The Pinkerton Raid and I have been playing CSN’s “Long Time Gone” lately at our shows. Since I was a kid, I’ve always loved the band’s songs like “Judy Blue Eyes,” “Our House,” and “Teach Your Children,” but I don’t remember ever hearing “Long Time Gone” until I played it with Dad at a backyard barbecue at his friend’s house a couple of years ago. I really dug the groovy verses and the iambic rhythm of the chorus that showcases the band’s harmonies: And it appEARS to BE a LO-ong//appEARS to BE a LO-ong//appEARS to BE a LO-ong TI-ime, such a long, long, long, long time//before the dawn.
It’s fun to sing, but I never really paid close attention to the lyrics till a couple of months ago – just about the time North Carolina was voting to keep people I know from getting married because they’re of the same sex. Turns out, it’s not much of a party song, if you listen closely:
Turn, turn any corner
Hear, you got to hear what the people say
You know that something is going on around here
It surely, surely, surely won’t stand the light of day
Speak out, you got to speak out against the madness
You got to speak your mind, if you dare
But don’t, no don’t you try to get yourself elected
If you do you had better cut your hair
“Long Time Gone” is David Crosby’s anthem of hope in jeopardy. He wrote it the night Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.
“I believed in him because he said he wanted to make some positive changes in America, and he hadn’t been bought and sold like Johnson and Nixon – cats who made their deals years ago with the special interests in this country in order to gain power,” Crosby wrote in the liner notes of the 1991 CSN boxed set. “I thought Bobby, like his brother, was a leader who had not made those deals. I was already angry about Jack Kennedy getting killed and it boiled over into this song when they got his brother, too.”
In the ‘60s, the Kennedys represented hope for change: racial equality, economic justice, and abolishing the death penalty, for example. Five decades later, you still don’t see many long-haired politicians, but that hardly seems the matter of dire culture import that it apparently was in 1968. And now we have a black president. Still, on the whole, Crosby’s words seem prescient, rather than anachronistic.
Almost 50 years later, we’re still giving legal benefits to some couples but denying them to others, not to mention that we fill our prisons with brown-skinned people, too many women are still ashamed to report rape or domestic violence, greedy people hoard resources while others go hungry, and the president who campaigned on hope hasn’t been able to bring any real change in our unjust economy.
The “it” in Crosby’s song is that kingdom where peace and justice reign, and it still seems a long time gone. We hope that, indeed, Love Wins in the end. But love sure seems to be losing most of the time.
And so we wait. Spirituality, as I understand it, is all about hope: hope for what might happen – hope that, in fact, things are already happening that we can’t see, and what is wrong will be made right in the end. We can try to fix the world. (Thank God for the Kennedys and Rosa Parks and everyone who worked to make things better in the middle of the last century). But as long as human beings have free will, I suspect there will be greed and racism, sexism and poverty, injustice and violence. I’m waiting for a miracle.
Yet even with the Kennedys dead, Crosby still had hope:
It’s been a long time coming
It’s going to be a long time gone
But you know, the darkest hour
Is always just before the dawn
These words remind me of the Bible story about 10 bridesmaids. In this parable, all these 10 young women do is wait – they wait for the groom to arrive so they can welcome him. For most of us waiting is passive. In waiting rooms, we read magazines we wouldn’t otherwise read. We “kill time.” But in the parable, there’s also an active way to wait. See, half of the women brought extra oil for their lamps, so they still had light when the groom arrived. The others ran out, and when they went to fetch more, they missed him.
They didn’t have a big job. All they had to do was keep the light burning. All they had to do was keep watch. Likewise, we can’t usher in the new heaven and the new earth. We have to wait. We have to keep watch. We have to keep the light burning in small acts of love.