On April 9, 1939, American contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993) stood as a beacon of hope for a country being torn apart by racial strife. Anderson’s legendary performance at the Lincoln Memorial on that Easter Sunday exists in the annals of American history as a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement. After being denied the right to perform at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s (D.A.R.) Constitution Hall in Washington, DC due to her skin color, Anderson received an advocate in First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The First Lady publicly submitted her resignation from the D.A.R. in protest of the treatment Anderson received and helped facilitate the performance at the Lincoln Memorial.
While this one symbolic performance was without question the most famous event in Anderson’s career, the global impact of her legacy is much more nuanced. She was a trailblazer for African-American performers of art music, as the first African-American woman to be invited to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1955). With her frequent tours of Europe, she broke down racial barriers and paved the way for future African-American female singers to enter the international music scene. She gained respect through her artistry and interpretations of the canonic lieder.
Anderson was determined to succeed as a singer from the time she was a child. There was no obstacle, racial or otherwise, that would prevent her from accomplishing her goals. She serves as a true role model to all citizens of the global community, not just musicians. Her career achieved such significance that she was named an honorary delegate to the United Nations (1958) and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy.
Anderson’s story is one of many included in the Library’s Songs of America project. This initiative seeks to examine American history through song. Anderson’s life as a musician touches upon countless important currents in twentieth century American society, from women’s suffrage and civil rights to trends relating to musicians in American cultural diplomacy. The Music Division’s Performing Arts Encyclopedia includes several recordings of Anderson’s, such as “Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen,” which she performed during the Lincoln Memorial concert.
Below is an interview I conducted with Allan Keiler, Professor of Music at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Keiler is the author of Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey (Scribner, 2000) and was featured in the recent documentary about the singer, Marian Anderson: A Song of Dignity & Grace (2010).
NAB: What compelled you to write Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey?
AK: It was my belief that the legend of Anderson and her place in our history, especially civil rights, had overshadowed her greatness as a singer, and I wanted to establish a better balance between these aspects of her life. Even people who claimed to know a good deal about her artistry, I found, were rather unaware of the breadth and versatility of her artistic endeavors. Part of this was due to the fact that she recorded only a very small part of her repertoire. But, it was more the legend of Anderson that remained in people’s minds. This is what I told [Anderson’s nephew] James DePriest (1936-2013) and it resonated with him as it did with Anderson herself, who also believed that the first thing people thought of was the Lincoln Memorial concert, not her Schubert or Debussy.
NAB:What type of awareness about Marian’s life and legacy do you hope to be achieved in contemporary society?
AK: I do think that you cannot separate Anderson on the world stage, her personal struggles and her artistic accomplishments. This global perspective is what I hoped to achieve in my book.
NAB: With the recent passing of Marian’s nephew James DePriest, who was the champion of her legacy, who bears responsibility for ensuring her name and impact remain relevant in current perspectives on American history and the Civil Rights movement?
AK: I don’t think there’s any one person. It should be the task of all of us who care about what her life signifies, both personally and artistically. There are many people and institutions devoted to her legacy that work to keep it alive: the University of Pennsylvania—where her papers reside, members of her family, authors like myself, [Raymond] Arsenault, for example, who has just written about the significance of the Lincoln Memorial concert, companies like VAI who continue to issue her recordings, and so on.
NAB: How can Marian serve as a role model to young singers today?
AK: Of course her struggles, her hard work, her triumphing against so many odds will always inspire people of any race or religion. Also important, especially to young singers, is the depth and understanding of her approach and interpretation of Lieder, phrasing, rhythm, diction and style. All of these should be studied in depth.
NAB: What advice would you pass on to future researchers who are interested in examining Marian’s contributions to music and global society?
AK: The same advice I would give to any researcher: don’t settle for easy answers, look at all the evidence and think about the kind of audience you want to write for. Even though this sounds presumptuous, people who want to work on the life and career of Marian Anderson cannot help but be doing it for the right reasons, I think.