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Last Sunday, in anticipation of the Presidential Inauguration, an All Star Concert was held in Barack Obama’s honor, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The concert aired live on HBO television and on NPR radio stations.
All Star tributes have become so commonplace in this country that one could have easily bypassed the event, assuming self-serving pop stars would be belting out their latest hits.
But Mr. Obama opened the event by saying, “Music has always been about the creative heartbeat of the American experience, enriching our lives, lifting our spirits and touching our deepest emotions”. That was a good indication of what was to come.
It was the footage of Marian Anderson that stole my heart. Ms. Anderson was an African America contralto, turned away from music school in 1921 because of her skin color. Four years later, Ms. Anderson debuted with the New York Philharmonic, and made her first Carnegie Hall appearance three years after that. World-renowned conductor, Arturo Toscanini told Ms. Anderson, she had a voice “heard once in a hundred years”.
But 18 years after she was banned from attending music school, and despite all the accolades and accomplishments, Ms. Anderson still faced racism. In 1939, the historic women’s organization, the Daughters of the American Revolution, refused to let Marian Anderson sing to an integrated audience at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. Thousands of members resigned from the organization in protest, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Instead, the Roosevelts helped organized an outdoor concert for Ms. Anderson on these same steps of the Lincoln Memorial. With 75,000 people in attendance, and millions more listening on the radio, Marian Anderson sang, “My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee”. The footage of her performance was replayed during Barack Obama’s Inaugural Concert and it’s simply beautiful.
In 1955, Ms. Anderson became the first African-American to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera. In 1957, the State Department appointed her a goodwill ambassador through the Far East and India. During President Eisenhower’s term, she was appointed the designated delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and she sang at both Eisenhower and JFK’s Presidential inaugurations. Ms. Anderson has had a US Postage Stamp created in her honor, and continued to serve her country until her death at the age of 96.
This is the story of a true American hero. Marian Anderson shows us courage, service and hope, in spite of the widespread racism and discrimination she faced. She could have given up at any point on the road, but instead she persevered.
Another American hero recognized that day was Pete Seeger. Pete Seeger’s impact on American culture is widespread and long standing. He authored the anti-war songs, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”, “If I Had A Hammer” and “Turn, Turn, Turn”. He popularized the civil rights song “We Shall Over Come” and in spite of numerous attempts to silence him, Seeger, at the age of 89, remains outspoken. In a rare appearance last year on David Letterman, he sang, “Don’t say it can’t be done, the battle’s just begun…take it from Dr. King, you too can learn to sing, so drop the gun”.
Music is a fundamental language that defines culture. The words of one generation speak to future decades and it’s impressive that we finally have a President in office who recognizes this fact and honors the heritage of our history.
This is Celia Hirschman with On The Beat on KCRW.