Praise Song, Praise Singing!

Nancy Flynn Apostrophe Blog Archive, History Lessons, Political News

The Apostrophe Blog

Musings on Writing and Life.

Photo by Gordon Parks

It was lovely to hear Elizabeth Alexander read her poem, “Praise Song for the Day”, written for the occasion of Barack Obama’s inauguration. But somehow it fell flat for me; maybe it was because of where it came during the Inauguration Program.

Our 44th President’s artfully crafted and powerfully delivered speech would be a hard act for anyone to follow. (Well, maybe not the Queen of Soul, Aretha, belting out “America” in that amazing gray “fascinator” of a hat, but surely for the rest of us!)

For me, our new Writer-in-Chief’s speech was a showcase of crisp language, profound ideas brought to life by the use of assertive nouns—“the bitter swill of civil war” and “the lash of the whip”—and commanding verbs—“unclench your fist” and “stained with blood.” In a Los Angeles Times article about other writers’ reactions, Ron Carlson noted many instances of sophisticated syntax throughout the speech: “What courage to use a complex sentence talking to a million people! By expecting the best of us, he just might get it.” Littérateurs like Stanley Fish are already weighing in on its style, how the speech is likely one for the ages, one meant to be read over and over, and studied in years to come. George Packer, reflecting in a post on the New Yorker’s website, writes: “[Obama] delivered something better than rhetorical excitement—he spoke the truth, which makes its own history and carries its own poetry.”

Not so true for Alexander’s poem. Upon hearing it, I found myself once again asking what has become, for me, a perennial question when I read or hear so much of contemporary American poetry: Why is it again that that series of words, strung together, laid out in a shape and pattern on the page—some single lines, others in three-line stanzas and, when read, sounding a lot like prose—is actually a poem? (That’s the subject for another blog post another day.)

On The Guardian’s books blog, I found this tidbit of knowledge and critique from Carol Rumens:

“The African praise song traditionally celebrates the life of an individual, giving their name, genealogy, totem animal, job, personal attributes, etc. in a rhythmical, incantatory, call-and-response style. To use this ancient form was an idea with exciting potential, but, as it turned out, the title of Elizabeth Alexander’s inauguration poem was more inspired than the poem itself.”

Praise Song for the Day.

Alexander’s poem opened with those words as its title and then repeated variations of them several times throughout the poem itself, closing with their echo in its final line. She spoke of noise, of tongues, of plainspeak, that we should “sing the names of the dead who brought us here.” This was my favorite stanza—

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,

with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

For my money, the musical soundtrack of Inauguration Day—from Aretha’s soulful freedom aria to Beyoncé’s heartfelt rendering of the Etta James classic, “At Last”—was where the real poetry was. And what could be more fitting than music in all its diversity and glory—gospel and jazz, soul and R&B, rock ’n roll and folk, hip-hop and rap—to serve as the centerpiece of celebration, the true spirit of song rising up in praise on such a long-hoped-for day?

I like what Jon Pareles, the chief music critic of the New York Times and former contributing editor to Rolling Stone Magazine, had to say in this music review in the Times:

“Music had long anticipated this moment. African-Americans repaid the historical injustice of slavery with generous and profound cultural gifts, making American music a free-for-all where fertile, powerful ideas—like swing, call-and-response, the modes and phrasing of the blues, the drive and dynamics of gospel and the immediacy of hip-hop—could triumph in the marketplace and on the dance floor. For performers of every background, American popular music (and much of the world’s popular music) is, unmistakably, African-American music. Americans have long accepted black musicians as stars; sooner or later, politics had to follow.”

With my husband away for work and my son heading back to Los Angeles after a holiday weekend visit, I decided to take myself out for a celebratory dinner this day after the Big Event. Firehouse [8] is a trattoria-style eatery in a restored fire station in the Woodlawn [9] neighborhood of Portland, not far from our house. I sat down, happy to be alone after the intensity of the past few days, happy to have someone else bringing me food and drink. The dulcet tone of Billie Holiday came over the restaurant sound system. Louis Armstrong followed and, later, Sarah Vaughan. That’s when I started to think about all this singing that has been in the air, all this praise through word and song. I thought about the free “We Are One” concert that took place at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, two days before the Inauguration, on the same steps where Marian Anderson sang nearly 70 years ago after she’d been refused the use of Constitution Hall by those, shall we say, less-than-enlightened Daughters of the American Revolution.

I came home and spun the iPod dial, queuing up more songs in praise of singing, in praise of how far we’ve, at long last, come. Voices mostly black, some white. Not that it matters, not that it ever mattered.

Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit.” Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ In the Wind.” Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come.” Bruce Springsteen, “We Shall Overcome.” Marian Anderson, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Duke Ellington. John Coltrane. Mahalia Jackson: I could have played DJ all night and never run out of songs.

There have been so many moments of “praise song” on display these past few days. We now have a President who writes his own electrifying oratorical poetry and prose. We also have a President who, according to Jon Pareles, “has a musical ace in the hole: his name.”

He continues: “The percussive ‘Barack’ followed by the three open-voweled syllables of ‘Obama’ give him the most singable name in presidential history, and from the National Mall to the inaugural balls, amateurs and stars alike kept finding new ways to chant, sing and shout it.”

So in this momentous week for us here in the United States and for so many throughout the world, we take Elizabeth Alexander’s words—whether they are poetry or not—to heart.

Praise song. Praise singing. And praise that most singable name, in gratitude and, of course, with hope. Now dare we say, amen? Amen!

Note: The photograph accompanying this post is of Marian Anderson singing at the dedication of a mural installed in the United States Department of the Interior building, commemorating her Lincoln Memorial concert. It was taken in January 1943 by Gordon Parks, then working as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, a program of the New Deal. In 1971, Parks was the director of the seminal film, Shaft. Parks died at the age of 93 in 2006.

Nancy Flynn
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