A quarter century ago Newt Gingrich, elevated to Speaker of the House by the 1994 midterm Republican landslide that followed on Bill Clinton’s first two years in the White House, loved to squawk about defunding PBS, held by his ilk to be a bastion of biased reporting and liberal cultural warfare funded by the US taxpayer. Ever since, self-styled conservatives can’t resist baying at public broadcasting’s assault on American values.
And so it was with the 41st installation of A Capitol Fourth, the musical revue on PBS that celebrates Independence Day. An annual program born a decade after PBS got going in 1970, this monocultural-marketed-as-multicultural extravaganza runs to an hour-and-a-half of tough summer sledding. Even before it aired this year, right-wingers lifted their discordant voices on Twitter.
The offending number was “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sugn by host Vanessa Williams. Penned by the activist, poet, and lawyer, James Weldon Johnson in 1900, the hymn gives voice to the struggle of Black Americans without naming them explicitly, though racial violence is not shied away from, as at the close of the second stanza:
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
‘Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
But in the end the American unity is affirmed:
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.
Five years after the lines were penned, the poet’s brother, J. Rosamund Johnson set the poem to music. The resulting anthem was first performed in 1905 by a chorus of 500 school children in Jacksonville, Florida to mark Lincoln ‘s birthday fifty years after his assassination. In 1919, with virulently racist Woodrow Wilson still in the White House, the NAACP, where James Weldon Johnson was then working, claimed the hymn as the “Negro National Anthem.” Lift Every Voice went on to serve as a stalwart refrain during the Civil Rights Movement.
Though it shares some harmonic moves with the Gospel tradition, Lift Every Voice in its original form is a rather conventional Victorian hymn, even if myriad reworkings and elaborations have strayed from the rousing romanticism of the 1905 published version.
In spite of the Weldon hymn’s unwavering commitment to Christian America, its inclusion in this year’s A Capitol Fourth was promptly decried as divisive and unpatriotic, even though PBS kept the piece safely segregated by a good hour from the Star-Spangled Banner, done in a warbling, if respectable soft focus by opera queen Renée Fleming along with a detachment of Marine Corps choristers.
Even before the broadcast, Lavern Spicer, a Black Republican candidate in Florida’s 24th district in Miami, fired off a disgusting tweet.
“Vanessa honey, a BLACK national anthem is something a Black African Country would have, not a country like America that exists for everyone.”
Never mind racist Francis Scott Key’s doggerel was chosen by Congress and signed into law by Herbert Hoover as the official national anthem only in 1931—a dozen years after the affirmation of Lift Every Voice by the NAACP. Hoover had already had the Hampton and Tuskegee choirs sing at the White House, something unimaginable under Wilson. The Negro National Anthem could well have been performed at the White House with Hoover not only nodding in approval but singing along.
Spicer’s incendiary language reminded me of the racist ravings of deranged, pillowcase-thieving (to be used as Ku Klux Klan hoods) African-American character in Samuel Fuller’s hair-raising critique of American society, Shock Corridor.
Following Spicer’s lead, other “commentators”—tone-deaf and claiming to be color blind—joined the anti-chorus.
Rather than bombs bursting in air, these tweets amounted to so many damp squibs.
Williams had begun the telecast with a lounge-lizard version of God Bless America backed by the six Black singers who would join her more than an hour later for their resolute rendition of Lift Every Voice.
During the Irving Berlin patriotic classic Capitol Fourth producers did offer oblique commentary on the racial dynamics of that America, as when the tawny façade of the National Museum of African American History and Culture momentarily filled the screen with the white obelisk erected in honor of the first President rising behind it. But Williams and her unerring sextet were nothing if not respectful. In her remarks, Williams lauded the American “experiment” and its inexorable push from imperfect beginnings towards ever greater perfection; Lift Every Voice was a “wonderful” way to commemorate Juneteenth, now a federal holiday.
If Spicer had bothered to watch, as your Musical Patriot has done at the urging of a vigilant CounterPuncher, she and her ilk would have seen that A Capitol Fourth was about as unifying a musical concoction as could have been brewed by any alchemist of propaganda. One would have no idea that the Capitol Steps seen behind Pershing’s Own Military Band as it let loose fusillades of Souza under the rocket’s red glare of fireworks had been the site of lumpenproletarian revolution six months prior.
The crowds that swarmed the Mall were shown by PBS to be heterosexual, family-oriented, non-insurrectionary, and well-fed.
The performers were of every stripe and tempo: pop and patriotism, brass bands and the blues, San Francisco metrosexuals and cowboy-hatted heartlanders, a Black country newcomer of the year. Flags were waved in their thousands. America lifted every voice and was sure its jubilant citizens would ensure that the Greatest Country on Earth endured another millennium.
As for, Lift Every Voice, it was obediently tucked into the firework display at the close of the proceedings. As Williams and her sextet sang of struggle, Key’s bombs burst in air over the monuments of slaveholding presidents. The message was one of triumph not tragedy, unity not revolt.
As usual, the right-winger fulminators missed the real offenses to be taken. Cynthia Erivo’s tribute to Aretha Franklin, Freeway of Love—an unbridled automative joy ride of sex—went bumper-to-bumper with Country “legend” (so many legends in America) Alan Jackson’s wholesome tribute to his daddy teaching him to drive in an “old half-ton short-bed Ford pick-up.”
“Ain’t we ridin’ on the freeway of love? In my pink Cadillac?” ain’t fit to be heard by all these patriotic wee’uns, Lavern honey!
And worst of all, the fireworks display was done to a Russian Patriotic number: Tchaikovky’s 1812 Overture! And no, that piece is not about America’s War of 1812. Forget Russian influence in the election, what about invading our most sacred National Rites? As the bombs burst over the Capitol and American symphony orchestra was bolstered by military brass and choir. Even in their dress uniforms, these singers were deployed to belt out the melody in indecipherable words (could they have been singing in Russian?) of the “God Save the Tsar”— i.e., Putin.
Where were the calls for a Select Committee on Musical Meddling to be led by that celebrated basso profundo, Robert Mueller, surely keen to be persuaded to take the stage for one final operatic epic?
Instead we’re left with a chorus of Smurfs.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)