Morning Song – My Country ‘Tis Of Thee
But that just scratches the surface of the many layers of history on which Aretha Franklin’s magisterial performance of “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” at Barack Obama’s first presidential inauguration stands.
Aretha—a descendant of Mississippi sharecroppers and slaves—edits out Smith’s 2nd and 3rd verses so that the song focuses laser-like on God and on liberty. Then she tosses away his royalist closing line (“Great God, our king“), reinserts “Let freedom ring“, and improvises on that one phrase for nearly a minute, crescendoing to a triumphant close as she gestures down the Mall to the assembled millions…and past them to the Lincoln Memorial where 45 years earlier the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ended his “I Have A Dream” speech with his own “Let freedom ring!” riff (“…from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire….from the mighty mountains of New York….from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania….from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado….from the curvaceous slopes of California….from the Stone Mountain of Georgia….from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee…from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring!“).
And Aretha had an even closer connection to that famous peroration, because King had delivered a version of that same speech two months earlier at a massive rally in Detroit…organized by the Rev. C. L. Franklin, her father.