“When you came into this world, you could sing two songs . . . the first, crying, the second song, laughter. We sang those songs before we could say ‘mama’ or ‘papa.’ We live our lives between those two songs: one of need, one of joy. We need each other to be joyful.” —Don Lewis
Earlier this month, visionary, joyful musician Don Lewis passed away. Don was an electronic music pioneer and the creator of the Live Electronic Orchestra, an innovation that helped shape current synthesizer technology. He worked in the studio with Quincy Jones, Sergio Mendez, Michael Jackson, Brothers Johnson, and Marvin Hamlisch, among many others; scored and produced music for television, film, and commercials; and performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall to touring with the Beach Boys. His life and musical influences are now the subject of a full-length documentary. But this extraordinary artist also had a special connection to the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF): for years, Don served as the beloved organist at CDF’s annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry at Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee.
Don often said music had been a “magic carpet ride” that took him all over the world, and he used his gifts to transform as many peoples’ lives as possible. His early musical experiences were in his childhood church in Dayton, Ohio. He was curious about how the church’s organ worked, and after spending many services sitting behind the organist to watch him play, one night he dreamt he was the one playing: “The feeling I had in that dream, I had never felt anything like it.” He asked his grandmother for music lessons the next day, and after she agreed he could start with the piano, he was on his way.
Don studied electronic engineering as a college student at Tuskegee Institute—a technical background that served him in new ways later—but always continued performing, including at rallies in Tuskegee where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke. The Civil Rights Movement was getting underway in Alabama, and Don later explained to an interviewer that he learned lifelong lessons then about how music can become an essential component of movement building. He said those lessons were related to advice he would give younger artists working with new musical technologies today—no matter how much technology continues to change, creativity should always have specific intention:
“What are you going to do with the music you produce with these tools? What is your intention? Are you going to be inspiring? Is there something you want to express? . . . You have to be not only about you, (but) about others, and when you become about others, you are actually being more about you. How would this make a difference not only in my life, but in others’ lives? In the days of civil rights, the protest songs were songs, they were things that people could sing and march. They weren’t chanting, they were singing. The difference between chanting and singing is that chanting only takes in the left side of the brain, which is only speech. Singing takes in the musical side and the language side, the creative side and the logic side. And then you get more power, and you get more people participating.” He added: “I know I would not be here if it had not been for my ancestors, who sang their way through slavery. They sang those work songs, they sang those spirituals, and that’s what helped them to survive. What helped our Civil Rights Movement in the United States was the singing, the marching, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and others. I met both of these people, I knew them. So I understand those rudiments . . . [and] this is the atmosphere we need.”
His own intention to continue creating that atmosphere through music helped bring him to the CDF Proctor Institute. Throughout his own musical career Don was devoted to sharing music and its power with young people. He was a passionate believer in the need for arts education and together with his wife Julie founded the school assembly program “Say ‘YES’ to Music!” to bring the importance of dreams, education, and community to children through music, inspiring thousands of children through school visits and performances. At Haley Farm he was a wonderful part of the CDF Proctor Institute’s work bringing together clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders, and other faith-based advocates for children for spiritual renewal, networking, movement-building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children. Proctor was just one of the ways he lived out his lifelong belief that music can and does make a difference in the world.
Don and Julie became integral pieces of the CDF Proctor Institute family. Don and Dr. Eli Wilson, Proctor’s Minister of Music, guided the Resurrection Choir as they sang at the evening Great Preacher Series worship services, morning devotions, and the closing celebration. The Resurrection Choir is open to everyone, and Don and Eli made sure the music became one of the most joyful, inspiring components of the week. Don played his own deeply moving version of Amazing Grace, which evokes the sounds of the Middle Passage, on the first evening of Proctor each year, and every evening’s worship ended with the congregation remaining seated throughout Don’s organ postludes for a cherished time of reflection with his music as the last sound of each day’s gathering. Don and Julie also loved working with the children taking part in the special Proctor CDF Freedom Schools® program as they prepared music for their finale, and Don often enthusiastically invited them up close to show them how the organ worked, captivating them the same way his own childhood imagination had been sparked.
Even as he served as a collaborator and role model for so many famous peers, throughout his life Don Lewis remained committed to encouraging and inspiring young people to include music in their lives and pursue their dreams, and to being intentional in using his own talent and time to be “about others.” The Children’s Defense Fund is so grateful for the ways he shared his gifts with the Proctor Institute and grateful for his legacy.
Marian Wright Edelman is the current President of the Children’s Defense Fund.