wrote in the ship's log, "Only by the Grace of God will we be saved.
Eventually, Newton's poem was set to music and later was embraced by people of all ethnicities.
The lyrics took on an entirely different meaning for me, both historically and on a spiritual level," Lewis recalled. "So, as I was teaching my class and sharing the documentary and the story of 'Amazing Grace,' I began formulating how to tell this story musically.
His album "Amazing Voyage" is a journey of connecting the dots, fusing together shared experiences from Africans who captured other tribes and sold them to the slavers as well as the shared experiences of the slavers and the enslaved.
It's his interpretation of this history and also a spiritual journey. Whether one is the "wretch" or has been made to feel like a "wretch," the album's music represents a universal story of redemption, healing and hope.
Coming from the background and the ancestry that I have, I can say that we have come a long way, but we have a lot farther still to go, especially at this time of year as Easter approaches," Lewis said. "I believe that love, as the songs in my new album convey, is the way to fulfill that Easter message.
Julie Lewis, Don's wife and co-producer/director of Don Lewis Music in Pleasanton, said it took her husband a long time to figure out how to express his feelings and compose the story that he wanted to tell.
Given these times when there's so much dissension and personal struggles going on in the world and in their country, Julie and Don Lewis felt this album had a great message and that it was time for it to come to fruition.
It's a time when people need hope and consolation for what they are going through," Julie Lewis said.
Although the album tells the story about African-Americans, many of the songs can be interpreted in a very personal way for anyone going through any kind of a struggle.
For example, the second song in the album, 'Hold On,' is a Negro spiritual work song from slavery times," she explained. "There are sounds of grunts as you would have heard in those days on plantations in Georgia, when it was hot and humid. Every day the slaves arose at dawn and labored in the fields until dusk. The only way they could face this and survive was through music.
She continued: "While listening to this song, you can emotionally participate in the stress. And somehow, when you start singing it, you'll find it reflects the movements but also offers energy and hope and keeps you going. Even though you're laboring for up to 12 hours, the song gives you the feeling that everything is going to be all right.
So, after all these years, this Negro slavery-time work song finds the public still using it as a message of hope to get them through difficult times.
When Don Lewis played "Hold On" at meetings back East two weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he received many messages of thanks from those who heard him, saying this song got them through that period of stress.
Lewis, who will turn 78 this year, is at an age when many might think are the twilight years of their careers and time to slow down. But not him.
Besides the new album, he plans on releasing two more this year. One will be a jazz album played on a Hammond organ; the other is music that he's written in recent years and is now being re-worked. He also will play at several concerts in the coming months, including at the Firehouse Arts Center.
Last year, "The Ballad of Don Lewis" was released. Ned Augustenborg, who produced "The Ballad," said he first met Lewis at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad in Southern California.
It was a magical place where Don performed with his unique combination of vintage synthesizers known as the Live Electronic Orchestra (more lovingly referred to as LEO)," Augustenborg states in his introduction of "The Ballad.
I say unique in the truest sense of the word, since this creation of Don's is the only LEO in existence and he's likely the only musician in the world processing the unique talents and disciplines needed to play it," he added.
In fact, Lewis is probably most famous for having created LEO, the early integrated sound controller for analog synthesizers, now sitting in the living room of his home in Pleasanton. Soon, it will be moved to Carlsbad, where it will be on display at the museum.
A few years ago, Lewis also played the LEO to loud applause at the National Association of Music Merchants trade show at the Anaheim Convention Center, attended by more than 90,000 musicians, manufacturers and composers. While through the years his work on the futuristic LEO sparked a high level of industry-wide admiration, it also created problems.
The Musicians Union claimed Lewis' use of the technology was a threat to musicians and began protesting his performances.
That caused Lewis to give up his public gigs for a while but, as "The Ballad of Don Lewis" explains, he fought the victimization and struggled through alienation by pushing himself, and the music industry, into a future that Lewis continues to envision.
Don's music, the kind of music he chooses, has never been about complaining," Julie Lewis said. "It's always been about hope, something that can make the world a better place.
Not only has Don Lewis taught at UC Berkeley, he's also been a guest lecturer at Stanford University and San Jose State University. He mentors students through school programs and "Young Expressions" performances. His "Say YES to Music!" assemblies have inspired thousands of students of all ages throughout the Bay Area and beyond.
During his six-decade career, he has presented concerts worldwide, including at the Newport Jazz Festival and at Carnegie Hall. He also toured with The Beach Boys and appeared with several symphony orchestras.
Lewis is an active member of the Rotary Club of Pleasanton, where he provides the musical entertainment, and participates in service projects locally and internationally.
In 2016, Lewis received the Tri-Valley Heroes Arts and Culture Award from the Pleasanton Weekly and its sister publication DanvilleSanRamon.com. That year, he also won the Alameda County Arts Leadership award.