Song of the Week: “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing/The Star-Spangled Banner” by René Marie

by Douglas Cowie on 13 December 2013

Each Friday I pick a song–new, old, borrowed, blue–that’s been on my mind and in my ears, and write a short post about it.

This is “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing/The Star-Spangled Banner” by René Marie:

René Marie — “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing/The Star-Spangled Banner”

I discovered René Marie while listening to “The Slim and Him Show” on WRCU-FM Monday night. The show is hosted by friends of mine who know a hell of a lot about jazz, so I’m always learning new things and hearing artists I don’t know anything about. They played three songs by René Marie Monday, and I was hooked by the first, glad to hear a second, and had bought one of her albums, Voice of My Beautiful Country, before they’d gotten around to playing the third. Sometimes you hear a musician and straight away recognize that this is an artist with whom you want to share some space.

René Marie sang this version of the American national anthem at the Mayor of Denver’s State of the City address back in 2008. You can read a good account of the event, and the ginned-up controversy that followed, in this article on the Jazz Times website. You’ll notice the audience applauds.  A few people might look bemused, but nobody seems outraged. Anyway, I don’t want to dwell on that side of things.

This performance is an extraordinary piece of art. The arrangement that René Marie has created, fitting the words of  James Weldon Johnson’s poem to the tune of the national anthem, is in itself stirring. That tune has been sung in terrible arrangements by lousy singers millions of times in America, including at major, international events, like, say, the Super Bowl. Listen again to René Marie: she sings the tune beautifully, but relatively straightforwardly, though giving it a little bit of a gospel flavor. This allows the words to come to the fore, and that, of course, is the point here: when a pop star blows the notes or embellishes the tune at the Super Bowl, everybody complains about the disgrace; René Marie takes risks because she wants her audience to engage and think about what the American national anthem means, as a song, and as an event, and in singing it at an official governmental occasion, she’s adding another layer to that thinking and meaning process. Now here’s the thing: it works. The whole time I’m listening to this performance, I’m thinking, “Wait a minute! ‘Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, / Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;’ this says more about America, and says it positively, and with hope, than ‘the ramparts red glare.'” I would change the words to the national anthem right now if I had the power; Americans could sing more about themselves with this version day in day out at baseball games and graduations than they can with Francis Scott Key.

The thing is, this kind of intelligent arranging and singing seems, on what little listening I’ve done to René Marie’s music this week, to be a hallmark of her work. Voice of My Beautiful Country contains a thoughtful mix of American songs, traditional, jazz and popular.  Have a look at the track listing here. My main reason for buying this particular album was to hear her versions of “O Shenandoah” and “John Henry,” two songs that sit at the heart of my novel, Owen Noone and the Marauder, as well as my two novellas, Sing for Life: Tin Pan Alley and Sing for Life: Away, You Rolling River (like I said, sometimes you know this an artist with whom you want to share some space). “O Shenandoah” is a nine-minute powerhouse performance.  As is the right of every artist, particularly when it comes to folk song, René Marie rewrites the lyrics to suit her purposes, turning an old song new, but keeping faith with the original (though “original” in the context of folk song is often a dubious concept). Hers is a music that engages the thoughtful listener in so many ways that repeated listening isn’t so much desired or repaid, as it is simply necessary to begin to understand the power of the artist, and the art.


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