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Celebrating Juneteenth And Black Music Month With Classical Classics

Lara Downes, with her father in San Francisco, ca. 1975.
Courtesy of the artist
Lara Downes, with her father in San Francisco, ca. 1975.

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...

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.

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