Last February, Davis, who’s known locally for his folk-roots songwriting in the band Steppin’ In It, joined the nonprofit organization On the Ground for an ultra-marathon fundraising event called “Run Across Palestine.” Davis hosted music events at each stop of the five-day journey across the historic landscape.
“I was brought on board as a cultural emissary,” said Davis. “I ran a little bit, but I’m not much of an athlete. My job was to bring a little bit of Michigan, through my songs and stories, to the West Bank and to soak up some of the culture.”
The focus of the 129-mile race was to raise funds and awareness in support of fair trade olive farming communities in the Palestinian West Bank.
“There was running through a lot of very divided land, a lot of land that the Israeli occupation has a tight grip on,” he said. “We went through the whole terrain of the West Bank, through different political climates, different terrain, different people.”
Being visitors on inimical ground was, at times, uneasy for Davis, who is married with a daughter. “The West Bank is an occupied territory by the Israeli government, so there’s a strong Israeli military presence there,” he said. “One day we went to plant olive trees in a Palestinian orchard surrounded by Israeli settlements. There was this group of IDF (Israel Defense Forces) soldiers there, maybe 20 of them in full riot gear. The Palestinians and the runners were trying to plant trees but the IDF was trying to stop them. There was a big scuffle with teargas and concussion grenades — Palestinians were throwing rocks. I was up on a hilltop watching all this stuff happen. It’s such a sad thing to see.”
So was Davis scared at any point on the trip?
“Absolutely, I felt uneasy,” he said. “At first, I was wondering, ‘Maybe they’ll know I’m a Jew, what will that be like in Palestine?’ But when people found out I was a Jew, they were just thankful I was there to see what was going on. It was a real eye-opening experience.”
The On the Ground organization funded half of Davis’ part of the trip and the album, which was released on the Earthwork Music label. The other half was raised via the crowdsourcing website, Kickstarter. Davis is currently on a record-release tour, which ends with a March 22 show at (SCENE) Metrospace in East Lansing.
“Half of the proceeds from the record will go back to help fund the organization with their work specifically in the West Bank,” Davis said. “The money is going to plant more olive trees, which is (the Palestinians’) main crop, and will help fund scholarships for the kids of the farming communities.”
And while much of “A Miracle of Birds” was inspired by spirituals he sang in the West Bank, he also dug into the Old Testament for motivation. Most of the tunes use imagery from the Torah and other Jewish and Islamic texts.
“A lot of it deals with me being a Jew,” he said. “I was raised in a Jewish household. My family is very much in support of Israel. When I was 19, I went to Israel on a Jewish identity trip. I had an incredible time, but found there were some things about the politics of that region that left a sour taste in my mouth. So, when I was asked to join On the Ground for this event, I saw it as an opportunity to put away some of my biases.”
Former Steppin' In It bassist Dominic John Davis, who relocated to Nashville last year to play with his old Detroit pal Jack White, began playing music with Davis in Steppin’ In It back in 1997. Dominic John also played bass on “A Miracle of Birds.” “Playing with Josh has always come easy for me,” he said. “We're born of the same stock musically and know where each other are coming from. I think ‘A Miracle of Birds’ is some of his finest work. His trip to the Middle East had a profound impact on him which shows in the songs … I'm proud of him; it’s a huge undertaking and a bold story to tell.”
After his second journey to the Middle East, Davis said the expedition was emotionally bittersweet.
“It really rocked my core because of the oppression that I saw against the Palestinian people by the Israelis,” he said. “For me, that goes totally against my core Jewish ethics of compassion and justice. The album primarily deals with me trying to grapple with that. With coming to terms with that and myself, and building a relationship with people I wouldn’t have otherwise met.”
"A Miracle of Birds" release show
@ (SCENE) Metrospace, 110 Charles, East Lansing
Friday, March 22
The album is available at earthworkmusic.com