Democratic Women’s Caucus gig

March 29, 2009

Just got back from the Kaia gig at the Democratic Women’s Caucus and am still flying high. We performed Not One More Day and got our first full standing ovation! It stopped the show!

Angela called it a “timeless anthem” and said we’ve got to get it on record somehow. I agree! I’ve been thinking lately that that and some of our other post-Get Down, Rise Up! material really needs to get video’d so we can put it on YouTube. We hope to use her camera and get something put together in the next couple weeks.

That song is a non-stop combination of punches to the gut. People are so moved by it but then can’t clap along for fear they’ll miss the next set of lyrics. There’s virtually no dead space musically or lyrically — it just keeps going!

The tune is based on a spiritual that comes from that treasure trove of the civil rights songs, Voices Of The Civil Rights Movement. The lyrics are all mine. I remember having many combinations of lyrics and just working and working until they seem distilled to their essence. The words are my truth. They come straight from my heart. They are what I think and what I believe.

(I also can’t help but think of the Doonesbury cartoon I carried around with the draft lyric sheet. It showed two characters discussing the toxic Bush legacy. Not One More Day hits on almost every topic.)

It is so hard to believe that the Bush presidency even happened. So much has changed so quickly. President Obama has been moving like a chipmunk on speed to turn things around on all fronts. He listens and changes strategy based on what he hears so he can be more successful. It’s 180 degrees from the Bush arrogance and single-minded drumbeat of terror, terror, terror. 

There may come a time when Not One More Day isn’t needed anymore. For me, it’s inextricably linked with the Bush presidency, even though it deals with much larger themes. It speaks to who we are as America, and who we want to be.

I think that’s what people respond to — not just the critique of the war, but of the clear message that “we are better than this.” We want to be better. We want to be called to be better. Bush failed utterly in that regard. Obama has made great strides in the big picture (“Yes, we can”) but it remains to be seen if he’ll make this song obsolete.

I’m still trembling slightly from all the excitement and the feeling of all that energy rushing from the crowd to us at the end of the song. I wish there were some way to thank every person for hearing and responding. Dear Lois Sabo-Skelton just came right up at the end of the show and gave me a huge hug — bless her! It’s a way of closing the loop, of not just acknowledging applause and praise but of giving it back and saying thank you.

I wish I could have stayed late and hobnobbed with the crowd afterwards. They are incredible people — on their own merit in addition to their achievements — and it’s an honor to be invited to share that common ground that music creates. Thank you, Democratic Women’s Caucus!

Aretha Franklin and Marian Anderson

January 24, 2009

Of the many inspirational moments of President Obama’s inauguration Tuesday, for me one of the most touching was Aretha Franklin’s singing “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.” While most comments have focused on her hat, of all things, I’ve seen little mention of the historical threads that came together on that chill January morning.

Marian Anderson, born in the late 19th century, was a supremely talented contralto. She was the first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera and won many well-deserved plaudits for her talent. She kicked off her career with a ten-year stint touring Europe, due in part to the greater acceptance of African-Americans’ talents at the time.

In 1939, she planned a concert for Constitution Hall, Washington DC’s biggest venue for classical music. The Daughters of the American Revolution, owners of the hall, refused to allow her to sing because she was Black. This was one of a number of stinging incidents of discrimination, but its blatant racism made it a very high-profile case.

The great Eleanor Roosevelt, one of history’s leading forces in her own right, helped organize Anderson’s concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And so it was, on a chilly April day in 1939, as Hitler’s shadow loomed large over European democracies, that Marion Anderson held her concert. The centerpiece? Her rendition of “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.”

The irony of the lines “Land where my fathers died / Land of the Pilgrim’s pride” was too loaded for people not to see. The whole question of racism and discrimination took on a new urgency, and at different levels of society, than had previously been the case. It is still a stunning sight to see her calmly singing the piece with Lincoln looming behind her.

Fast-forward nearly 70 years to Capitol Hill and the site of the Inauguration, where another African-American woman, veteran of the civil rights struggle, sang the same song. In that moment is wrapped up the efforts of Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr (“I have a dream!”) and countless others.

While Aretha’s voice was not in as fine a form as she would have liked, her mere presence drew the threads of the historical tapestry together. The shadow looming over democracies today comes from within, as the Bush administration quashed civil liberties (though Obama is dismantling some of Bush’s oppressive measures). African-Americans still face discrimination and racism, but nowhere near the frequency and intensity of 70 years ago. There is also a greater understanding of how complex the intersection of ethnicity, class, and gender is in our country. And the hunger of people from all backgrounds to hear the talent of African-American performers integrated our performance spaces long ago!

If I believed in an afterlife, I would say Marian and Eleanor were very happy with Aretha’s performance. Regardless, her presence put to rest a shameful chapter of American history and celebrated how far we’ve come since those vicious days.