Obama Inauguration Music and Symbolism, Part 1

View at Britannica.comWhatever your political persuasion in the 2008 election, it’s beyond dispute that the inauguration of an American president of African descent is historic. Given that Obama has lived so long in, and represented, the Land of Lincoln, it was inevitable that he’d tap into the Lincoln mythology with gestures such as his train trip into DC and his taking of the oath of office using the same bible that Lincoln used in 1861.

A piece of symbolism missed by the TV commentators, not to mention me at the time, was the backstory of Aretha Franklin’s performance of “My Country Tis of Thee.” As a lover of true contralto voices and a history buff, I’m a little sheepish that it took a belated visit to The Rest is Noise to remind me that Marian Anderson sang the same song on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Anderson, an internationally successful opera singer, had been denied permission to perform to an integrated audience in venues owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution and a local white public school.

These YouTube video show Anderson’s performance along with Franklin’s. The Anderson performance includes an introductory speech by Harold Ickes, who had authorized the performance in his capacity as Secretary of the Interior.

Martin Luther King, Jr. may have been referencing Anderson’s performance in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech:

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

At least one TV commentator quoted this excerpt as Aretha stepped up to the podium Tuesday, but in none of the network videos I’ve seen did they mention Marian Anderson at that moment.

Anderson was celebrated by by Queen Latifah (paying homage through words and a similar style of fur coat) at Sunday’s Lincoln Memorial concert. But not during the inauguration TV coverage in conjunction with Franklin’s performance of the same song, seven decades later, in such vastly different circumstances.

Part 2 of this post will discuss the John Williams chamber piece premiered at the ceremony.