“village ghetto land” – stevie wonder (1976)


I have a soft spot for holiday novelty songs. For me, they are so incredibly fun and embody the unique appeal of the holiday. Every major holiday has their own novelty records, but fall and winter is when we hear them the most. Halloween has the “Monster Mash” and its countless knockoffs while Christmas music becomes inescapable for a few months. Though, in between, you have Thanksgiving. There are not a lot of songs embodying the spirit and imagery of turkey and stuffing, but what is there is quite entertaining. I keep a list of songs to write about for this blog and I had a special list of Thanksgiving tracks to choose from. I mulled over tracks like “Groovy Gravy” by Quincy Jones, “Thanksgiving Day” by Ray Davies, and “Pass the Peas” by James Brown. Any of which would have been excellent choices to discuss Thanksgiving, but I went in a different direction.

This past weekend, I revisited one of my favorite records while getting some work done. Stevie Wonder’s 1976 masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life is a two-LP (and extra 7”) testament to humanity. It is such a breathtaking and layered album. The collection of tracks offer a diverse listening experience including massive pop radio hits, sullen reflection pieces, and out of this world jams. Songs in the Key of Life represents the dynamic and fluctuating nature of man and our relationships with one another.

I feel every song borders on perfection, though some more than others. These are tracks where I have to stop what I’m doing and become lost in the moment. Songs like “I Wish,” “Ordinary Pain,” and “As” are breathtaking in terms of their narrative and musical composition. Wonder is crafting a world of experiences for the listener. These experiences and stories may not reflect those of the listener, but they serve as a window into another world; a life many of us may not know.

The most underrated song on the album is certainly “Village Ghetto Land.” Lyrically, the imagery Wonder is conveying and striking and poignant. Wonder is asking the listener to take his hand so he can show them a world that many of us don’t (or won’t) see; a world of marginalized poverty where people struggle to survive from day to day. Specifically, Wonder is singing about the struggles of the poorer black communities. In these communities, people starve and do not have adequate access to medical care or even money to buy proper food. The land serves as a reminder that systemic oppression has real-world consequences on those of certain classes and ethnicities.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that can split a room. On one side, it is a holiday for those to reflect on their lives and be grateful for luxuries and love they have in their lives while gorging. On the other, it is a white-washed reminder of the colonialization of indigenous people. Both of these are things I try to remember this time of year. For one, I am happy for the opportunity to be surrounded by friends and family because that is something I cannot usually do on such a scale. I’m also aware that many families or individuals don’t get to share in that collective spirit of unity.

In an already incredibly powerful song, these lines stand out to me the most:

Now some folks say that we should be
Glad for what we have.
Tell me, would you be happy in Village Ghetto Land?

Such a sobering question. Considering the duality of the holiday, I do my best to focus on my life and being grateful for what I have. However, it is easy for me to grateful. I have a loving support system, a job, and access to societal opportunities not readily available to people who have less. Wonder is right to ask that question because you wouldn’t be happy living in a world like the one in “Village Ghetto Land.” For someone who comes from a place of privilege to tell someone who has less that they should be grateful is disheartening and devoid of all human empathy. There are many reasons why some people have less, but they should not be looked down upon. We’re all in this together, and we have to lift each other up.

Musically, “Village Ghetto Land” is just as remarkable as it is lyrically. Wonder is the sole musician on the track. Composed on a Yamaha GX-1 synthesizer, the track evokes the imagery of a large concert hall with a full string orchestra. It is quite a majestic and almost aristocratic sounding track. The composition adds dignity to the narrative where its inhabitants may not have any.

“Village Ghetto Land” is not a Thanksgiving song by any means, but it carries the spirit of the holiday. The leaves have fallen and frost is gathering on the ground. It is getting colder, and that’s a problem for a lot of people. This is why, when it starts to freeze, we should keep our hearts warm and open. Take time to reflect on your life and what you can do to better the lives of others.