By Sheila Wickouski
Grammy Award-winning songwriter Marcus Hummon’s songs have been recorded in many genres, including pop, R&B, gospel and most notably in country music. He has written some of the genre’s most iconic songs, including Rascal Flatts’ “Bless the Broken Road,” the Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away” and Sara Evans’ “Born to Fly.”
Yet his latest project takes his storied career in a new direction. For the Arena Stage production of American Prophet: Frederick Douglass in His Own Words, Hummon composed original songs using word original written or spoken by the famed abolitionist.
Hummon shared his perspective with The Southwester. Interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
The Southwester: Were you born in DC? What are your memories from your time living here?
Marcus Hummon: My father worked for the State Department, primarily his career was with USAID ( United States Agency For International Development) so we were in and out of the country until I was a junior in high school. We lived abroad in Tanzania, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia.
When back in the U.S., we lived in Bethesda and then Potomac, Maryland. My parents retired to a home in Potomac. I remember when things were not as developed around the Potomac Village area, and taking long walks in the woods, or fishing on the canal, or even in the Potomac River (though it was not as clean back then as it is now). Of course, Washington DC was and is a magical city, and I have wonderful memories of enjoying the museums, the theater, the statues and memorials!
When I return to the DC area I always return to the Bullis football field where I played running back my senior year, 1979-80, and we were co-champions of our conference. I love walking on that field (cue Springsteen’s ‘Glory Days’). However, most of all, when I return to the DC area, I think of my folks, John and Jean Hummon who first gave me my love of music and theater. They would have so LOVED seeing this show!
SW: What did you learn about Frederick Douglass through the songwriting process? How did it help shape the music?
MH: I’ve been working on this show in various forms for over seven years. I started by focusing on Narrative, (published 1845) his first of three autobiographies, but eventually read all three and was especially taken with Life And Times (published 1881 and second edition 1892) since it’s the only one that covers his memories of the war years and beyond.
I was struck by his association with John Brown and Lincoln…and also struck by the evolution of his thought on the use of violence in the struggle, and his belief that the Constitution could be a weapon in the battle for the abolition of slavery. I am always amazed by his searing critique of the US, but also by his remarkable sense of hope for the more perfect union!
Therefore, I felt that the material for the show should have a hymn-like quality, because the show is the prophet’s fire for justice, and a prayer for freedom!
SW: You have quite a background with many different types of music, including growing up in a musical family. Can you give us more information about your musical background and how learning about all types of music contributes to your composing?
MH: My first musical memory is singing in church with my family, and then on to folk, R&B, and the Beatles. The first live music I ever remember hearing was music in Tanzania; my first performance as a musician was playing African drums on Nigerian TV. My parents were both musicians and expected my three sisters and I to be musicians as well. They listened to a lot of theater as well as classical music. And then it was the 70’s, so the singer-songwriter world hit me, and by high school I was playing folk clubs.
SW: You have written hymns (or hymn-like music) that is performed by choral groups as well as two operas and six musicians. How did all of that experience come together in creating American Prophet?
MH: This show is ‘church’ to me, and so I wanted the songs, melodies and the ensemble sound to reflect this. As it turns out we’ve been blessed to have Joseph Joubert as music director and orchestrator, so he takes everything and makes it better!
SW: Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith said that when she first heard a few of your songs for American Prophet, it took her breath away. What was your inspiration for the songs?
MH: The words of Douglass were the primary inspiration for the music and lyric, and also my understanding of the characters in his story (primarily taken from Life And Times) as well as the imagined relationship between Fred and his wife Anna. Being a book-writer as well as a composer helps me reach inside the characters for the music! Also, my great director and co-writer, Charles Randolph-Wright, has helped to identify where we need music, and when what I’ve written works (and when it doesn’t).
SW: What do you hope audiences will take away from this production?
MH: I hope that audiences will have a deeper understanding and appreciation of Frederick Douglass, his incredible life story, his impact on the end of slavery in America, his impact on the Union victory in the Civil War. He deserves more credit for both!
Secondly, I want audiences to gain an appreciation of who Anna was, and what a unique and beautiful relationship she had with Frederick. I think she has been denigrated historically for a variety of reasons, and none of them good reasons. She had enormous struggles to deal with in her life, and was a soldier in her own right in the battle for freedom! Without Anna, there is no Frederick Douglass as we’ve come to know him. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I want audiences to feel Douglass’ fire for justice and feel inspired to fight on…for the more perfect union!