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Thursday, August 31, 2023

August 31, 2023: Contextualizing the March on Washington: Marian, Mahalia, and Odetta

[August 28th marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the single most important events in 20th century American history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for and from that event—not including Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speech, about which I’ve written a good bit already!]

On the 1963 musical performers who dominated headlines, and those we should better remember.

In yesterday’s post I highlighted the interracial makeup of the 1963 March’s leadership, and the same was certainly true of its featured musical performers. Joan Baez sang “We Shall Overcome” and “Oh Freedom”; Bob Dylan joined her for “When the Ship Comes In” and then performed his own “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (a controversial choice for this occasion since the song minimizes the culpability of Medgar Evers’ then-unpunished murderer Byron De La Beckwith); and Peter, Paul, and Mary performed “If I Had a Hammer” as well as Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Folk music was a core element of the Civil Rights Movement as it was every part of American culture and society in the early 1960s; but at the same time I have to agree with actor and radical activist Dick Gregory’s critique of the 1963 musical performances as dominated a bit more than would have been ideal by these popular white artists (perhaps especially since many of their chosen numbers at the March were African American spirituals or folk songs).

They weren’t the only 1963 performers, however, and it’s important not to deepen the problem by focusing on them at the expense of the march’s impressive and inspiring Black artists. One of the most impressive, pioneering and prodigiously talented opera singer Marian Anderson, was actually performing at the Lincoln Memorial for the second time. In 1939, Anderson had the chance to perform in DC’s Constitution Hall but the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to grant permission for her to do so in front of an integrated audience; instead she performed an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 2nd, in front of an audience of 75,000. I don’t know of any 20th century moment that better captures both the worst and best of America than that one, and better remembering Anderson’s 1963 performance (she sang “He’s Got the Whole in His Hands”) can help us likewise better remember 1939.

Another 1963 performer, Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, was also making a return to this setting, as she had performed at the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom about which I wrote on Tuesday. Her performance of two hymns, “I’ve Been ‘Buked” and “How I Got Over,” was as stirring as every time Jackson took any stage. But perhaps the least well-known of the 1963 March’s three Black women musical artists is the most significant for contextualizing the event’s musical performances overall. Folk legend Odetta Holmes (who performed simply as Odetta) was called by none other than MLK “the Queen of American Folk Music,” and was a vital influence on contemporary artists like Baez and Dylan among others. I don’t mean to take anything away from the talents nor the impacts of white artists like them when I say that the respective lack of attention paid to Odetta, then and since, is due entirely to racism and white supremacy. In a way, the responses to the 1963 March—where the white artists performed a number of Black spirituals and folk songs, no less—frustratingly replicated that trend. But we don’t have to do the same, so I’ll end this post by linking to Odetta’s stirring performance from the 1963 March on Washington.

Last March context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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