A Song For You

“Three years ago, during an interview in Russia, the interviewer referred to me as an American,” Denver jazz singer Rene Marie writes on her website (renemarie.com). “I started to interrupt her, to tell her she was mistaken.  But I caught myself and was extremely surprised and dismayed to discover that I didn’t feel like an American. 

 

“On the flight from Moscow, I felt anxious to get back home. Yes, ‘home.’ And yet, I had nearly corrected the Russian interviewer when she called me American!  Why?

 

“I thought about how, from the time I was a very young child, I had always loved singing ‘America the Beautiful’, ‘God Bless America,’ and how my heart always swelled with pride, how I always teared up whenever I heard the beginning strains of the ‘National Anthem.’ I loved these songs, loved singing them.  I loved my home--the dirt and the sky and the trees and the grass and bugs of my home.  I loved the people in it, the way we walked and talked and interacted.  I loved the way things are done here, problematic though they may sometimes be.  I tried to imagine living permanently in another country--and couldn’t. I loved this land!  So why didn’t I feel like I was an American?

 

“Beautiful as those songs are, when I learned them as a child, the black community was still living under Jim Crow laws.  My siblings and I went to segregated schools where the books, desks, chairs, tables, lunch trays and playground equipment were never new, always hand-me-downs from the all-white schools. 

 

“Even at such a young age I sensed on a fundamental level that there was a disconnect between the patriotic songs I loved to sing and the humiliating, not-quite-a-citizen experiences that black folks were enduring on a daily basis.    

 

“One year, my mother and father, along with about five other black couples, attempted to integrate the segregated lunch counters in my hometown, Warrenton, Virginia.  My parents were assigned to Frost’s Diner on the by-pass.  On the door of that establishment was a sign that read, ‘No Dogs. No Niggers.’ 

 

“Later that year, however, as a result of this protest, my father was blacklisted--fired from his job as a teacher and unable to find employment anywhere in the county sufficient enough to support seven children and a wife.”

 

On July 1 of this year, Rene Marie stepped to the mic at the annual state of the city speech by Denver mayor John Hickenlooper. She had been asked to sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” an unpaid gig. Instead, she sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known historically as the “Negro National Anthem.” Several weeks earlier at the Colorado Prayer Luncheon, she had performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” even though asked to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” and received praise from many of the political leaders assembled there. But that was a private affair. When Rene Marie made the same song switch at the mayor’s event, it was very public. The sharks smelled media blood.

 

Mayor Hickenlooper, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, and members of the Denver City Council attacked Marie for not singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” Barack Obama found time in the middle of his Presidential campaign to do the same. They all insisted that there is only one national anthem and that is what should be sung. If our national anthem was just an ode to our country’s beauty and to its people, they might have a point.

 

Francis Scott Key wrote the words to the “Star Spangled Banner” (the tune is from a bawdy British drinking song) during the War of 1812, a time when over one million Africans were being held as slaves in the United States. Yet Key described America as “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

 

Understandably, those who weren’t free came to feel a need for their own anthem. After Reconstruction, James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Roseamond Johnson wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” first performed in public at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville in 1900. Singing this song  became a common way for blacks to speak out against Jim Crow, especially the wave of lynchings after the turn of the century (“We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered”).

 

The lynchings continue today in America, usually at the hands of the police. Not just nationally known incidents such as Amadou Diallo (“41 Shots”) or Sean Bell, but the pattern of police violence in recent years in Rene Marie’s Denver. Fifteen-year-old Paul Childs was shot and killed as he stood in his doorway by officer James Turney (the city of Denver paid a $1.3 million settlement to the victim’s family). It was $4 million to the family of Emily Rae Rice, who died when she was taken to jail after a car crash and was refused medical treatment. Jason T. Gomez was shot and killed by officer Timothy Campbell, who said Gomez had a gun. It turned out to be a lighter.

 

In his July 1 speech about the state of the city, Mayor Hickenlooper might have focused on the fact that 29% of Denver’s children live in poverty but instead he said fighting crime was the city’s top priority. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, heaped praise upon the police and spent the first ten paragraphs of his speech exulting in plans to ramp up police power in the Mile High City.

 

Rene Marie’s song choice served as an implicit critique of city priorities, especially because our national anthem comes with a built-in agenda. The relentless promotion of “The Star Spangled Banner” has reinforced a false picture of America by ignoring the inequality that defines our country and the power relationships which keep it that way.  The song burns acceptance of war into our brains as an instrument of national policy. This began with the first high-profile performances of the national anthem at the 1918 World Series. Before the first game began, the “Star Spangled Banner” was played while the players went through military drills on the field, marching with bats on their shoulders to simulate rifles.

 

The need of our bipartisan war machine for unthinking support is so great that even musical changes in the national anthem are taboo. In 1968, Jose Feliciano did the first remix of the “Star Spangled Banner” when he performed a beautiful, languid version before game five of the World Series in Detroit. That a Puerto Rican would presume to take liberties with the anthem provoked a firestorm of protest.

 

A year later, Jimi Hendrix did his famous version of the national anthem at Woodstock which, he later said, was meant to convey that “We’re all Americans...We play it the way the air is in America.”

 

Eventually, controversies over performance of the “Star Spangled Banner” were reduced to the caterwauling of Carl Lewis or Roseanne Barr. Richard C. Crepeau, author of Baseball: America's Diamond Mind, wrote in 2003 that “the national anthem has lost its patriotic air in most sports venues. It has become an occasion for entertainers to display their talents or lack thereof, fans to create new cheers, and the networks to run commercials. Its symbolic significance has been overshadowed by commercial purposes and public indifference, but it can still rattle the cages when someone uses it as an occasion for protest.”

 

On the eve of the 2006 immigration marches across the United States, a new version of the national anthem got massive airplay on Spanish-language stations across the country. Retitled “Nuestro Himno,” it used Latin pop instrumentation with Spanish vocals by Ivy Queen, Gloria Trevi, Carlos Ponce, Olga Tanon, Aventura, and Wyclef Jean. References to bombs and rockets were removed and the second stanza was rewritten to include lines such as “we are equal, we are brothers.” A hip-hop remix was issued a month later featuring the following rap: “Let’s not start a war / With all these hard workers / They can’t help where they were born.”

 

“Nuestro Himno” echoed Hendrix in insisting that we’re all Americans. It was widely attacked, dismissed as “The Illegal Alien Anthem” by those who evidently just haven’t noticed the way the air is in America today.

 

In 2003, Manhattanville College basketball player Toni Smith explained why she turned her back on the flag during the playing of the national anthem: “The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and our priorities are elsewhere.”

 

As long as our beautiful home, Rene Marie’s  “the dirt and the sky and the trees and the grass and bugs,” is marred by racial and economic inequality, we will never be united on the national anthem.

 

But a movement to deal with these inequities is percolating across the country (in 2005 Colorado voters agreed to give up $3 billion in taxpayer refunds to stave off cuts in education and health care for the poor). As this movement grows, it will create many opportunities to sing anthems official and unofficial, songs that are loud and songs that are soft, songs that are traditional and songs that are brand spanking new. Let’s put ‘em all in rotation.

 

Lift every voice and sing.

 

 

Rock & Rap Confidential / 2008