Over a month has passed since jazz vocalist René Marie opened the annual state of the city address in Denver with the third movement of her suite, “Voice of My Beautiful Country.” Although she had been asked to sing the national anthem, her rendition combined the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (a.k.a. “The Negro National Anthem”).
A Denver Post columnist rightly pointed out that the song “provoked a discussion … about what constitutes patriotism, courage, and racism.” And the extensive Q&A on the singer’s own website invites us to consider the substance of these two “sacrosanct” songs when combined. Still, the controversy that followed her performance focused almost exclusively on whether or not Marie should have kept her “switcheroonie” as she calls it, a secret from the mayor’s office.
So I decided to give it another listen:
At the historically black university I attended, we were required to memorize “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the poem that James Weldon Johnson wrote and his brother set to music in honor of Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. We sang it dutifully at special events (along with the Pledge of Allegiance) but after a while, I uh, ahem…well, I stopped paying attention. So I appreciate René Marie’s composition for re-introducing me to the words I recited unthinkingly for so long.
Like the American national anthem, “Lift Every Voice,” honors the struggle for liberty and justice. But it seems to me that where “The Star-Spangled Banner” celebrates a victorious battle against a backdrop of “bombs bursting in air,” Johnson is more tentative and speaks hopefully of battle wounds (of oppression, prejudice, fear) that are not yet healed. We are still marching on in Johnson’s hymn, “till victory is won.” Yet by merging the two anthems, Marie’s song seems to endow the longings of “Lift Every Voice” with a kind of “dawn’s early light” triumph — or is it optimism? — that I hadn’t heard before.
What surprises me the most, though, is how this new version changed my perspective of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (another song that I have been reciting since grade school). When Marie couples the melody with new lyrics, her song exposes a subtext that, in my mind, has always been there, simmering just beneath the surface for those who haven’t always felt welcome in “the land of the free.” Johnson’s words qualify America’s boastful exceptionalism in a way that is thoughtful, dignified, and more fully reflective our nation’s realities.
At the turn of the century, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” asked us to consider how far African Americans had come: “Have not our weary feet / Come to the place for which our father’s sighed?” In 2008, this question is still relevant, though it has become more complicated I think and, as “Voice of My Beautiful Country” demonstrates, far more interesting. And René Marie is not alone. Just read Langston Hughes’ poem, “I, Too, Sing America” (1925); listen to Jimi Hendrix‘s electrifying take on the anthem in 1969. And have you heard the amazing version by Marvin Gaye in 1983 (featured in the latest Nike commercial)? These are artists whose creative risks redefine patriotism as an ever-changing, always-inclusive enterprise.