Remembering Marian Anderson and the Power of Music, 76 Years On
On my recent trip to Washington DC , I came across a photograph of Marian Anderson, which I reprint here. Anderson was a celebrated African-American contralto who sang mainly opera but also some spirituals and traditional American songs.
She lived from 1898 to 1993 and was much celebrated for her muscial ability. But it was an event 76 years ago on April 9, 1939 for which she is most remembered and which underlines for me the great power of music.
It seems ridiculous now, but as a woman of colour, Anderson was barred from playing a concert at Constitution Hall, a venue in Washington built and owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, a group made up of women whose ancesters had some role in the American War of Independence. The DAR did not want her singing to a mixed-race audience.
So, instead — with the help of President Franklin D Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt — Anderson performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Where she might have quietly entertained maybe 3,000 people at Constitution Hall, she sang for 75,000 gathered at the Memorial and was heard by millions across America on radio.
Things are a lot better in America today, of course (athough perhaps not as better as some might believe). The DAR has African-American members and people of colour (quaint term that implies those who aren’t might be a bit bland) regularly play Constitution Hall. The picture of Anderson, meanwhile, comes from a postcard I bought at the Martin Luther King Memorial, a massive statue in the heart of Washington celebrating the man who also had his moment at the Lincoln.
All this will be well known to many readers, particularly American ones. But as generations move on, some of the little moments of social and musical history will be forgotten or never learnt. So 76 years on, let’s give a moment of thought to the past and to the enduring power of music.