MLK’s Mountaintop and Patty Griffin

“I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

Thus went the final portion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s mountaintop speech on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, the day before he was shot down.  It used the imagery found in Deuteronomy of Moses as he approached the promised land and ascended Mount Nebo, knowing he would not get there himself, but also knowing his people would.

Patty Griffin wrote “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)” adopting the sentiments and emotions of that speech and Bible story.  But first, a little about Patty.   Patricia Jean Griffin was the youngest of seven children, born in 1964 in Maine to an Irish-American father and French-Canadian mother.  Music filled the home in which she grew.  When she was sixteen, she bought a Honer guitar and started her music writing life. Though she was generally shy, her music brought her out with verve.  After making a demo that made its way to A&M Records, she was signed to a recording contract.  Eventually she appeared on late night television shows and opened for several artists, including Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams.  Bette Midler, Martina McBride, Harris and Linda Ronstadt began recording her songs.  In 2000, when she appeared on the Austin City Limits TV show with Dave Matthews, he was so impressed with her he signed her to his label, ATO Records.  The Dixie Chicks recorded two of her previously unreleased songs.  In 2007, she received the artist of the year award from the Americana Music Association and her album, Children Running Through won for best album.  In 2011, her album, Downtown Church won the Grammy for best traditional gospel album.   Since then, she has collaborated with Mavis Staples on a gospel song album and continues to write and record.  Perhaps her personal life is most known for her now ended romantic live-in relationship with Robert Plant, the lead singer of the also defunct Led Zeppelin.

Children Running Through was the first time she recorded “Up to the Mountain”, but it had been recorded a year earlier in 2006 by soul artist Solomon Burke.  That same year, American idol Kelly Clarkson performed “Up to the Mountain” with Jeff Beck and the recording reached the Billboard Hot 100 in its first week.  Susan Boyle’s debut album included the song, and that album was the biggest selling album in the world in 2009. Boyle said she chose the song for “Reassurance, love and ability to keep going no matter what slings and arrows of outrageous fortune life throws at you.   God is our Light.” The song has also been recorded by Jeff Beck, Crystal Bowersox and Kree Harrison.  It has been described as gospel or folk spiritual.  Her imagery obviously comes from King’s speech and from the Bible account, but it is general enough to apply to other challenges as well, thus making it appropriate for any time of year.