A month before I headed into the studio to record “Orbits”, I had a dream.
In my dream, album production was already underway and by some means or miracle, we were able to get Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a South African men’s choir to sing on the record. Ladysmith had done recordings with Ben Harper and with Paul Simon on his album “Graceland”. A traditional African choir, they create a unique sound that makes for some stunning moments.
In my dream, we were recording the most beautiful arrangement of “I Got Shoes” an old spiritual written by slaves in North America sometime in the 1800’s. It was otherworldly. I awoke, saddened to learn it was only a dream, but the arrangement I heard was still there, and still haunts me to this day.
“Orbits” is meant to be as much a prayer book as an album. A collection of prayers for many of life’s different circumstances. There is praise, adoration, confession, lament & benediction. “I Got Shoes” is a prayer I can’t imagine praying. It’s meant as a reminder that there are people in this world, even today, for whom a pair of shoes would be an answer to prayer. “When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes.” When most upper middle class folks dream of heaven, they dream of streets of gold, Mansions, & slurpee machines. This song reminds me that there are still people world who, when they dream of heaven, they dream of shoes.
This song has been covered a lot, and in listening to various artists performing the song I realized that often white artists sing the line “everybody’s talkin’ ’bout heaven and going there….” while the original is “everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t goin’ there.” The slaves who wrote the song lived under masters, most of them Christians, who would go to church on Sunday only to come home and continue to mistreat the slaves. So that chilling refrain is a recognition both of that hypocrisy and injustice and a reminder that God is just. At the great evening of the day, all wrongs will be put right.
Unfortunately, when it came time to record the song, there was no budget to hire Ladysmith or anyone like them, and we ended up putting it on the shelf.
On the morning of my last day in studio, we found ourselves with a few hours of free time (which never happens, btw). Jonathan asked “Why don’t we take a shot of I Got Shoes”. His idea was to have me do the song “live” with no edits or overdubs. After a few passes he said, “This is sounding really great. Keep going.”. Eventually, we settled on a take that we liked and that’s what you hear on the album. A simple unadorned performance of the song.
Thought the song is about heaven, it’s also a reminder to me not to neglect the work of seeking justice here on earth. Even though in heaven “all of God’s children got shoes”, I don’t want to get there and have to explain to brothers and sisters in Christ why I had shoes and they did not. It’s a reminder to me that as good as life gets on earth heaven is not here yet, and that “It won’t be heaven ’til we all got shoes.”.
Watch the live performance of “I Got Shoes” from Keith’s Album Release concert: