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‘Moonlight’ writer says St. Olaf Choir song ‘shaped his life’

Tarell Alvin McCraney: photo courtesy of Danielle Levitt and Out Magazine.
‘Moonlight,’ which won the Oscar for Best Picture, is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s previously unpublished play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.’ Photo courtesy of Danielle Levitt and Out Magazine.

Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney says the St. Olaf Choir’s performance of “City Called Heaven” is among 10 songs that shaped his life.

In an interview with Out Magazine that was published the day after Moonlight won Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards — as well as Best Adapted Screenplay for McCraney and Barry Jenkins — McCraney describes the songs that have made a lasting impact on him.

The first song on his list is the St. Olaf Choir’s “City Called Heaven,” which is featured on the ensemble’s Advance Australia Fair album.

“I heard this song in my first year of college, during winter break when everyone else had gone home,” McCraney tells the magazine. “It rang out and shone a spotlight on a pain I could not gather and pull out on my own. It spoke of slave narratives and cotton fields but also of not being enough for this world and longing to be accepted, to be gathered up and taken to the next — something I had felt my whole life but could not express. The lyrics talk about hearing of a city where there is peace and the need to call that city, Heaven, one’s home.”

St. Olaf Choir Conductor Anton Armstrong ’78 says he’s “honored and humbled that our performance had an impact on such a talented man.” 

Listen to the St. Olaf Choir perform “City Called Heaven” below.

City Called Heaven
Traditional Spiritual
arr. Josephine Poelinitz

The St. Olaf Choir
Anton Armstrong, Conductor
Albert Jordan, Tenor
Matthew Schwinghammer, Piano
Thomas Phelps, Tambourine

Music © Colla Voce Music
Posted by permission

Available on St. Olaf Records
“Advance Australia Fair” E=2173