At Barack Obama’s inauguration Tuesday, Aretha Franklin delivered a performance that was pitch-perfect on many levels.
Franklin’s choice of patriotic song, “My Country, 'Tis of Thee,” resonated deeply. As an African-American woman, she brought a certain downbeat irony (yet triumph) to the phrase “sweet land of liberty” -- a note of suffering to attend the fierce demand for “Freedom!” that she sang in “Think” back in 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr., whose national holiday we celebrated Monday, was assassinated. When she came to the phrase “Land where my fathers died,” she changed it to “father,” in memory of the minister who launched her career and who never recovered from a gunshot inflicted during a 1979 Detroit burglary. Thanking God in the last verse -- “to thee we sing” -- she had to be thinking of more than one “we.”
With gospel piano behind her, Franklin boldly but gently seized the rhythm, rocking it forward and backward, mastering time in a display of the magic upon which great jazz artists (of which she is one) have always called to sever external bonds. Her unfettered melismas, too, stretched the melody without breaking it, flying free not with willfulness or solely with exuberance, but with dignity. At the end, when she sang “Let it ring! Let it ring!” over and over, tears were gushing from my eyes. My daughter, who watched the inauguration at school, said the same thing happened to her. And to how many millions more? Many people tell us to guard our freedom as they try to take it away; Franklin made us live it.
Franklin’s spiky hat, with its subtle allusion to the Statue of Liberty’s headdress, was an inspired accouterment. She rocked the nation while simultaneously managing to shush some loudmouth. (Video here.) And Franklin has been known to show a dry sense of humor: Let’s not forget that the lyrics of “My Country 'Tis of Thee” are set to the melody of a certain English standard, “God Save the Queen.”
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