When Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL football quarterback, took a knee (knelt) during The Star-Spangled Banner at the start of the games, he created quite the uproar.
I have written that I felt his using his visibility to call attention to the injustices against African-Americans and other minorities was in the best tradition of nonviolent protest. He paid a heavy price for his actions: though he reached a settlement with the National Football League and is now a free agent, to date no team has been willing to sign him.
Anna Celenza, Professor of Music at Georgetown University, discusses Kaepernick’s protest in her introduction to a One Day University lecture titled: “Four Musical Masterpieces That Changed America.”
I found her talk, which I watched on video, so enlightening that I’d like to provide you with some highlights. I’ve also added a bit of research from other sources.
Celenza first explained that Georgetown, known for politics, social justice, public policy, and law, had designed a major in American Musical Culture to explore “how music functions in culture.”
She also teaches American Studies, so it was natural for her to design and lead a freshman class on “Music and Politics.” To determine which songs to cover, she visited the Library of Congress and found a number of musical pieces that had evoked Congressional debate. The four songs highlighted in this lecture were culled from that syllabus.
“The Flag Was Still There”
She began with our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. In defying the customary stance when the song is played—that is, the ritual, an important aspect of music—Kaepernick, she observed, was calling attention to the fact that the song is saying we’re all unified and free.
In essence, he was asking what the ritual means—and how can we make it true? A worthy question, I believe, now being raised in many aspects of American life.
The Star-Spangled Banner, that symbol of American culture, actually got its start as something called a “parody song.” The melody originated previously in a different context: the words to that melody had described “the pleasures of women and wine.”
But writer Francis Scott Key was a more serious type. He first used the words “Star-Spangled” to refer to the American flag in 1805 when he wrote a song for his friend Stephen Decatur, Jr., which described the “olive branch of peace and the laurel wreath of honor.”
What eventually became the national anthem appeared in 1814. The War of 1812 was still raging, and the British had just bombed Washington, DC. They were on their way to Baltimore, where a defeat, many feared, would mean the end of American independence. To prevent the Brits from reaching Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the Americans had sunk ships so that the masts would block access.
Enter Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and sometime poet who had, I read elsewhere, been opposed to the war from the beginning. But now he’d been asked to try to stop the onslaught and negotiate a prisoner exchange.
When he met with the British, they wouldn’t let him leave: he was coerced to stay with them to watch the bombing.
From that vantage point, however, instead of witnessing defeat, he saw “the bombs bursting in air,” and, at the end of the battle, “the flag was still there.” The rest you know, right? He originally titled the song “In Defense of Fort McHenry.”
The song’s ascent to anthem status was a bit circuitous. While it was gaining popularity, some faulted it because it just doesn’t work as a marching song. (Try it; you’ll see.)
“My Country ’Tis of Thee” was considered a possible anthem, but ruled out because of its origins: this wasn’t the time for a song based on “God Save the King.” And “America the Beautiful” (O Beautiful for Spacious Skies…) didn’t make the cut because after the first stanza, it actually critiques America for not living up to its ideals. Hmmmm.
The Star-Spangled Banner finally became the National Anthem in 1931—two years after Congress proposed it as a way to bring together opposing factions who were blaming each other for the Great Depression. The feeling was that everyone singing together would be a unifying ritual.
And why the hand over heart? Initially, the song was sung accompanied by a straight-arm salute, ostensibly pointing to the American flag. But with images of Hitler and Mussolini in mind, people said, essentially, “No way!” We should, I think, be grateful for that!
Confronting Our National Horror
Abel Meeropol was a Jewish schoolteacher-turned-poet and songwriter, and a member of the American Communist Party in the 1930s. As Celenza pointed out, in those days, the Communist Party was not viewed as it was subsequently: its supporters were idealists who were attracted by its emphasis on peace, freedom, progress, and gender and racial equality. (Meeropol subsequently quit.)
Meeropol happened to see a postcard that shocked him to his core: it was a photograph of a lynching, showing two bodies hanging from trees while a group festively gathers below. In 1937, using a pseudonym, he wrote a poem about it called “Strange Fruit,” which was printed in a teachers union publication. He set it to music, and he and his wife would perform it at Communist Party rallies.
But Meeropol wanted more people to hear it. The following year, he connected with a man named Barney Josephson, who had started the first social club whose patrons were racially integrated. The house singer there just happened to be a woman named Billie Holiday. Meeropol told her: “You should sing this.”
She agreed, but only under certain conditions: no drinks were to be served before her performance; the only light in the room would be a spotlight on her; and it had to be the final song of the night. This was not an ego trip: Holiday knew how to elicit the greatest power from a very important song.
The song, and Holiday’s rendition of it, became famous. People said they “witnessed” her singing it because they were so moved. She recorded it, though her usual record label wouldn’t touch it due to its sensitive subject, so she went to a startup label in 1939. And it awakened people’s consciences: they signed petitions to their members of Congress to make lynching a federal crime. Celenza believes it actually marked the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
During the McCarthy era, Meeropol was attacked, and Strange Fruit wasn’t sung for a while. Nina Simone brought it back.
