How One Jazz Singer Imagines Her 'Beautiful Country'

René Marie. i i

hide captionRené Marie.

MaryLynn Gillaspie/Motema Music
René Marie.

René Marie.

MaryLynn Gillaspie/Motema Music

This woman with the striking haircut is René Marie. Here is a recording of her singing "Lift Ev'ry Voice And Sing," the so-called "black national anthem," to the melody of "The Star-Spangled Banner," the official United States national anthem.

It's from Marie's new recording called Voice of My Beautiful Country.1 The album features her revisions, from moderate to radical, of traditional American songs, plus a few standards and assorted other bits and pieces. It comes out next week, on Tuesday, March 8.

If you're hearing this for the first time, I'd like to know what you think before you read any further. The comments, as almost always, are open. I make this request because there's a backstory to this recording, which others of you surely know.

In 2008, Marie was invited to perform the national anthem at a Denver, Colo. civic event. She sang something like what you can hear above: the lyrics to "Lift Ev'ry Voice" over the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner." There's video online of this. Predictably, there was some hubbub about this afterward.

As for her rationale, she explained it to NPR at least twice. Once, she talked to reporter Lara Pellegrinelli, who broke down the ensuing controversy in an All Things Considered story. She also talked to Michel Martin of Tell Me More not long after the event itself. An excerpt:

No, I'm not sorry for singing those songs at that event. I am sorry that it caused so much trouble for the mayor and that he and his staff, they got a lot of hate mail, etc. I wasn't the only recipient of hate mail, make that clear. But I'm not sorry for it because I felt like I did what I had to do as an artist. You know, some people say, well, you know, you should leave your art at home when you're asked to sing a particular song, but I don't know how to leave my art at home because my art is within me. So I can't do that. But if I had to relive it all over again knowing how things turned out, I would do it again, Michel.

René Marie's website also has a statement about this event which is worth reading, if you're so curious.

I don't mean to dwell on this too long, though. The piece has a somewhat different resonance when she's issuing this on her own album, no? As she writes in the liner notes, Voice of My Beautiful Country is her "love song to America." It's about "how I feel about being born and raised in this country as a female whose American ancestors were enslaved." But it's also trying to "express the full spectrum of emotions I most strongly identify with when I consider the history of my country — joy, pain, love, frustration, pride, sentiment, unity and hope." I can't illustrate with any more music clips, but one doesn't sing the folk song "O Shenandoah" with as much balladic grace as Marie does on the album without striving for beauty.

When you consider that frame of mind, and the music around it, one is much less inclined to view Marie's music as agitprop from an Angry Black Woman and more apt to see the Creative Artist Who Happens To Be A Black Woman. With that in mind, I went into NPR's archives and unearthed previous coverage of René Marie, before the national anthem controversy and its fallout. Turns out there was a fair bit.

In 2003, she spoke on The Tavis Smiley Show, now discontinued (at least on NPR). That interview primarily covers her fascinating life story — she only started performing in public in her 40s, and that's not even the half of it.

The year before, producer David Schulman followed Marie around as she rehearsed a new original tune called "You Can't See Me," and executed it live on stage for the first time a week later. It's a fascinating look at how jazz musicians introduce, spontaneously tweak, and learn to inhabit their material — how they often make the road by walking. Here's the entire story:2

Listen Now: From All Things Considered, May 5, 2002.

This new album, Voice of My Beautiful Country, doesn't have any original tunes. But you can tell she created all the settings to the pieces with care, whether sourcing from Dave Brubeck, or Jefferson Airplane, or "America The Beautiful." Having a rich imagination, while not as tangible as technique, is just as (or more) important to jazz singing. And after all of the foregoing, it doesn't seem a stretch to say that René Marie has a lot of that.


1. It's a different version from the recording which Marie released for free on her website, also worth investigating.

2. This story originally ran on the May 5, 2002 edition of Weekend All Things Considered in two distinct parts, separated by several news reports. There was also an online component to this story, conceived as a web series called In Rehearsal, where you could follow the creative process of rehearsing and executing a song in greater detail. As you see, it was built on with some now obsolete technologies, and has fallen a bit into disuse. But it exists.

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