My favorite artist of 2017 didn’t even release an album this year. René Marie first came to my attention in 2013 with the release of “I Wanna Be Evil,” a collection of songs originally recorded by Eartha Kitt. Later that year I saw here in Tree of Life, a production of the remarkable SPARC Live Art Series.
I was impressed, but it wasn’t until I picked up The Sound of Red, her most recent CD, released in May of 2016, that I really began to appreciate when a gigantic talent she is. Of course I digitized the CD and listened to it constantly on my iPhone, but if it had been back in the day and I owned the vinyl album, I would probably have worn out the grooves by the beginning of 2017! I was completely unaware of the other 9 albums she had released.
Then I stumbled on a YouTube video in which she performs the most poignant version of “Oh Shenandoah” I’ve ever heard.
The song comes from her 2011 release The Voice of My Beautiful Country, so I ordered a copy. This extraordinary album reflects the full variety of American music, from folk songs such as “John Henry” and the aforementioned “O Shenandoah,” and Jazz standards like “Strange Meadowlark,” all the way through Motown (“Just My Imagination”) and 1960s West Coast Counterculture (“White Rabbit”), each done in Marie’s distinctive vocal style.
Her renditions are masterful and original, but it is “Voice of My Beautiful Country Suite” that ends the album which takes the album into the territory of the sublime. The suite is a medley, consisting of “America the Beautiful,” a percussive, instrumental “Drum Battle,” and segue through a “Piano Blues,” into “My Country Tis of Thee,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing/Star-Spangled Banner,” and a reprise of “American the Beautiful.” This medley is so richly layered it is beyond the scope of this short piece to unpack. Nonetheless, I cannot resist making a few observations.
In 2008 Marie was criticized by some when she sang the words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song sometimes referred to at the “Black American National Anthem,” to the tune of the national anthem of the United States, the “Star-Spangled Banner.” That reworking is one of the songs in the “Voice of My Beautiful Country Suite,” and it is beautiful. “Voice of My Beautiful Country” is a suite of songs that weaves together multiple, diverse strands of the American identity, while also recognizing that each stand comes with its own history and contractions. In listening to this set of songs, it worth remembering that the lyrics to the “Star-Spangled Banner” are from the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry” by Francis Scott Key. Key was not a musician, and he did not compose music to accompany the poem. So the lyrics were set to a pre-existing melody, that of a popular song written by the British composer John Stafford Smith (1750-1836). On this album her reworded version of the song is part of a suite that includes Africanesque drumming, a short riff of piano blues, and a version of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” This patriotic ballad happens to be set to the tune of “God Save the Queen/King,” a 17th century song that became the British national anthem!
The irony, perhaps even subversiveness of the juxtaposition of tunes in this suite of songs is obvious, but one hears neither bitterness nor anger in the recordings. Indeed, there is a sincerity and earnestness in the performance that conveys a sense of pride and hope. This is consistent with what the liner notes state is goal of the album:
To become filled with peace when confronted with the contradictions of this country’s past and buoyed with hope for it’s future.
René Marie is a master at redefining the character of songs. A native of Virginia, Marie lays claim to the full spectrum of her heritage. Musically she places her own unique stamp on songs as diverse as “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “Hard Day’s Night,” “A Foggy Day,” and “C’est Si Bon.”
The most haunting cover she has released is a mashup of “Dixie,” a song that became popular in the era of Blackface Minstrel shows, with “Strange Fruit,” a graphic, disturbing song written in response to lynchings of Black Americans in the South during the 1930s, and most famously recorded by Billie Holliday. Marie starts off with a surprisingly earnest version of Dixie that is far more eloquent than any of the jingly, militaristic versions one often hears in films or on television shows about the South. Her a cappella solo is full of longing, serving as a reminder that without awareness of context, Dixie is just a nostalgic ode to a beloved, thought idealized homeland. The degree to which it is idealized is made apparent when a bass kicks kicks in, followed quickly by the clarion call of a trumpeter. Marie then sings the horrifyingly vivid lyrics of “Strange Fruit” with instrumental accompaniment, and a passion that completely and appropriately eclipses the nostalgia for Dixie.
René Marie is cognizant and proud of her heritage, warts and all, as is made abundantly clear in the original song “The South is Mine,” a song that uses writings of her father as a jumping off point. This an other original compositions in her repertoire suggest just how talented a songwriter she is. The case is clenched on her most recent album “The Sound of Red,” which consists entirely of original songs. “Go Home” reminds me of Nancy Wilson’s “Guess Who I Saw Today,” except it comes from the perspective of “the other woman who is struggling with her desires.
“Stronger Than You Think,” “Blessings,” and “This Is Not a Protest Song” are three all uplifting calls for compassion with oneself of with others. It is songs like this that make her music such a welcome refuge from the meanness and negativity so prevalent in public discourse during the last year or so. René Marie has lived hard times and is more that cognizant of the hatred and cruelty in the world. She is not afraid to speak to it, but she does not wallow in it. She rises above it, making music that lifts us with her.