Born February 27, 1897 in Philadelphia, Marian was one of the most celebrated singers of the 20th century. You have likely seen the black and white image of her singing in front of the Lincoln Monument, a gaggle of microphones huddled in front of her and Lincoln looming large behind her own regal figure. That 1939 performance, attended by 75,000 people with millions more listening on the radio, awakened the consciousness of an entire county.
It was not meant to happen that way.
Marian had been scheduled to sing at DC’s Constitution Hall but the Daughters of the American Revolution said no thanks, we don’t want black people here. She had performed to packed houses across Europe, to kings and queens, yet was denied the right to sing in her own country’s capital because she wasn’t white.
Eleanor Roosevelt, a DAR member and long-time supporter [FDR and ER invited Marian to perform at the White House back in 1936, the first African-American to do so], resigned in protest and wrote about it in her wildly popular newspaper column. The DAR did not relent.
The idea to sing outdoors came from Walter White, then executive secretary of the NAACP. Since the Lincoln Memorial is a national monument, permission fell to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. It was Ickes who led Marian onto the stage and told the crowd: “In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free. Genius, like justice, is blind. Genius draws no color lines.” It’s a sentiment Marian herself espoused: “When I sing, I don’t want them to see that my face is black. I don’t want them to see that my face is white. I want them to see my soul. And that is colorless.”
When she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1955, Marian became the first black singer to perform there. She gave her last recital at Carnegie Hall on April 18, 1965 and in 1984 was the first recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award of the City of New York.
There are a handful of women of the map who pose a terrific challenge to an amateur biographer like me. Yoko Ono is one of them. Her personal life utterly fascinating, her body of work immense, her impact and activism ongoing. John Lennon once described his wife as “the world’s most famous unknown artist: everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does.” Let’s just say she did a lot of art. A lot of feminist art at that.
Like many of her map compatriots, firsts [woman to enter the philosophy department at Gakushuin University] and onlys [woman to sing lead vocals in a Beatles song] pepper her life. Born in Tokyo in 1933, she moved to New York in 1953 and still lives here today. Before she became synonymous with the evil girlfriend trope [utterly unfounded and unfair], Yoko was a well respected, working conceptual artist.
In a 1964 performance piece Yoko sat alone on a stage, dressed in her best suit, with a pair of scissors in front of her. The audience took turns and cut off small pieces of her clothing. Another piece, Arising, invited women of all ages, across the world, to send Yoko Ono a photograph of their eyes and a written testament of harm they experienced solely for being a woman.
Her most recent work is a MTA-commissioned mosaic at the 72nd St station. Seems oh so appropriate, no?
A day late to mark the 78th (!) birthday of the most successful US female songwriter of the latter half of the 20th century: 500 songs recorded by more than 1,000 artists, 118 pop hits on the Billboard 100, four Grammys, the first women to receive the Gershwin Prize.
Born in Manhattan, raised in Brooklyn, in high school she adopted King as her stage name and Neil Simon and Paul Sedaka hung out with her. At Queens College she ended up pregnant and with a quickie marriage at 17. They dropped out and flourished as a songwriting duo (hello Natural Woman + Aretha) but she was not so much in line with the NJ suburban housewives.
Divorce, Los Angeles, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, playing keyboard for BB King and then Tapestry followed in 1971: 15 weeks at number one, remaining on the charts for six years. It was released 49 years ago today! Then there’s the Broadway show and decades of environmental activism.
My favorite collaboration will always be hers and James Taylor. You’ve Got A Friend, Fire and Rain, Sweet Baby James, Up on the Roof? Impeccable. All of it.