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Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America

An African-American, Anderson became an important figure in the struggle for black artists to overcome racial prejudice in the United States during the mid twentieth century. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused permission for Anderson to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall. Their race-driven refusal placed Anderson into the spotlight of the international community on a level usually only found by high profile celebrities and politicians. With the aid of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson performed a critically acclaimed open-air concert on Easter Sunday, 1939 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to a crowd of more than 75,000 people and a radio audience in the millions. She continued to break barriers for black artists in the United States, notably becoming the first black person, American or otherwise, to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on January 7, 1955."
--Wilkipedia

Listen up. The daddy was over at the fine blog "All About Jazz" and found a gem of a post. It's
about the book The Sound of Freedom, a biography of the classical singer Marian Anderson. Many of you already know about the incident at the Lincoln Center. But the book talks about the many years she spent overseas, honing her voice and performing. Political and cultural, the book, written by Raymond Arsenault, also spends a considerable time explaining how she moved those who heard her sing.

In the early 1930s, years before the concert at the Lincoln Memorial that made her an international symbol of the American civil rights movement, the great Philadelphia-born contralto was probably better known overseas than she was in the United States. Here's an excerpt from the book:

THE SOUND OF FREEDOM: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America
By Raymond Arsenault

Excerpt:

Andersons' concerts, which combined opera arias and German lieder with black spirituals, won over not just crowds and critics but also Europes classical music luminaries. After she performed at the Finnish composer Jean Sibeliuss country house in 1933, singing his compositions in his native language, he called out for not coffee, but champagne.

When Anderson (1897-1993) was smuggled in to sing at the 1935 Salzburg Festival after non-Aryans were banned by the Nazis, Arturo Toscanini was in the audience. Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years, he told her. His words stuck. For the rest of her life Anderson would be referred to as the voice of the century.

In his new book, The Sound of Freedom, Raymond Arsenault delivers not a proper biography of Anderson there have already been a couple of those, in addition to her 1956 autobiography but a tightly focused look at the political and cultural events that led up to and came after her famous 1939 concert. Its a story that is well worth retelling.

Anderson spent so much time in Europe partly because of the training and experience that touring there offered. She had also had her fill of segregated concert halls in America, and of its cultural climate in general. After a lifetime of being told that they were intellectually and culturally inferior, Mr. Arsenault writes, even many blacks questioned their races capacity to excel in the higher forms of art, theater, science, literature, sports, entertainment and music.

One of the few areas in which black artists were successful was popular music. Blacks were born to sing and shout, whites told themselves without any sense of irony or concern, Mr. Arsenault observes. Classical music was another matter. Mastery of classical technique required superior intelligence, discipline and years of training, he writes. Most white Americans had never encountered a major black composer, opera singer or virtuoso violinist. Indeed, one suspects that few whites could even imagine such a thing.

Andersons' emergence as a major performer in America in the mid-1930s was carefully orchestrated. She was sold to the news media, lest she be perceived as uppity, as both an international star and an unspoiled, unpretentious, working-class girl from South Philadelphia. She was Marian of Martin Street the same way Jennifer Lopez was later Jenny from the block.

Anderson did grow up poor. Her father, a railroad laborer, died when she was 12; she attend high school because her family depended on money she earned from singing and domestic work. (She later got a high school diploma.) Her voice was her ticket; there was a sense of destiny about her from the beginning. After she performed in a recital as a teenager, a music critic for The Chicago Defender wrote that tears of joy were in the eyes of many of the musicians who felt that a new era in music has risen for our people.

There are many, many weeping onlookers in this book. Anderson's voice and presence moved people. Calling one of her concerts the most dramatic experience I have had in 30 years of attending the theater, a Houston music critic described what Anderson looked like when she returned for an encore: And there, you thought, but for the Grace of God, stood somebody's negro cook.
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Note: The following is Eleanor Roosevelt's resignation from the Daughter of the
American Revolution (DAR) for their refusal to allow Marian Anderson to sing
at Constitution Hall due to their policy of not allowing blacks on stage:

Eleanor Roosevelt's resignation

8 comments:

SagaciousHillbilly said...

Beautiful story.
I believe Mrs. Roosevelt withdrew her membership in the DAR as a result of that event.
When I was growing up, my family rejected the DAR as a racist group of people and even though our g'mothers had been members my mother refused to join. I wonder how many others learned something about right and wrong as a result of that event.

MacDaddy said...

Sagacious: Yes, Eleanor Roosevelt did withdraw her membership from DAR. I have included as a note at the end of the story. All this was a big story at the time. She ended up signing at the base of the Lincoln Memorial with 75,000 people there. And it was broadcast all over the country. You gotta love the courage of Ms. Anderson and the principles of Eleanor Roosevelt. We need more character like that around D.C.

Beach Bum said...

Great post MacDaddy, I've heard the story a few times before and each time I am amazed at the strength of both Ms. Anderson and Mrs. Roosevelt.
I'd like to think we as a people have grown since then but I'm afraid I would be disappointed if I looked to closely for such evidence.

MacDaddy said...

BeachBum: I think I'd be disappointed too, even among some of my neighbors and so- called friends.

Anonymous said...

Hi, MacDaddy

Some day I will show you a picture of my mom in her prime....There is a striking resemblance to Marian Anderson!!!

I really like this piece...Thank you....Let's hear it for Eleanor Roosevelt!

Peace! Nuninthehood

Anonymous said...

Good post, MacDaddy.

God Bless the memories of Marian Anderson AND Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. Damn the DAR!

James

Anonymous said...

Marian Anderson and Eleanor Roosevelt struck a blow for Jim Crow when she wrote the letter and persuaded her husband to allow her to perform in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Nothing the DAR could do has been able to eclipse the triumph she had that day. God was with her that day.

DAR was embarrassed and can you believe that this organization is still in existence today???? Shameful but America...
James

MacDaddy said...

James: Well said. And Eleanor Roosevelt is one of my heroes.