Submitted to the AFRO by Joe Marx
I only saw Aretha Franklin perform once. It was April, 1983; the venue was Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. The Queen of Soul shared the evening with arguably the Earl of Soul, Ray Charles. Mr. Charles leaned into the crowd from his piano bench and took us on a spirited joy ride. But when Ms. Franklin sang, there was a palpable hush among the audience of 3,000. Fierce angels commanded her voice and carried us mortals on a flight of the spirit.
Here were two supreme artists—maestros really, who, through their music, taught us how to build the bridge from the church to the streets, with a stopover at a bustin’ loose house party along the way.
The date and venue also had enormous significance that may have been on the minds of Ms. Franklin and Mr. Charles that evening. The concert was almost 15 years to the day of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis—the birthplace of Ms. Franklin. And on a cloudy April Easter Sunday in Washington, D.C. 44 years earlier, the great contralto Marian Anderson sang in front of an estimated 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial–the audience stilled to a reverential silence by her interpretation of My County Tis’ of Thee. Like Ms. Franklin, Ms. Anderson didn’t cover songs, she re-imagined them until they were transformed into sorrow songs, and joy songs and dignity songs that enduringly stir our souls.
Ms. Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial because she had been denied the opportunity to sing at Constitution Hall months earlier. She was denied simply because she was Black. Constitution Hall, owned by The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), was off limits to Blacks as were most venues in segregated Washington, D.C. In fact DAR had a “White only artist” clause in all their contracts.
I learned personally about this heart-wrenching moment for Black Washington and Black America when I was co-producing 7th & T a PBS documentary that explored the history of Black Washington including the founding and building of the Howard Theater in 1910, the first theater in the country built by Blacks for Blacks—though Whites flocked to this state-of-the-art venue to see the likes of Paul Robeson perform Othello, and jazz greats including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington. Because Blacks weren’t allowed in White-owned establishments due to our national segregation policies, the Black Community built its own theater, restaurants, and night clubs. It already had Howard University “the capstone of Negro education,” where the next generation of bold thinkers were already re-shaping our society.
The enduring connection between Marian Anderson and Aretha Franklin is evident in the way Ms. Franklin turned Otis Redding’s Respect into a stand-tall ballad about the dignity and self-worth of women everywhere. Ms. Anderson gave voice to the rights and dignity of Black Americans during her live performance at the Lincoln Memorial by intentionally changing the third line of My Country Tis of Thee from “of thee I sing” to “to thee we sing.”
As we honor and remember Aretha Franklin and move our feet and our hearts to (pick one) our favorite Aretha song, we are also called to move our feet, our hearts, and our souls to speak out against discrimination, racism and injustice, and to work for the dignity and R-E-S-P-E-C-T of every person no matter where they come from, the color of their skin, or how much money they make. That would be a remarkable way to honor Marian Anderson, and the Queen of Soul.
Joe Marx co-produced the documentary “7th & T” which premiered on WETA in 1987. A former Washingtonian, he now lives in Lawrenceville, NJ.
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