Well holy shit, I know what my favorite song of 2020 is. I don’t say this lightly because as much as this year has been a hell scape in so many ways, there’s been a bumper crop of tremendous new music to enjoy. (I’m looking at you, Fiona Apple and Kathleen Edwards) among MANY others.
But the top slot goes to “The Keep Going Song” by The Bengsons, a song that arrived in my life at the exact right moment.
The Bengsons is the married dou of Abigail and Shaun Bengson who live in Queens, New York though they only been there once, briefly, since January. I’ll get into that in a bit.
About a week ago a small smattering of friends shared a YouTube clip by an act I had never heard of (The Bengsons) and their song “The Keep Going Song.”
Later that same day, when I saw it pop up again, I threw my headphones on and decided to give it a whirl.
AND I HAVEN’T STOPPED SINGING IT SINCE.
How much do I love this song? So much that I fired off a semi-hysterical email disguised as a request for an interview. I was like the kid in “Stand By Me” who shows up at the tree fort all out of breath desperate to share exciting news. Though my news wasn’t about a dead body, it was a full-on fan girl declaration of my love for the song and asking if they’d be up for a chat.
ABIGAIL AND SHAUN SAID YES. We have a lovely conversation a few days ago and talked ALL ABOUT the song and I told them they’re my pretty much my new best friends and they seemed to be OK with that. Also, fun fact, there’s a Maine connection: Abigail’s sister lives in Augusta.
I’ll get into that chat in a second but first permit me to share my reaction to the first time I watched the video clip.
I almost immediately laughed upon hearing the line “we were in Louisville when the shit hit” and laughed a little more when they sang about more or less fleeing to Shaun’s parents house in Dayton, Ohio.
But then, I full-on sobbed. I watched the clip about five times that day and of course shared it.
Then I found it on Spotify and have listened to it dozens of times while out for my daily walk. When I’m not listening to it I’m humming or singing it or thinking about it.
These lines are repeated numerous times throughout “The Keep Going Song:”
This is the keep going keep going keep going on keep going on song
This is the keep going keep going keep going on keep going on song
They layer the vocals with some looping sorcery and it’s fantastic sounding and also lends itself to sticking to every brain cell so that the song comes to mind on its own accord at random times.
But it’s the other lyrics that reach directly into my heart and soul and closely hold both.
Lines like these:
Hope you’re getting enough sleep
And I hope you have enough good company
Or enough good memories
To last you a long time
And especially these:
I pray my rage is a fire
That cleans my mind out
And makes me ready to listen
I pray my pain is a river
That flows to the ocean
That connects my pain to yours
And I pray I pray my happiness like pollen
That flies to you and pollenates your joy oh boy
Oh boy is that possible?
I don’t know I don’t know
We are making this up as we go
We have to make this up as we go
The keep going song
In fact, what are we waiting for? Watch the video right here, right now and then I’ll tell you more.
Are you OK? Are you alright?
Dry your eyes and let me tell you about The Bengsons.
It didn’t take long for a Google search to reveal that The Bengsons are already a big damn deal. They wrote a critically acclaimed musical called “Hundred Days” and you can take a deep dive here. But a few amazing highlights from their bio includes having three singles featured on “So You Think You Can Dance.” and along with “Hundred Days” they’ve written several other shows and are recipients of the Jonathan Larson and Richard Rogers awards and are Drama Desk, Drama League and Lucile Lortel award nominees. Also, how cool is this? Abigail appeared on the HBO show “High Maintenance” and has toured as a member of the SUPER COOL band tUnE-YaRds which includes the time they appeared on Fallon.
So what were they doing in Louisville when the proverbial shit hit in March? Shaun filled me in. He and Abigial arrived there in early February as they had written the music for -and were due to also appear in- a show called “When the Mountains Meet the Sea,” by Jeff Augustin via the Actors Theatre of Louisville.
The show was part of the theater’s Humana Festival and they were able to get in one lone preview performance on March 11. Then the news came the next day that the world had, at least in part, stopped spinning and yeah, the shit sure had hit. Shaun told me all about the show and I sure hope they get another chance to stage it. It has a two-person cast as well as he and Abigail performing the songs they had written. “It’s a semi-autobiographical story. Jeff Augustin is Haitian American and a gay man and it’s a story about a son and a father ,” explained Shaun. “When the Mountains Meet the Sea” tells the story of the son carrying his father’s ashes back to Haiti and you get to see their two stories converge over the course of the play.”
On March 12 things got scary in a hurry and the couple, along with their toddler son Louis had 24 hours to get the hell out of dodge.
Thankfully, Shaun’s parents live just a few hours from Louisville in Dayton, Ohio. “We had no idea what was happening. But the only thing we knew was that the center of the outbreak was central Queens which is where we live. We thought, we’ll go to Dayton for like a week, week and a half ‘till this all blows over.
It still hasn’t blown over (Thanks, Trump) and they ended up spending nearly seven months there and recently repaired to Abigail’s home state of Vermont where her mother still lives and where they, when we’re not in a pandemic, often retreat to in between shows .
Despite only being to make it to their apartment in Queens once this entire time, The Bengsons don’t feel sorry for themselves. Quite the contrary, according to Shaun.
“I feel so grateful to have places to be and I feel so grateful that our work is able to go with us where we are. I just feel like we’re as lucky as you can be in this situation. We had to entirely change the entire conception of who we are, what our lives were over the course of a few weeks as I know so many people have.”
A few months into the sojourn in Ohio, they heard from their friends at Actors Theatre of Louisville who had recently been awarded grant money and were hoping The Bengsons would be up for contributing something for their now online season.
