My country ’tis of thee

At Barak Obama’s second inauguration yesterday, American Idol star Kelly Clarkson added a poignant chapter to the storied annals of America’s least offensive patriotic anthem, My Country ‘Tis of Thee.

Seventy-four years ago, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let Marian Anderson perform at the association’s Constitution Hall in Washington because the celebrated contralto was African-American. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership in protest, and weeks of controversy ensued. On April 9, 1939, 75,000 people turned out to hear Anderson sing at an outdoor Easter Sunday recital on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Interior Secretary Harold Ickes introduced Anderson’s stirring rendition of My Country ‘Tis of Thee:

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Martin Luthor King didn’t sing My Country ‘Tis of Thee at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, but the famous speech he delivered from the place Anderson had sung 23 years earlier included a powerful allusion to the anthem’s lyrics:

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A few days after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre, Joe M. Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, called Dave Berg, a producer with NBC Television. President Bush wanted Jay Leno to help the country get back to normal by putting “The Tonight Show” on the air. The program resumed on September 18, a week after the attacks, with no monologue, and a guest appearance by Republican Sen. John McCain. Crosby, Stills, and Nash ended the show with an unusual version of My Country ‘Tis of Thee, accompanied by the haunting guitar work of Michael Hedges.

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The great Aretha Franklin sang My Country ‘Tis of Thee at Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 (but her hat may be the element that sticks in people’s memories).

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Clarkson had some daunting history to live up to when the stepped to the microphone yesterday. I think she performed beautifully. (Apologies for the Wall Street Journal’s triumphalist intro, but the camera work on this clip is better than the alternatives so far posted on YouTube.)

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(Note: I have included video links her because embedded YouTube videos don’t show up in certain email programs. Email subscribers can usually see them in their browsers by clicking on the title of the post.)

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