But the exploration of Franklin’s cultural impact as a singer since her death last week at 76 revealed that it was notable for more than being possibly the longest recorded rendition of the national anthem by those who keep track of such things.
It was about time, indeed, but that on the calendar, not the clock. And it was about place, the sports arena.
It was about current politics and the illumination of those politics under the klieg lights provided by a football game.
To be sure, Franklin served her interpretation of the anthem that Thanksgiving just two weeks after what has proved to be the particularly polarizing presidential election of Donald Trump. Hers was an impression also delivered just two months after the particularly polarizing protest of police lethality against black men in this country was birthed by then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took to sitting and kneeling during the musical patriotic ritual popularized in pregame sport.
And it was that latter sentiment with which Franklin so mournfully sung that day. She affirmed what Kaepernick started.
She sung the opening lines — “O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming?” — as if it was a lost cause, an ideal suddenly of some bygone era.
And she closed by not simply singing, “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!” Instead, she manipulated the lyrics and cried, “It is the land of the free — the freeeeee,” and then repeated — not once, not twice, not three times, not four times, but five times, louder and louder and louder — “The home . . . the home of the braaaaaave!”
“Her phrasing seems really deliberate,” jazz singer Rene Marie told me. Marie notably has mixed James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” better known as the Negro national anthem, over “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“[It] reminds me of Ray Charles’s rendition of ‘America, the Beautiful’ at the Republican Convention years ago,” ethnomusicologist Eileen M. Hayes, dean of the College of Arts and Communication at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater, told me via email Tuesday. “And Charles uses the crowd’s singing as his backup choir of sorts, while he continues to preach, thereby infusing blackness into a decidedly partisan convention with consequences to follow, which were truly devastating for black people.”
Not unlike what Kaepernick did by continuing to protest in such a partisan theater as the NFL, which proved personally devastating for his athletic career.
That Thanksgiving wasn’t the first time Franklin crooned the national anthem at a sporting event. She sang it before the 2006 Super Bowl at Ford Field, too, in her adopted hometown of Detroit. A couple of years earlier, she sang it before an NBA Finals game in Detroit. And a few years before that, she christened an American League Championship Series game in Detroit with a rousing execution.
Thanksgiving 2016 also was not the first time she rendered the anthem before a national audience in a manner that produced reactive commentary. She opened the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, infamous for the violence Mayor Richard Daley’s police unleashed on antiwar protesters in nearby Grant Park, with a version in which she was questioned for appearing to have left out the phrase “land of the free.”
“Why do we do that?” Marie, a Warrenton, Va., native, said about singers of color who sometimes perform the anthem in such startling ways. “The whole concept . . . [is] what if people of color were asked to compose these patriotic songs? If the anthems are to represent all Americans, then it should be the input of all Americans.”
“All of these significations are based in black musical — if not political — culture and their intersections,” Hayes said. “I think that anytime a country’s national anthem is performed in a musical style associated with a subjugated people, it’s a political statement.”
But 2016 was the last time Franklin so unabashedly, again, infused the song with her politics, which were steeped in a childhood stirred by the civil rights movement in her famous preacher father C.L. Franklin’s church and home. She sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral because she grew up knowing the martyred Nobel Peace Prize winner. She later sang it at the funeral of gospel great Mahalia Jackson, who made the hymn famous, because she knew Jackson growing up and was, no doubt, inspired by Jackson’s seeking of equality.
Franklin was an artist so fearless she volunteered in 1970 to bail out activist professor Angela Davis after Davis was arrested off the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list on charges Davis bought guns used in an attempt during a courtroom proceeding to free three San Quentin prisoners, including George Jackson. Jackson’s protests and death in prison inspired a national prisoners’ strike that rippled across the country Tuesday. As Franklin explained in 1970 to Jet magazine: “I’ve been locked up [for disturbing the peace in Detroit], and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see [Davis] free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism but because she’s a black woman and she wants freedom for black people.”
Or the same thing that Kaepernick and those in the NFL and other sports who have joined him in pregame protests have articulated that they desire.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.