You do it without even thinking about it.

You hum around the house, sing to your babies, to your God, or to the radio. You catch yourself doing it while you’re relaxing with a hobby.

You sing wherever you want to lift up your voice.

In the new book Sound of Freedom (c.2009, Bloomsbury Press, $25.00, 310 pages, includes notes and index), by Raymond Arsenault, you’ll see that it wasn’t always so easy. Sometimes a song is more than just a song.

Not long after she was out of diapers, Marian Anderson was making up tunes and playing a toy piano. By the time she was four years old, people knew she had “a gift.” At age six, she joined the Union Baptist Church’s junior choir and was soon singing solo. As a teen, her voice contributed monetarily to the household.

Although many outside the African American community recognized Anderson’s incredible talent, there were few places in which she could perform. Jim Crow laws were more prevalent in the South, but the Northern United States, including Anderson’s hometown of Philadelphia, was racially segregated, too. Most concert halls were off-limits to her.

Perhaps because of racism but surely for the opportunity, Anderson followed in the footsteps of many Black Americans in the 1920s and briefly emigrated to Europe. Audiences in Germany, London, and Scandinavia were dazzled by her talent and her “exotic” looks.

By 1935, Anderson was ready to resume her American career. Shortly thereafter, she was invited by Eleanor Roosevelt to perform in the White House. There, says Arsenault, “…two modest but strong-willed women became… linked in a chain of events that altered the course of American history.”

Four years later, when Anderson’s managers attempted to secure the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall for a performance, they were informed of a “whites only” policy.
A Washington school board likewise turned down the possibility of a concert.

Americans were outraged, and Roosevelt boldly withdrew from the DAR, a move that was loaded with political implications. Ten days before Easter Sunday 1939, Anderson’s managers scrambled to organize a free concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Unsure of the attendance, they hoped for a few thousand fans.

Seventy-five thousand people showed up.

As historical books go, you won’t find a richer examination of this event than The Sound of Freedom. But that richness is a mixed bag.

Author Raymond Arsenault does a superb job conveying a sense of time and social attitudes in this book, and I was caught up in the drama of the events that occurred in 1938-39. But before that, his recounting of Anderson’s career was mind-numbing. The people who helped and encouraged her will be familiar to die-hard music fans (particularly fans of classical song and German lieders) but may cause casual readers to want to stop reading.

But don’t.

Stick with this book despite the (occasional) dry parts and you’ll be rewarded with an uplifting, amazing story that certainly had implications on the Civil Rights movement many years later. For that alone, The Sound of Freedom is a book to sing about.