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'Voice Of Freedom' Shows How Marian Anderson Confronted Racism Though Song

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. Our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, has a review of a new film on the PBS series "American Experience" about the legendary contralto Marian Anderson. Lloyd says the film explores both Anderson's extraordinary artistry and the important place she holds in the civil rights movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ST. MATTHEW'S PASSION, BWV 244: ERBARME DICH")

MARIAN ANDERSON: (Singing in German).

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: What I heard today, the great conductor Arturo Toscanini said the first time he heard American contralto Marian Anderson, one is privileged to hear once in a hundred years. And so Anderson came to be called the voice of the century. It's not an overstatement. Just hearing that rich, three-dimensional sound, both high and deep, is profoundly moving. But whether in Bach or Schubert, opera or spirituals, that voice also communicated the most heartbreaking and heart-easing feelings. Her exceptional qualities were more widely recognized in Europe, where, for the most part, her race was not a barrier. In the United States, she had to wait until she was nearly 58 years old before she finally sang her first opera. It was a landmark debut. Her role was the chilling fortune teller in Verdi's "A Masked Ball," a part previously sung only by white singers in dark makeup.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RE DELL'ABISSO AFFRETTATI")

ANDERSON: (Singing in Italian).

SCHWARTZ: It's Anderson's story more than her music making and how that story was inextricably bound up with American racism that's the subject of a powerful and timely new documentary called "Marian Anderson: The Voice Of Freedom," made for the PBS series "American Experience." Narrated by Tony Award-winning actress Renee Elise Goldsberry from the original cast of "Hamilton" with helpful commentary by a group of musicologists and historians, all women, it tells the unlikely story of how a girl born to a working-class African American family in Philadelphia became one of our supreme artists. As a child singing in church, she was called the baby contralto. When she was 12, her father died after an accident at work. And she had to drop out of school to take care of her two younger sisters while her mother took multiple jobs. At the age of 17, she was encouraged by her mentor, the renowned Black tenor Roland Hayes, who heard her in church, to apply to the Philadelphia Musical Academy, but they refused to accept students of color. "The Voice Of Freedom" shows us that even Anderson's phenomenal international success couldn't override American racism and how she became a crucial, if initially reluctant, icon in the civil rights movement.

The central story of the documentary is the defining moment of Anderson's career. In 1939, after her triumph in Europe, Howard University invited her to give a concert in Washington, D.C., but the only venue for a major concert, Constitution Hall, was owned by an organization called the Daughters of the American Revolution. And like most of Washington, the DAR had a strict policy of segregation. Their refusal to make an exception for Anderson so outraged First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt that she very publicly resigned her membership in the DAR. When Roosevelt wrote about it in her newspaper column, it became a national scandal.

Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, suggested a new plan, which immediately got the blessings of the Roosevelts and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes - a free public concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. For Anderson's concert on that Easter Sunday of 1939, a fully integrated crowd of more than 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial broke the attendance record, previously set by a Ku Klux Klan rally. And millions of listeners tuned in to NBC's national broadcast. Ickes himself introduced Anderson. Genius, he announced, has no color line.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDERSON: (Singing) Land where my fathers died, land of the pigrims' pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.

(APPLAUSE)

SCHWARTZ: Marian Anderson had never intended to be a political figure. Despite the direct effect segregation had on her life and career, she continued to appear, like most Black performers, in segregated venues. What was regarded as her passivity alienated the younger generation of civil rights leaders. One of her concerts was actually boycotted by the NAACP. From then on, she sang only for integrated audiences and became a vigorous public spokesperson for civil rights. Listen to the humanity of her singing, and you know this had to be the inevitable outcome. It's not a coincidence that Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech at the exact same location as Anderson's historic Washington concert.

DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz is the Frederick S. Troy professor of English emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and the poet laureate of Somerville, Mass. He reviewed "Marian Anderson: The Voice Of Freedom," now streaming on pbs.org/americanexperience and other platforms.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAMPIN'")

ANDERSON: (Singing) I've never been to heaven, but I've been told, tryin' to make heaven my home, that the streets up there are paved with gold, tryin' to make heaven my home.

I'm trampin', trampin', tryin' to make heaven my home.

DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, correcting the record on Lady Bird Johnson. We'll speak with writer Julia Sweig. She says the first lady, regarded as the genteel advocate of highway beautification, was really far more - a savvy political adviser to President Lyndon Johnson and an advocate of ambitious programs to protect the environment and fight urban blight. We'll listen to excerpts of Lady Bird's audio diaries and discuss Sweig's new book, "In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.