Celebrating Juneteenth And Black Music Month With Classical Classics

Jun 16, 2021

Updated June 16, 2021 at 12:06 PM ET

We last spoke to pianist and Amplify co-host Lara Downes in March, when she announced her Rising Sun Music project, through which she would release an EP every month for as long as she could keep it up. The goal: to resurface and revivify classical works by Black artists.

"It gets very frustrating," Downes explains of her motivations for the project, "to always be looking up at a lineage that doesn't reflect you. So as a person of mixed race, it became very personal at first. And then, it became a story that I really wanted to tell, because it's a story that changes another story: it changes the story of what is classical music, but also the story of what is American history."


"Lift Every Voice and Sing"


Lara Downes
: The first piece is a song that's become known as the "Black National Anthem" ... a hymn that began as a poem by the writer and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson in 1900. His brother, John Rosamund Johnson, set it to music for the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birthday in 1905. It's become a staple at Juneteenth celebrations and other events and gatherings in Black life. There are tons of choral recordings of it, lots of jazz covers... but I wanted to find a classical arrangement.

I found exactly one – a really beautiful set of variations by a Black female composer named Lettie B. Alston, who lived from 1953 to 2014. Listen to where she takes this simple tune:

She's really examining all the different moods of this song – from a feeling of tender reverence to a playful kind of swing, which then leads to a very expansive resolution.


"A Change Is Gonna Come"


Lara Downes
: This is an arrangement of another song that I think a lot of people will know. First, the original...

YouTube

It's one of the most important songs of the Civil Rights Era. Cooke wrote it after he and his entourage were turned away from a whites-only hotel in Louisiana. So, it was an expression of something deeply personal for him, but at the same time it sums up so much about the collective Black experience in America. So I asked my friend, the arranger Jeremy Siskind, to put together a solo piano version for me:


Rachel Martin, Morning Edition: What made this song a good fit for this project?

Lara Downes: I'm trying to be very intentional about bringing together various traditions of music from the Black experience, to show that it's all connected. This is a tree with many branches.

Would you mind sharing a little about what this song means to you personally?

My parents were Civil Rights activists, so I grew up hearing this song. But I think it really connected with my own experience when Barack Obama quoted from it in his acceptance speech in 2008, when he became our first Black president. That was such a formative moment for me – what he was saying then was that change is up to us. It's a long time coming, but we can make change. And I think we're living that truth now in such a big way.

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's Black Music Appreciation Month, and we're going to mark it now with a couple of new recordings. Here's our colleague, Rachel Martin.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Our guide is Lara Downes. She's the host of NPR Music's web series Amplify with Lara Downes, and she is also a concert pianist on a musical mission. She's putting out a mini album every single month on her label, Rising Sun Music. She's going to do it for as long as she can keep it up, and the goal is to shine a light on the work of Black artists in classical music. We last talked to her in March.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LARA DOWNES, BYLINE: It gets very frustrating to always be looking up at sort of a lineage that doesn't reflect you. So as a person of mixed race, it was very personal, at first. And then it became a story that I really wanted to tell because it's a story that changes another story. You know, it changes the story of what is classical music, but it also changes the story of what is American history.

MARTIN: Lara Downes, welcome back to the program.

DOWNES: It's great to be back.

MARTIN: So last time you were on, we talked about women composers. What have you brought us for Black Music Month?

DOWNES: Well, the first piece is a song that's become known as the Black national anthem. And to set it up, I would love to play a version with the lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING")

SOUTHERN SONS: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing till Earth and heaven ring.

DOWNES: It's called "Lift Every Voice And Sing," and it's a hymn that began as a poem by the writer and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson in 1900. His brother, John Rosamond Johnson, set it to music for the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birthday in 1905. And it's become kind of a staple at Juneteenth celebrations and other events and gatherings in Black life. There are tons of different choral recordings of it, lots of jazz covers, but I wanted to find a classical arrangement.

MARTIN: So did you?

DOWNES: Yeah, I found exactly one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARA DOWNES PERFORMANCE OF LETTIE ALSTON'S "LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING")

DOWNES: It's a really beautiful set of variations by a Black female composer named Lettie B. Alston, who lived from 1953 to 2014. I've just recently discovered her music and listen to where she takes this simple tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARA DOWNES PERFORMANCE OF LETTIE ALSTON'S "LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING")

DOWNES: She's really examining all the different moods of this song, from a feeling of tender reverence to a playful kind of swing, and then it leads to a very expansive resolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARA DOWNES PERFORMANCE OF LETTIE ALSTON'S "LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING")

MARTIN: I love that. That's wonderful. What else have you brought for us today?

DOWNES: Well, this is an arrangement of another song that I think a lot of people will know. Let's start with the original version.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

SAM COOKE: (Singing) It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gon' come.

MARTIN: So good.

DOWNES: So good. That's Sam Cooke singing "A Change Is Gonna Come," and it's one of the most important songs of the civil rights era. He wrote it after he and his entourage were turned away from a whites-only hotel in Louisiana. So it was an expression of something deeply personal for him. But at the same time, it sums up so much about the collective Black experience in America. So I asked my friend, the arranger, Jeremy Siskind, to put together a solo piano version for me.

MARTIN: Oh, cool. OK, let's hear a little bit of what you did with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARA DOWNES PERFORMANCE OF JEREMY SISKIND'S "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

MARTIN: I love that. But what made it a good fit for this project, which is supposed to be about highlighting artists in the world of Black concert music, right, Lara?

DOWNES: Yeah, but I'm trying to be very intentional about bringing together various traditions of music from the Black experience to show that it's really all connected. This is a tree with many branches.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARA DOWNES PERFORMANCE OF JEREMY SISKIND'S "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

MARTIN: You said a little bit about the song's broader significance, but would you mind sharing what it means to you?

DOWNES: Yeah. You know, my parents were civil rights activists, so I grew up hearing this song. But I think it really connected with my own experience when Barack Obama quoted from it in his acceptance speech in 2008 when he became our first Black president. That was just such a formative moment for me because what he was saying then was that change is up to us. It's a long time coming, but we can make change. And I think we're living that truth right now in such a big way.

MARTIN: Well, thank you so much. We so appreciate you bringing us these pieces. Happy Black Music Month. Thank you for being here.

DOWNES: Oh, thank you, Rachel, and happy Black Music Month to everyone.

MARTIN: Pianist Lara Downes talking about two new recordings for Black Music Month on her label, Rising Sun Music. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.