I was so busy thinking about the entertainment at the White House State Dinner yesterday that I forgot to talk about the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Inauguration. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected president. The words and themes of his historic address still resonate with us today but this blog is about music. The lovely Marian Anderson sang the national anthem for the Kennedys that day so she’s our subject.
Marian Anderson got her first professional break in 1925 when she won a contest to sing with the New York Philharmonic. The racial climate in the United States at the time did not allow her to reach her full potential so she moved to Europe in order to further her career. She launched her European tour in 1930 and became a superstar. She began giving concerts in the US again in the late 1930’s. In 1939, the women’s group The Daughters Of The American Revolution refused to allow Marian to sing to an integrated audience at the Constitution Hall. The refusal caused First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and 4000 other members to resign from the organization. The District of Columbia Board Of Education also refused to allow her to perform in the White high school’s auditorium. With the help of the First Family and the president of the NAACP, Marian was finally given permission to hold the concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. An integrated audience of 75,000 filled the mall and millions more listened on the radio. She opened the show with “My Country Tis Of Thee” (Samuel Francis Smith 1831). Here’s a video of that opening number.
Marian Anderson’s fame allowed her to witness and participate in some extraordinary events in civil rights history but I think about the amazing changes that even common people of a certain age have witnessed. Take my grandparents for example, it gives me pause every time I realize that their parents, my great grandparents, were the first generation in my family born outside of slavery. I know the Kennedy inauguration meant as much to them as it did to most of the nation but I suspect the most recent inauguration meant quite a bit more. I only wish I’d thought to go out there and watch it with them.