Marian Anderson: Spirituals

Marian Anderson was the first African American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera. Born in Philadelphia in 1897, she started singing with a church choir when she was just 6 years old.

Marian faced rejection throughout her life and career, simply because of the colour of her skin. The most famous example of this discrimination was in 1939 when she was barred from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). DAR had the practice of the time of banning African American performers from the venue. Eleanor Roosevelt championed Anderson by resigning from DAR in protest, and organizing a performance for her before an audience of approximately 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939.

Marian retired in 1965, after a celebrated career that broke many of the barriers that previously existed for African-American performers in the U.S. She died in 1993 at the age of 96.

Historical relevance aside, Marian Anderson had a truly exceptional voice. Whether singing classical music or traditional hymns (such as featured on her excellent album Spirituals), her voice had a soaring, operatic quality that transformed even the most simple of songs into a haunting aria. “City Called Heaven”, for example, could rival Maria Callas’ “La Momma Morta” in its chills production.

It’s interesting to compare Marian’s recording of “Trampin'” to the version on Patti Smith’s album Trampin’. Though Anderson’s version is definitely truer to the mournful sorrow of the original spiritual, Smith’s gravely voice adds a weary tone of age and experience to it. Such as Johnny Cash’s voice did when he covered Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt. And to me, that’s a very good thing.