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Music, Race and Society
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Raymond Arsenault
The Sound of Freedom (NY:  Bloomsbury Press, 2009.  292p.)

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I received this volume as a Publisher's Advance Reading Copy through Amazon.com on 25 April 2009.  Always voracious for more insights into the history and social dynamics of race in the United States, I read the book within the next few days.

This work is constructed in a narrative format, well-documented as a historical documentary built around the life of the great opera singer Marian Anderson.  Arsenault skillfully portrays the personal perspective of Anderson, and takes us into the parallel world of the powers that be, and the additional powerful stream of the adoring fans who loved Anderson and her art without regard to considerations of her race or social origins. Particularly encouraging is the story of her enthusiastic acceptance in Europe before her later acceptance into the circle of operatic power in her native United States.

I was only vaguely familiar with Marian Anderson, and had not realized it was she who first broke the great black-white social divide in the US.  Years before Jackie Robinson became renowned by his successful penetration of the ban against black participation in major league baseball, Anderson broke the barriers in the upper echelons of society to become a world-renowned figure in art music.

Anderson was thus the unwitting and unpretentious forerunner of the great American awakening to the problems of civil rights in the legal and social walls limiting people of African origin from full participation in the life of American society.  Anderson gradually gained a presence in even private segregated musical venues and aristocratic social circles such as the Daughters of the American Revolution's Constitution Hall.  It appears that the growing awareness of international attitudes seems to be one of the factors to which the elite powers of DAR bowed to modify their previously recalcitrant racist attitudes.

She never pushed herself forward, but those supporters and fans who followed her career worked to gain her the visibility and exposure her craft and skill deserved. Marian Anderson was just a little girl who loved to sing.  Her focus centered in the musical family situations of their impoverished existence.  She looked for opportunities to sing and enjoyed making others happy by her music.  Her humility and the beauty of her performances won hearts and changed societies.

Arsenault writes a biography here, yet his engaging style draws the reader into the cultural maelstrom of early 20th century America.  In my own reading list, rather than History, I have classified Arsenault's biography of Anderson under Culture and Trends.  Here is a well-detailed yet free-flowing social biography of not just one artist but of a society and its steps toward maturity through the performances and acceptance of Marian Anderson.

Read this book.  It will inform you, enthrall you, perhaps anger or upset you.  It will put into perspective many ideas and stereotypes and makes you aware of the realities behind some of our social myths.  It is a rewarding volume, well worth the time you will give this story.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[review] The Blues Backstory
[review] Bono Live on Music and Life
[review] Searching for Identity
[Review] Texas Roots in American Music

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OBJ

Written and posted on Amazon and Thoughts and Resources 20 October 2009
Last edited 19 July 2011

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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