The song “American Anthem” ripples through decades of Denyce Graves’ memories.
She met it 23 years ago, when her friend, composer Gene Scheer, sent it by cassette. Her reaction, she recalls, was instant: “It’s beautiful …. It’s a reflective piece that makes you think about your life.”
So she sang it often – from the a Hillary Clinton event to George W. Bush’s second inauguration. (“I’m a bi-partisan, equal-opportunity singer.”) After the latter, Sen. Joe Biden “came up to me and said, ‘What was that song!?’” Sixteen years later, he would quote it in in own inaugural speech.
Now comes another lofty occasion. From a rooftop overlooking the Capitol, Graves (shown here) sings “American Anthem” for the “National Memorial Day Concert,” at 8 p.m. May 30 on PBS, rerunning at 9:30.
“She’s just as classy as they come,” said Michael Colbert, the concert producer.
He’s been watching these concerts since his father (the late Jerry Colbert) launched “A Capitol Fourth” in 1980 and this event in ‘89. They were live and massive until last year, when crowds seemed bad, but events seemed crucial. “Our holidays, our rituals, are more important than ever,” Colbert said.
So last year, the music and the tributes were filmed in advance, with some past moments mixed in. The difference now? “Last year was 70 percent new material,” he said. “This year is 100 percent.”
The musicians include the greats of country (Vince Gill, Alan Jackson), pop (Sara Bareilles), R&B (Gladys Knight, The Four Tops) and opera (Graves). The tributes will range from the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks to the 70th anniversary of the Korean War; they’ll also honor nurses in Vietnam and the elite, all-Black 2nd Ranger Infantry Company in Korea. And the settings will range from Ground Zero in New York to Arlington Cemetery and other classic Washington sites.
These are places that Graves, who grew up in Washington, has known vividly for 44 years. “When I was 13 and going to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, I learned how to use the subways.” Ever since, she’s savored a city filled with music (much of it free) and history.
In school, she was less adventurous. “I was an incredibly shy kid,” she said.
Then she gave her first recital and an upperclassman “said, ‘We didn’t even know you existed; you always walked around like a little mouse.’” After that, she was nicknamed “Miss Opera.”
It was a career choice that, she said, “befuddled” her mother. When Graves was a sophomore at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory, her mom asked: “What do you plan to do with your life?”
As it happens, she’s done almost everything with her life. She’s traveled the world, starred in great operas (Carmen and Dalila are two of her signature roles), befriended great people.
In one opera, Graves recalled, she had a “bright, fire-engine red” wig. The next night, she was handed a mellow brown one and told: “Justice Ginsburg was here last night and she said that thing had to go.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a friend; Graves sang to her in three concerts at the Supreme Court Building … and at the memorial service for Ginsburg’s husband … and then at the service for Ginsburg.
At both, she sang “American Anthem.” And on Jan. 21, she was watching Biden’s inaugural speech on TV, when he spoke of “a song that means a lot to me. It’s called ‘American Anthem’ and there is one verse that stands out for me:
‘The work and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day
‘What shall be our legacy? What will our children say?
‘Let me know in my heart, when my days are through
‘America America, I gave my best to you.’”
Graves promptly “screamed at the top of my lungs.” She phoned her friend Gene Scheer … just as she’d done 23 years earlier. Then “we both did the hallelujah dance in our houses.”