It’s no secret that the practices of African-American musicians living in the South around the turn of the last century form the bedrock of American popular music. The styles they birthed—blues, gospel, jazz—donned various uniforms as they grew; over the airwaves, on vinyl, and in binary code, they mounted a campaign that conquered the known musical world. And yet Americans—in seeming direct proportion to their economic, political, and cultural power—have often been forgetful of the black geniuses who are our musical founding fathers and mothers. This music-historical amnesia is of a piece with our trouble recalling such plain facts of history as the causes and symbols of Confederate secession, or the “20 and odd” Africans shipped to Jamestown already in 1619, or even Juneteenth. The cause of our forgetting, of course, is the very same racism that forgetfulness enables.
Because remembrance invites reckoning, those who’ve been most enriched by our history tend to have the foggiest memories. The music industry doesn’t particularly like recalling how much more we owe Ma Rainey than she was ever paid, just as the rich and powerful who control our politics don’t care to be reminded that a reign of rape, torture, and plunder built our national fortune.
So it came as a shock—a welcome one—when the President of the United States sang the blues in Charleston this summer.
President Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney—the pastor and state senator murdered, along with eight others, by a white supremacist in June—played out on two stages at once, one inside the black church and the other in the national political arena. The situation was familiar for this president, who has often been called on to speak for both black Americans and all Americans simultaneously (a requirement never imposed on white politicians). So when his speech culminated in a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace,” it had at least two meanings, both tied to the history and sound of African-American music.
For the faithful gathered in Charleston, and those watching across the nation who belong to similar congregations, Obama’s “Amazing Grace” must have been deeply familiar. Special, no doubt, because it was sung by the Commander-in-Chief, yet nonetheless heard as participating in a long tradition. Ordained by the likes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson, and perfected by Aretha Franklin, “Amazing Grace” has been a vehicle for profound expression of African-American musicianship. It long ago transcended its melodic roots in the British Isles and its lyrics’ dubious origins in the life of a one-time slave trader to become a widely shared anthem. But gospel musicians especially have made it their own.
The president’s singing joined him to these forebears. We heard it most clearly in the way he decorated the old hymn’s melody. His melismas (multiple pitches sung to one syllable of text) were his own, yet still alighted on the standard pitches of the tune often enough to keep it recognizable. This kind of tradition-conscious improvisation is, of course, its own tradition in African-American music. Likewise, the joining in of the congregation just as soon as the strain was recognized also served as a form of social and historical continuity. The Charleston faithful wrapped themselves around the president’s melody in an act of community and mutual spiritual encouragement as old as gospel music itself, the reciprocal dance of individual inspiration and group affirmation as essential as any syncopation or chord progression. In this way, the president received as much encouragement as he gave, locked in a mutual embrace with the black church both past and present.
Played on the national stage, however, the meaning of Obama’s “Amazing Grace” took on a different cast: not an embrace, but a rebuke to our forgetfulness. We in the wider (whiter) audience surely found the sound itself of Obama’s interpretation as familiar as the congregants in Charleston did—after all, it spoke a musical language now used worldwide. But the circumstances made it hard for Americans to ignore the brutal history that formed that sound and that continues to infuse it with meaning. The sound of the first black president singing the music of the black church in remembrance of a slain black leader draws a sharp connection between racist violence and African-American music. It intones the truth that the blues exists because a people were kidnapped and enslaved.
Which isn’t to say that the blues hasn’t been a locus of black pride. It has, as well this exquisitely expressive music should be. On this score, Obama’s “Amazing Grace” was legible to all. His performance drew from the deep well of blues rhetoric in every phrase: the President’s blues refused to be fettered by arbitrary European regularities of pitch or rhythm. Like Robert Johnson or Blind Lemon Jefferson, he stretched and contracted both the beat and the bar, exercising this rhythmic autonomy to signify the nuance of his feeling. He colored the major pentatonicism of the old hymn tune with a third that ranged freely between G-natural and G-flat, one of the “blue” notes of so much mystification and fetishism. We heard the heavy swing of his upbeat, the bends, the husky vibrato, the shake on “lost.” We heard the President of the United States sing in E-flat, the key in which the blues touches each black note of the piano, the key beloved of Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix, the key of black excellence.
When the mourners in Charleston heard it, they were moved to join in singing. Whether or not the rest of America did so too, President Obama’s “Amazing Grace” won’t let us forget where this kind of singing comes from, and what it cost.
* Transcription of President Obama’s singing of “Amazing Grace,” by Brian Barone
BRIAN BARONE is a guitarist, keyboardist, and music director. He studies musicology at Boston University. You can find him on Twitter @BrianRBarone.