Lena Horne

May 10th, 2010 | admin | No Comments | Categories: Blog

  • “How can I go on singing about a penthouse way up in the sky,” Lena Horne once asked, “When, with housing restrictions the way they are now, I would not be allowed to rent that place? I can’t get up in a nightclub in a thousand-dollar dress and start singing ‘Let My People Go’…I never had the right. I didn’t choose it to be that way but it was the illusion that Hollywood gave me.”

    When we heard that the world had lost Lena Horne, like everyone we were floored with sadness, but also like everyone, we took it as an opportunity to learn from a remarkable life and an unforgettable career, to learn from a woman and an artist whose work never strayed from the joyous pleasures of entertainment while facing up to the dramas of American race and the struggles against social injustice.

    In recent months, Horne had been much on our minds as we finished putting together our new compilation Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations (out in July). Instead of a yet another treatment of just how invested American Jews have been in the music and culture of African-Americans, we set out to explore the opposite theme: the investment of African-American artists in Jewish music.

    We knew about Horne’s great, and multiple, collaborations with Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg (as well as other Great American Songbook wizards), but we were blown away by her song “Now!,” written for her in 1963 by Jewish Broadway greats Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Jule Styne. Comden and Green wrote her lyrics that were a scathing indictment of anti-Black racism and lying American democracy and Styne set them to the most unlikely music of all, “Hava Nagila.” Horne performed “Now!” at a pair of benefit concerts at Carnegie Hall (she co-headlined with Frank Sinatra and sent her proceeds to the Gandhi Society for Human Rights) and then went into the studio with conductor Ray Ellis to cut it as a single. Variety wrote that she sang of “new worlds to come.” She wanted to share profits from the song with the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality but its radical lyrics kept it off the radio and “Now!” never had the impact Horne had hoped for. She included it on the Here’s Lena Now album for 20th Century Fox, alongside her takes on Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Arlen and Harburg’s Bloomer Girl call for equality, “The Eagle and Me,” (Horne sang it on Broadway in the 40s: “free as the sun is free/ that’s how it’s got to be”).

    “Now!” did not entirely fade from view, though. It soon found the ears of Santiago Alvarez, an experimental Cuban filmmaker who used the song as the score to his own “Now!,” a landmark 1965 newsreel collage of black civil rights struggles that is considered a classic of Cuban cinema.

    We can’t think of a more fitting and powerful testament to the range of her legacy.


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