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Marian Anderson’s Spirituals

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An African American woman wearing a formal dress with a flowered bodice. Head and shoulders portrait.
Portrait of Marian Anderson by Carl Van Vechten, 1940. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.  //

When I was a child, in about 1960, I remember two of my father’s cousins getting into an animated discussion about Marian Anderson and the time they resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Although I was not old enough to understand the event they were talking about, it made a strong impression. When we went home I peppered my mother with questions about what the DAR was, who Marian Anderson was, and what had happened. My mother tried to explain about the opera singer who sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial because she was not allowed to sing at Constitution Hall.

I didn’t understand segregation, so she explained that, at the time, African Americans couldn’t perform onstage at Constitution Hall or sit in the main audience but a few might sit in the back in a balcony section. Black artists could perform on stage at National Theater but again, they could only sit in a small section of the audience. Diplomats of color were an exception, and she remembered going to see a movie in the segregated Uptown Theater with local African Americans who were dressed in African clothing, so that they would be let in with African diplomats. I complained that this didn’t make sense, and she realized that I thought that my elder cousins were talking about something that had just happened. “This happened many years before you were born!” my mother said.

Now I understand more about this fascinating story. Marian Anderson did not intend to become an early icon of the African American struggle for civil rights on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. She said in various ways that she did not feel that by herself she could confront issues of discrimination. Instead she did her best to influence the opinions of people she met by leaving them with a strong impression of her intelligence, artistry, and grace. But her extraordinary talent propelled her into situations that were not of her choosing. Singing spirituals was one way of identifying her commitment to  African American concerns while remaining within her role as a performer.

Anderson sang spirituals at home with her family growing up in Philadelphia. She developed her singing ability at the Union Baptist Church, where she became a member of the choir at the age of six. Her father died when she was twelve, leaving her family in financial difficulty. Members of the church raised money for Anderson to attend a high school where she could take voice lessons. She later was able to take voice lessons that would take here into the world of opera from Agnes Reifsnyder and Giuseppe Boghetti. In her autobiography, Marian Anderson, “My Lord what a Morning” (1956), she remembered that in her audition for Boghetti she sang “Deep River” (p. 50) and that as a student he worked with her on her interpretations of spirituals.

As an opera singer in demand for solo concerts as well as operas, Anderson regularly integrated traditional spirituals into her performances. She wished to draw greater awareness to the art and talent of African Americans. So in addition to classical opera, she sang African American spirituals  that were arranged for orchestra or for voice and piano by African American composers such as Harry T. Burleigh, Hall Johnson, Florence Price, and Lawrence Brown, among others. (The University of Pennsylvania Museum has an online exhibit that includes Examples of Spirituals from Marian Anderson’s Music Collection). The first songs she recorded in 1924 were not songs from operas, but these arranged spirituals. Here they are, available in the Library of Congress National Jukebox put online by the Recorded Sound Section [Note added 2019: you will need to use a browser that supports Flash and enable Flash.]

Spirituals have had a problematic history for African Americans. They had been the religious songs of slaves, with some used in forbidden “camp meetings” organized by slaves themselves away from the hearing of their owners. (These events were described, for example, by former slave Becky Elzy, and reported in this previous blog post about her songs). Spirituals were thus a means of expressing the pain of slavery, such as “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” They often provided a veiled expression of anger against slavery as, for example, “Go Down Moses,” which used the story of Moses to speak against slavery in biblical times. “Go Down Moses” also could be code for escape from slavery;  Harriet Tubman described using a version of the song to tell slaves in the fields that she was in the neighborhood and willing to guide escaped slaves north. (See pp. 37-38 of  Sarah H. Bradford. Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People, 1886.)

An African American woman sings into several microphones. A man playing the piano can be seen beside her.
Detail of Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939. Her accompanist, Kosti Vehanen, can be seen on the left. Gift of Harris & Ewing. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. //

After the slave era many African Americans understandably wanted to move past the reminders of slavery found in these songs. While some songs did make their way into African American church and African American choral group repertoires, others were no longer sung. In the early 20th century spirituals made a comeback as they were adapted by African American composers. So, as Marian Anderson was beginning her career, new versions of spirituals were becoming available, providing her with a body of songs that would identify her as an African American performer of sacred songs as well as opera. As her career progressed, she also worked with African American composers who were eager to create versions of spirituals for her to sing.

In the early 1930s Anderson toured Europe, singing in many venues, including command performances for royalty. As other African American artists of her era had found, Europe welcomed her. She enjoyed being able to live where there were no barriers dictating where she could stay, how she could travel and where she could perform. Along with her opera performances, she introduced European audiences to traditional spirituals arranged for orchestra. This brought something American to her performances and helped to set her apart from other singers.

She returned from Europe in 1935 and performed at New York’s Town Hall, then in 1936 she gave her first performance at the White House. It was after her White House performance that the idea of performing at Constitution Hall first arose among her sponsors at Howard University. She had performed at Howard several times, but the audience kept growing and it was clear she needed a larger venue. Finding such a venue in a segregated city was to prove more difficult than anyone expected.

When efforts to have the DAR Constitution Hall change or suspend their policy of only allowing whites to perform on their stage failed in 1939, the newspapers reported the story, causing  a public outcry. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt also made headlines by resigning her DAR membership in protest. Many other members followed. Mrs. Roosevelt worked to find a suitable venue for the concert. It proved impossible to find any venue in Washington where a large mixed audience would be accepted. The idea of an outdoor concert was put forward and the National Park Service agreed that any park in its jurisdiction could be used. So the Easter concert at the Lincoln Memorial was announced.

