50 years on

For Us The Living

Fifty years ago today, Medgar Evers was gunned down in his own driveway, within earshot of his wife and three children. As a very young child, I experienced this event, and the ones that followed like a recurring nightmare (Kennedy, King, another Kennedy), mainly through the prism of my parents’ response. My mother cried in broad daylight. My father raged. He was angrier than I’d ever seen him. It was scary, and my first indication that the larger world didn’t necessarily resemble our little haven of surburbia in Pelham, New York.

Later on, my life briefly intersected with the Evers family. Mrs. Evers brought her children to Pelham and began working with my father, a writer, on her memoir, later published under the title “For Us, The Living”. I was too young to fully comprehend her grief, and that of her children, but the youngest boy, Van, was about my age and I was happy to have a new person my age to play with. My chief memory of that time was making a snowman with Van in our front yard. I was amazed that none of the Evers kids had seen snow before – living in Mississippi seemed as exotic as living in France to me. We never talked about his father, that I can recall – we talked about the stuff kids talk about. We talked around it, probably.


This past January, on the day of President Obama’s second inauguration, I was driving through southern Alabama, coming home from a series of shows. I heard Mrs. Evers (now Mrs. Evers-Williams) deliver the invocation. Her deep, powerful voice came through my car speakers and took me straight back to Pelham in the 1960s. I thought about what southern Alabama would have looked like back then. I thought about the fact that Mrs. Evers had lived through a horror most of us couldn’t imagine, and now here she was fifty years on, playing a major role in the inauguration of the first African-American US president. The second inauguration, which somehow, for many of us, seemed even more significant than the first. And here I was, driving through the Deep South, a place that had seemed so remote to me as a child, so different from where I grew up; and now it feels like my back yard.

Everything changes; everything stays the same. That’s a line from “Idlewild”, a song I wrote about my parents, Medgar Evers, JFK, the men on the moon – the zeitgeist of the 1960s through the eyes of an omniscient child (which I wasn’t, but that’s where creative license comes in). And it’s true: so much has changed, and so much has not – not really. Racism lives, as does sexism and several newly named (but not new) -isms. But I’m an optimist at heart. I can’t help but look back at that day in 1963 and think that we did, despite how it seemed during the decade that followed, wake up. I wish I could talk to Van Evers again and see what he thinks. We never talked about it back then.


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  1. This is very moving, Gretchen. You are right to be an optimist when you live in a country like yours. It might appear that everything changes everything stays the same but it doesn’t really. In the USA as in the UK we may have the reminder of the step back quite regularly, but this is most likely after many “2 steps forward” times. You belong to the “2 steps forward” group, there will always be more of those as long as music touches peoples hearts. Hand down that special feeling to the new generations and hope rightly.
    I’ll see you at Kendall! Looking forward to it.

  2. Completely bowled over on three counts:
    1) the performance at Kendal this evening (and especially this song)
    2) the video which is a poignant visual accompaniment
    3) the blog post that provides the background

    I would highly recommend for the video (old footage) and the song Laura Gibson’s “shadows on parade”


    Thanks so much Gretchen

  3. A very moving story Gretchen. We cannot imagine the suffering of others or the grief of losing someone to such violence. All we can do is pray that we never have to find out.

  4. Just kill me now, after that song…I am a singer songwriter based in Austin, TX, raised and always returning to the coast and North Mississippi. I have been reluctant and frankly, somewhat terrified to write about these things, so much undertow…never discussed…I’ve just been meaning to learn ” Woman on the Wheel”…..I finally put out a record at the end of last year, and am wanting to get myself together for all this other stuff, tour, share the songs, write more, record more…..I am not of onetrack thinking, being more spiral based…..Am looking for any guidance on management, clues….I am most inspired by your work that I have heard……we are probably similiar age( 54)….though I see you have been quite focused on music all these years, surely there is room for me, between the campfire and world fame….. Peace, Cindy
    Oh, I see you will be far away in September, but if you are ever in the neighborhood, My folks have a fabulous muscadine u-pick on hwy 27 in Tremont, MS. $7 a gallon ( had to go up)….. all thru September. Also, so ya know, my record is called ” In the Water”. Thanks and happy trails…

  5. Hi Gretchen,
    I have a few observations about Idlewilde. It destroys me every time I hear it because it’s the story of my family as well. Big dreams in a factory town, but held back by ignorance, racism, and blind self assuredness. They never had a clue about commitment, and we as kids were caught in the friendly fire. It’s funny, though, and maybe it’s because I’m a couple of years older, I knew they were wrong. Hell, Dylan and Joni taught me as much about life. I had some great teachers, too.
    You nailed it with the line, “We think we’re walking on the moon but we are dancing in the dark”. Brilliant use of the kind of modern references we identify with. I so admire that line.
    I was also profoundly moved by Barry’s piano in that song in your live set. So much love and power in his accompaniment anyway, but really moving in that song. A testament, I’m sure.
    Great great song. I hope writing and performing it is as cathartic for you as it is for me listening to it.

  6. Beautiful song and a very moving story. It was about 4 weeks before my 14th birthday that Mr Evers was murdered. Of course, that event didn’t make the headlines over here in the UK, but the events that followed certainly did! JFK, Dr King, Robert Kennedy, all were big news stories, as was the Teddy Kennedy affair.
    I can remember getting caught up in the anti-war demonstrations outside the US Embassy in London around 1966 – not a pleasant experience, as I quickly got out of the way before the mounted police moved into the crowd! I was too young to really understand what it was all about at the time – I didn’t follow the news very closely. I did have an idea of what the Black Power movement was all about, though, as I listened to all the hatred being dished out every afternoon at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park.
    I wouldn’t want to go back to that time in my life; things were not as bad here as they were in the Southern USA, but it was not pleasant for a 16-year-old living alone in London!

  7. Powerful, Gretchen. I grew up down the ‘road’ from Idlewild in a Brooklyn immigrant neighborhood. My parents were Norwegian diplomats/immigrants. Those years were filled, paradoxically, with confusion and stability. The racial riots and subsequent issues that followed in our schools and towns helped us work out who we were as a generation, and what it meant to grow up in this question.

    I’m proud of us even if there’s a long way to go. People like your father (and mine) modeled what mattered in the face of it. Lucky girls we are. I grew up in that Brooklyn neighborhood, but eventually migrated out to the high desert ranch world in Idaho…a long cry from city streets and also learned…everything changes, and everything stays the same.

    Look forward to seeing you at Kathryn’s in NY ….

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