Shaun and Abigail put their heads together to come up with something meaningful. During this same time, the Black Lives Matter movement and nation-wide protests were in full-swing and this made them call into question how they fit it and what, if anything, should be their role as white artists. Shaun said that the material they had been working on all got scrapped once the protests started they started to re-approach the entire project.
Then in early July a pivotal phone call came. It was from Robert Fleming, a gay Black man who is executive artistic director of Actors Theatre in Louisville. He shared with the couple that as bad as things felt then, they would feel even bleaker in the fall and he encouraged The Bengsons to make something that might give people a little bit of a lift. Fleming was of course absolutely right about this. The pandemic is getting worse and Black people are still getting needlessly killed by the police.
They decided to make what they’re calling a visual album. It’s a collection of original songs performed live in a space in Shaun’s now famous parents’ house. The “Keep Going Song” is the song they shared footage of and the stats are frankly astounding.
First, they uploaded it directly to their Facebook page on Oct. 15 and it’s been shared 33 THOUSAND times and has racked up more than 2.2 million views.
On Oct. 19 they uploaded it to YouTube. Within 24 hours it had more than 13,000 views. Now, as I write this on Halloween, it’s at more than 206,000 views and the number is rising in leaps and bounds.
The entire album is called “The Keep Going Song (Live from Our Home at the End of the World” and you can get a digital copy at the usual spots. On Spotify, the “Keep Going Song” has more than 33,000 streams. And side note, be sure to listen to the entire album It’s lovely and poignant and glorious.
Keep an eye of their YouTube channel as they’ll soon be releasing the entire performance.
Now back to that phone call that led them to “The Keep Going Song.”
“We thought it was an amazing thing to be asked and we really tried to think what is the thing what we could try to offer and it was all feeling very insufficient and finally we just decided maybe we could sing about resilience and that may be the thing we could do do, try and create a piece and resilience through not only hard times but also through self-analysis and thinking,” said Shaun who said he and Abigail took a hard look and how where they fit in and what have they contributed. “For a while we had written some stuff what was a bit more explicit and we tried it out and it tended to just make both white and Black friends alike just kind of feel bad. In the end, we came up with the idea of the ‘Keep Going Song’ chorus and then we essentially talked about what are the things that we wish that someone would say to us and what are the things that we wish we could say to our family and our people in Louisville.” The Bengsons set to work and sketched out a few ideas with a goal of creating pieces that would allow space for impromptu improvisation.
“We just figured out the rough structure for the song and talked about the things that we could say here, here and here and then Abigial took those ideas and just sang, half-prepared,” Shaun recalled.
It was at this exact moment of my conversation with Shaun that Abigail walked into the room and joined up. I brought her up to speed on the chat up until that point and then fan-girl kicked in (again) and I told her (read gushed) without taking a single breath all the reasons why I love the song so much.
I told her I thought the song doesn’t lash out at Trump, thought it could have and that it transcends politics in a really beautiful way.
“It really is a prayer and really coming a place of prayer and neither Shaun or I are religious in any particular way so praying meaning ‘I wish,’ praying meaning ‘I hope,’ praying meaning, ‘please,’ prayer meaning ‘do you hear me, are you out there.”
It’s as if Abigial and Shaun, if you pardon the spot-on brilliant pun, threw a Hail Mary pass with writing the song and wow, did they ever nail it.
I told them that the song stripped prayer of its religious connotations down to its purest form.” Abigail appreciated the sentiment. “That’s beautiful, that’s what we’re attempting right now and I think that prayer can be funny and can be upsetting and can be anything as long as it is coming from the center of you.”
Abigail went on to say that that the “keep going” line was something that she had been signing to herself as she moved through each day. “I would sing it when I was weeping and I would sing it while I was wiping a poopy butt and it just became a thing that helped me.” And she’s right. Listening to the song helps me. IMMENSELY.
” I felt like we couldn’t pretend that it was a normal time and I think we always assume whenever anybody comes to our shows that because they’re human beings we assume that they’re going through a hard time. It’s always complicated. It’s like we always kind of hope when you come into a space of music with us you can put something down and feel seen for a minute and that’s what we try to do for each other,” said Abigail.
“Now we fail at that of course but our attempt is to fail as beautifully as possible at something worthy. So that’s what we’re trying. And then the actual lyrics to ‘The Keep Going Song,’ it was a prayer of in the moment and it was a prayer after much conversation with Shaun about what we’re hoping to offer. We would kind of say to each other, if you were just looking at one person’s tired face what would you want to say to them?”
I told Abigail and Shaun that the song tethers me to humanity at a time that I’m hanging on for dear life.
“My prayer is that this time is not just remembered as a time of horror. I like the idea that at any moment in history, when terrible things were happening that there were people who were trying to make beauty in the world and there were people who were waking up in the morning and walking the dog and taking care of the babies and doing what needed to be done,” explained Abigail. She said that it’s important for Louis, who is now four, to know that they were all together through a time of such uncertainty, especially as it’s day before the election.
Hey Abigail, Hey Shaun, you’ve done it. You have indeed made beauty in the world and my gratitude is without end. You brought grace into so many lives. You’ve found hope when there is fucking none to be found right now. You’ve brought light into a hole a thousand feet deep and you’ve reminded me of a basic truth that has survived being a punching bag for four years, a truth that has been spit on and knocked unconscious and made to bleed time and time again. It’s the truth that yes, I will keep going on. We will all keep going on. We will fight and we will pick ourselves back up and we will never forget what this year felt like.
In just over six minutes you’ve written the soundtrack for us. You’ve made us a map. You’ve healed at least some of the holes in our hearts. And boy, you released one hell of a song. And so yeah, when I say it’s my favorite song of 2020 I truly mean it. But it’s not just a song. Like Abigail so eloquently said, it’s a prayer.
One worth repeating.
Keep going on, everyone.