At this point it seemed everyone wanted to hear Marian Anderson. Fans of opera of all colors traveled to the event. Organizations from small community churches to the NAACP worked to bring African American fans to attend. The concert audience on the site was about 75,000The concert was also broadcast on radio to an audience of millions.

An African American woman sings into a microphone. A man playing a piano can be seen in the background.
Washington, D.C. Marian Anderson broadcasting a Negro spiritual at the dedication of a mural installed in the United States Department of the Interior building, commemorating the outdoor concert which she gave at the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of Revolution refused to allow her to sing in Constitution Hall (detail).  FSA/OWI Collection, 1943.  Prints and Photographs Division,  Library of Congress. //

Now Anderson found herself facing a national civil rights moment as well as the largest crowd she had ever performed for, and this overwhelmed her. Although she felt the support of the sponsors of the concert and her many fans, she said that as she stood up to sing her first song, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “…I felt for a moment as though I were choking. For a desperate second I felt as if the words as I know them would not come” (autobiography, p. 191).  But she did sing, following “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” with Gaetano Donizetti’s aria “O Mio Fernando,” and Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Now, following a short intermission, she needed something to answer this moment in the history of a nation deeply divided by prejudice. I think it must have been a great comfort that she had a repertoire of arranged spirituals that she had sung many times. These allowed her to meet the issue of civil rights in a way that was uplifting rather than confrontational. She sang “Gospel Train,” arranged by Henry T. Burleigh, “Trampin,” arranged by Edward Boatner, and “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” arranged by Florence Price. According to several news reports of the event, the audience asked for an encore, and so she sang a spiritual from one of her most popular recordings, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” arranged by Lawrence Brown. It might be said that Anderson was spared the difficulty of finding the right thing to say at this moment, because African Americans of long ago had found those words and put them into spirituals.

You can hear the NBC Radio broadcast of this event, the NBC Radio Broadcast of the Marian Anderson Concert at the Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939, made  available online by the National Archives (read a short article about this broadcast by Cary O’Dell, Library of Congress, PDF, 1 page). This broadcast does not include the last song or the encore, due to time constraints of the radio program. You will notice that she sings “Trampin” at the low end of her three-octave range. Anderson was sometimes said to be able to sing in two voices, and this is an example of that. This radio broadcast is now in the National Recording Registry (2008) and a short film of part of the event is in the National Film Registry (2001), designations that ensure their preservation.

I value my childhood memory of my cousins’ discussion and my mother’s explanation as this important event is passing out of living memory and into history. It helps to describe the confusing world Marian Anderson stepped into when she sought to perform to a large audience in Washington. My elder cousins had quit the DAR in protest in 1939, but the slow integration of American society and the Civil Rights Movement profoundly influenced my life, especially in the 1960s as the public schools I went to gradually and clumsily integrated. America’s version of apartheid made America crazy, but it made the Washington metropolitan area doubly crazy, as so many people from different parts of the world tried to co-exist in a segregated society. Even when segregation was no longer the law, many aspects of it continued in practice for a long time. Anderson, meanwhile, had a long career and toured the world, including spirituals in her concerts and her many recordings. She both delighted audiences who knew these songs and introduced them to people who had never heard them.


African American Spirituals,” part of The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.

Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection, includes field recordings of African American religious music. Spirituals may be heard in the recordings of a capella singing convention at Stranger Homer Baptist Church, part 1 and part 2 (Library of Congress).

“Dear Mr. President,” Granbury, Austin, and Hood County, Texas, January or February 1942. On side A (the first player) Miss Maude Gray, an African American from Austin, Texas, addresses President Franklin Roosevelt, telling him of problems encountered by African Americans enlisting in the military using examples of her brothers and friends. At the end, she says that he is sure he will help, because of the way Mrs. Roosevelt had come to the aid of Marian Anderson. This is an example of the way that Anderson came to represent hope for change. Part of After the Day of Infamy: “Man-on-the-Street” Interviews Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor (Library of Congress).

Marian Anderson Sings at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC, April 9, 1939. UCLA Film and Television Archive, Hearst Metrotone News Collection (uploaded to YouTube by UCLA). This short film includes the introductions and the first song, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

Now What a Time: Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festivals, 1938 to 1943 (Library of Congress). Field recordings from the Fort Valley African American folk music festivals and singers in other venues. The religious music includes spirituals, hymns, early Gospel, and sacred harp.

Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip. This collection includes field recordings of African American spirituals and religious songs as well as traditional African American secular songs. See especially Viola Brown, Phil ButlerJohn Lowry GoreeVera HallAnnie HolmesSylvester “Deacon” Johnson, Johnson Place Baptist Church CongregationThe Owens QuartetDock Reed, and Henry Truvillion. (Library of Congress).

Winick, Stephen, “Becky Elzy and Alberta Bradford: Spiritual Folklorists,Folklife Today,  February 18, 2018. Includes recordings of 10 spirituals sung by two remarkable women born in slavery.

Winick, Stephen, “Kumbaya: History of an Old Song,Folklife Today, February 6, 2018. This blog presents a unique cylinder recording of a very popular spiritual, and historical details on the song. Also find an American Folklife Center podcast on this topic at this link.

Winick, Stephen, “Soul Got a Hiding Place: Hidden Spirituals from the McIlhenny Manuscript.” Folklife Today, March 19, 2018. Transcriptions of 7 spirituals sung by former slaves Becky Elzy and Alberta Bradford.


  1. One of the most important aspects of any article is to cite sources and this gave me numerous rabbit holes to go down. I appreciate the research, context, and most especially the sound recordings.

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