Wednesday, April 9, 2014
In 1939, April 9 was Easter Sunday. How can it possibly be 75 years?
And yet it is. What happened in Washington, DC, that Easter Sunday 75 years ago is the stuff of legend: distinguished contralto Marian Anderson, at the invitation of her friend Mrs. Roosevelt, sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the hall of the Daughters of the American Revolution (for reasons that those good ladies have been obfuscating upon these eight decades now) having proved unavailable as a venue for a recital.
And her singing carried to every corner of the country; in some ways, we are hearing its reverberations still. Anderson's concert, more famous by a hundred or a thousand times than any ordinary concert could have been, set the stage for the explosion in civil rights activism that followed the Second War and, in some ways, continues today. She returned to the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 to be with Dr. King, and the time or two I've been in Washington to participate in a protest - against nuclear weapons in 1982, the gay rights marches in '86 and '93 - I've made a point of stopping there on the steps and thanking her.
Anderson was an artist first and foremost, thrust into her activism and role as a pioneer. In the film of the 1939 concert, she is marvelous, but in the most common excerpt, her opening with "My Country 'tis of Thee," either the recording is off or her arrangement seems oddly high, her rich contralto pushed up, made thin. I love her voice when she's glorying in its depth and golden lustre, as here in this singing of Martini's "Plaisir d'Amour," when you can feel the power and control she has in your own chest as she sings. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, she became a figure in history; on the recital stage and in the recording studio, she became immortal.
That Easter Sunday had all sort of unexpected outcomes. That spring, my Grandmother Muscato quit the DAR; Anderson's exclusion startled even some of the most conservative of citizens, and she was among them. On top of that, she learned just around then that her adopted daughter wouldn't be eligible to join her in that august organization. "Oh," she always said, "I hated having to agree with Eleanor," (adopting her version of the First Lady's patrician, high-pitched tone - the Roosevelts were a family bête noire; the husband was rarely anything but "That Man" as late as the mid-'70s) "but between not wanting your Aunt Georgia and the way they treated poor Marian Anderson, I just didn't have time for any more of their nonsense."
You could hardly imagine two more disparate personages - a small-city matron of fixed opinions and high standards, and a singer acclaimed by the world as both a symbol and a diva - but I think that at least in this way they had much in common: they saw no reason to be weighed down by other people's nonsense. There's a lesson we could all learn, as we continue Marian Anderson's journey toward recognizing the dignity and worth in all people. Let freedom ring!