Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech about a dream. David Erdman always thought those words deserved a song.
Erdman was a teenager in eastern North Carolina when King gave his stirring address at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He doesn’t remember precisely where he first heard the speech, only that it occurred about the same time he was teaching himself to play the guitar. Those strings, seemingly unrelated, would one day form a chord.
As his life opened before him, Erdman found harmony in both music and the law. His appreciation for King’s speech grew – how the words flowed over the beds of history and biblical verse and how King’s own thunderous closing drew a roaring exclamation point from 250,000 voices.
In 1982, Erdman was a young attorney with his own practice in Charlotte. He was active in politics. He was courting his future wife. And he also was playing with an idea.
He pulled out a copy of a Charlotte News article he’d set aside that included excerpts of King’s speech. He began highlighting key phrases. He pondered a line from Victor Hugo: “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”
Then he began to compose. He set one rule. Every time he used the words “I have a dream” in the lyrics, he wanted the notes to soar.
Erdman called the song, “The Dream of a King.”
A contemporary chord
Now 33 years old and copyrighted, “The Dream” has been performed publicly only a handful of times.
Erdman debuted it on Jan. 14, 1983, at a meeting of the state Human Relations Council in Raleigh. Three years later, he performed it in Charlotte for the first time at the city’s first commemoration of the King holiday in Marshall Park.
More than a quarter of a century passed before Erdman sang it for another audience: an August 2013 Rotary Club meeting that fell near the 50th anniversary of the D.C. march.
Charlotte businessman David Head, a guest that day and now a club member, rose to his feet like everyone else when Erdman reached the end. He remains struck over how the 30-year-old lyrics carry such a timely message.
“This whole situation in our country right now is really about a lack of understanding and willingness to put ourselves in the shoes of other people,” said Head, a business-development director with accounting giant Grant Thornton and a member of the YMCA’s national diversity council.
“What I thought was so impressive about the song is that here is this middle-aged Caucasian male who is internalizing and trying to tell the story of the speech in his own words, trying to make a connection.”
A few more voices
True, on the surface, Erdman may appear to be an unusual composer for a song about civil rights. Look again. Years before King’s speech, Erdman’s physician father operated the first racially integrated waiting room in eastern North Carolina, his son says. Erdman became politically active at an early age, and at 65, the former chair of the Mecklenburg Democratic Party still considers himself progressive.
He still loves music, too. When he was a teen in New Bern, Erdman experienced the thrill of turning on the car radio and hearing the song he and his band had recorded a few weeks earlier playing back at him through the speakers.
He has no such goals for “The Dream.” That doesn’t mean he’s not proud of it. He has no such goals for “The Dream.” That doesn’t mean he’s not proud of it. And he likes that in the tradition of the King holiday staple, Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday,” it teaches history with a tune.
From a musical perspective, Erdman’s song falls neatly between those two.
The melody might be described as folk pop. The four stanzas borrow heavily from some of King’s best-known phrases – of freedom “ringing from the hills,” of judging people not by skin but by the “content of their character.” A paraphrase of Hugo’s line, substituting “dream” for “idea,” ties up the chorus.
Charlotte City Council member David Howard, who was on hand for the Rotary performance, reacquainted himself with Erdman’s tune and lyrics. Two things impressed him: Erdman’s affinity for King’s message and his optimism for the future.
In the wake of last year’s controversy over the shooting death of a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., by a white police officer, and other contemporary divides, Howard says the combined words of a once-young, white lawyer and a slain civil rights icon “remind us that we can be better. We need to be better.”
Three decades after he wrote the lyrics, Erdman’s voice remains the only one to have sung them. He hopes that others one day will join in. “The Dream of a King,” he says, was written for harmony.