In 1999, Time Magazine called it “the song of the century.” It is listed in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
But a law still wasn’t passed, although there were 200 separate attempts to enact such legislation over the decades. In 2005, Senators Mary Landrieu (D) and George Allen (R) apologized for the failure to pass anti-lynching legislation.
Finally, in December, 2018, Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker asked for—and received—unanimous consent of the Senate to pass the bipartisan Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018, which would, at long last, criminalize lynching, attempts to lynch, and conspiracy to lynch.
Booker said at the time that the legislation is intended to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and leave a legacy for future generations that Congress finally did the right thing. Senator Tim Scott was also a sponsor. The bill passed the Senate in February, 2019.
In March, 2019, the Senate bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. As far as I could tell, it’s still there.
I saw Audra McDonald portray Billie Holiday several years ago, and the last song she sang was Strange Fruit. I believe that once you hear it, you never forget it. It was/is emotionally wrenching to imagine such gross inhumanity from seemingly ordinary looking people.
Here is the opening verse:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
If you’d like to hear Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, google Billie Holiday–Strange fruit-HD-YouTube.
Paul Simon Defies a Boycott
When South Africa was ruled by apartheid from 1948 to 1993, the US remained neutral. The African National Congress (ANC) supported 1930s communism, and the Soviet Union was a prime supporter of the ANC. With the Cold War in effect, the US would not side with the anti-apartheid group.
Then, in the 1980s, the United Nations forced the issue by passing a resolution that called for a cultural boycott of South Africa. American performers, such as Steve Van Zandt, said they wouldn’t play in South Africa. Van Zandt wrote a protest song, Sun City, which was recorded by Artists United Against Apartheid. (Sun City was a resort where the South African government had forcibly removed black people.)
But Paul Simon disagreed. He’d been given a tape of music by black South Africans, and—ignoring the boycott—he traveled to South Africa to record an album with the musicians who lived there, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the group whose harmonies among tenor, alto, and bass are so distinctive. That album became Graceland, which Rolling Stone has said “remains one of the most beloved albums in pop history.”
In 1987, Simon and his group staged a huge concert in neighboring Zimbabwe featuring the renowned singer Miriam Makeba, who had left South Africa in exile. They sang “Under African Skies.” Says Celenza: “The lyrics tell the story of how a song changes points of view.” And she quotes “the roots of rhythm remain…This is the story of how we begin to remember…”
There was a furor over Simon’s actions, and some still question his judgment—and even his motives. Simon brought all the musicians to the US; to him this issue wasn’t about politics; it was about the music.
The musicians he played with said he opened up opportunities for them that they would never otherwise have had. One year after Graceland, Simon produced Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Shaka Zulu, which received a Grammy Award in 1988 for best folk recording, the first of four Grammys they’ve received.
But Dali Tambo, who founded Artists Against Apartheid, was deeply critical of Simon. “We were fighting for our land, for our identity,” he told a New York Times reporter. “And we saw Paul Simon coming as a threat because it was not sanctioned…by the liberation movement.”
Yet it had such an impact that the US government stopped doing cultural boycotts. Celenza spoke of an Irish Times headline not long ago that asked: “Who wins when artists stage a cultural boycott?” And she gave her answer: “No one. Music brings us together.”
And Then There’s Hamilton…
In July, 2008, Lin-Manuel Miranda was reading a book he’d bought at an airport bookstore prior to a vacation in Puerto Rico. In Alexander Hamilton, the biography by Ron Chernow, Miranda has said he recognized himself and the ideals of his friends and family.
Miranda gave a surprise early introduction to one of the songs as a work-in-progress to the Obamas at a White House Poetry Jam in 2009. If you haven’t seen the tape of that performance, you can do so here, complete with subtitles beneath the rap words. The play Hamilton: An American Musical premiered in August, 2015.
Hamilton is, of course, a huge sensation, and the touring companies seem to be everywhere. In a combination of rap, rhythm and blues, show tunes, and other styles, the music sets forth the ideas the founding fathers had that are still important, while also capturing what America looks like now, Celenza observes. (The founding fathers and other historical figures are primarily played by people of color.)
She recalls the evening when Vice President Mike Pence attended a performance. At the curtain call, the actors acknowledged him but, very politely, suggested that they hoped he wasn’t simply entertained–that he’ll remember the ideas and ideals he’d just heard.
What they did with that speech was a break in ritual, Celenza notes, “and people got upset. When you break ritual, it makes people think…about what our ideals are.”
She concluded with the hope that we all try to capture the best ideas we can from musical experiences such as the ones she’d presented.
What do you think?
UPDATE: My virtual friend and fellow blogger Joseph Urban (aka: The Old Liberal) noted in his comment the song that speaks to him personally the most strongly, and he asked me what song was mine. (You can see both our selections in his response below.) I thought this was a terrific question, and as I always enjoy your stories, I am posing it to you: When you think of songs that have had a lasting impact on you, which one(s) come to mind–and why?