How Can You Keep From Singing?

Jazz singer and fierce, self-made woman René Marie was featured on NPR’s homepage today, along with a clip from her controversial rendering of the “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as sung to the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner” from her folk/jazz/blues/gospel/freedom suite “Voice of My Beautiful Country.”

Read the full story here.

I’m glad the conversation is still open about this. Incidentally, Liz and I went by personal invitation to see Ms. Marie perform this piece when her ensemble debuted it in Denver back in 2008. By the end of the piece, Liz was in tears and Ms. Marie’s audience was on its feet. They had all been “taken to church” in a way I rarely experience in the best of Jazz clubs these days.

Incidentally, Ms. Marie had also asked me to attend the fated event that led to this amazing controversy. I didn’t get to go due to a debilitating spider bite of all things. She had said she wanted me there “for support,” but to be quite honest, I really didn’t get what she meant.

Call me naïve, but I never could have imagined the rage and controversy that bringing these two beautiful, resonant and hopeful songs together would stimulate. I guess growing up Black American, I had never had the disadvantage of learning to fear this song known as the “Black National Anthem.” Furthermore, I never imagined that any song, much less one so fundamentally peaceful and humanist in nature, could inspire such vitriol, regardless of the context in which it was delivered.

I think it can sometimes be an act of compassion not to threaten the fearful at every turn, and because of that at times as musicians and artists, the many roles we play can show up as duplicitous. But as much as I appreciate the calming effect of pleasantries as it were, I fear for a culture whose art appreciators can no longer accommodate challenge. I mean, in what context can you reveal a song like “Dixie” as the strange-fruit-terror it is for some of us, if not in jazz?

The jazz language is plenty rich and nuanced enough to do the work of revelation and reconciliation in a context where angst and anger aren’t even relevant. It can point to fuller truths, dark and light, in ways that can do so much as to point to new possibilities for the evolution of the species, and yet its “appreciators” are driving a market where opportunities for these challenges and revelations are less and less likely to occur.

This being said, the seemingly conservative audience in Denver LOVED the challenges posed by Ms. Marie at those Dazzle performances in Denver – all of which were sold out, including a last minute added matinee. Perhaps it was because the artist had the opportunity to build a bridge for the listener – place her journey with each song in a broader context and help repel quick assumptions.

I just feel like there must have been a time when the artist was granted a little more autonomy – a little more authority – like a medicine man, poet or preacher… and that seat made the tough truths they delivered go down more like a much needed asofoetida tonic, never mind how unpleasant the taste. But nowadays it seems, and this is certainly not to discredit the very real virtues of the placebo affect, that otherwise fertile minds have become slaves to a market that in large part only distributes sugar pills.

I wish you all could have been there at those first Dazzle performances. At the show Liz & I attended, the audience applause was so enthusiastic, it could only be hushed by Ms. René’s humble encore: an a cappella rendering of “How Can I Keep From Singing.” Oh, you should’a seen me cryin’ like a baby during this one! I guess my tears could be a function of the fact that as an artist and a singer, I’ve been very much a “tree in the forest” for as long as I’ve been making music. I’m sure you can imagine that despite all the voices and the endless beauty present in any internal landscape, it can quite lonely out here in the forest, and I sometimes find it difficult to persist. But in the two and a half minutes it took for Ms. René to sing this ageless tune, I was reminded of just how penetrating our simple, quiet honesty can be. How could I keep from singing?

From what I know of her, René Marie is an artist who does her best to remain true to the still small voice of her inner experience, and for that reason alone, I hope you all go out and get her new recording, “My Beautiful Country.”

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  1. Sofia Echegaray - March 5, 2011 at 2:34 am Reply

    So great! I’m glad you’re writing here again! Lovely!

    Oh man, I remember that asofoetida poem. Miss Moss was kinda scary when she got deep into the spirit.

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