Lydia Harrell Sings National Anthem at Maura Healey’s Inauguration
It was an historic day. The nation watched as Maura Healey, Massachusetts’s first female governor and one of the nation's first two openly gay women elected governor, was sworn into office. And while all eyes were on Healey at the inauguration, those who watched or attended were in for a special treat: Lydia Harrell, an instructor in Berklee's Voice Department, performed the national anthem at Healey’s request.
Known as one of Boston’s musical treasures because of her soulful, sultry voice, Harrell, a Michigan native, has been teaching at Berklee for more than four years. She is the winner of the 2015 Duke Ellington Jazz Vocal Competition and the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival Vocal Competition, and she won best song at the 48 Hour Film Project in Boston.
When she's not teaching, Harrell keeps a busy schedule performing locally and nationally. She plans to release new singles each quarter of this year, and also has a Billie Holiday show, called Lady Day, coming up at David Friend Recital Hall with some of her students on Tuesday, February 21.
Harrell has performed the national anthem at other major events, including several Boston Celtics games (she even sang the Canadian national anthem at one of those games). But performing at the inauguration, she says, was a dream come true. We caught up with Harrell for our Keyed In series to talk about her performance.
Governor Healey made history by becoming the first woman and openly gay governor of Massachusetts. How does it feel to be part of that historic moment?
Amazing! When I was first contacted to do it, I almost didn’t believe it was real. I am so glad it was. I am truly honored to have been a part of this historic moment.
It’s been said that when singing the national anthem you can’t let yourself get stalled at beat three. Did you take that into consideration?
I did not. I actually had to look that up. I have never heard of being stalled at beat three. Interesting. I wonder if it has to do with the time signature of the song. So many think that it is in four. However, it is actually in three.
Many would agree that the gold standard for the national anthem is Whitney Houston’s rendition. As we know, many acclaimed singers have failed in their attempts. How did you prepare for your performance and what went into you deciding how you would perform it?
I have been singing this song for a very long time. So, believe it or not, there was not a ton of preparation. I definitely practiced what key I would sing it in. I also worked out any new vocal things I wanted to possibly add. I slow down slightly at the end of the several phrases in this song. It is something I have done since the very first time I sang it in high school. I like doing this because it gives everyone a chance to digest what is being said in those phrases.
The national anthem has been controversial in recent years as it pertains to social justice. As a Black woman, did you think about that while you were singing it?
I certainly did think of this. I always do. I often do not agree to sing this when asked at other events. I only sing it when it is something that means a great deal to me. I sincerely wish that we could change the national anthem to something new. There are so many beautiful songs written to honor this country. It is eye-opening and even somewhat alarming to know that “The Star-Spangled Banner” has lasted this long and is still going strong. It is also quite ironic that a Black woman’s rendition of that song is the most popular. Black girl magic is real, y’all.
While this is not your first time performing the national anthem in front of a large crowd, what will you share with your students about your experience?
I will, as I always do, share the entire experience with my students—from booking it to performing it and even what happened afterward. As an educator and performer, I feel it is my duty to share the experience with my students. I am happy to share whatever knowledge I have that will help them succeed.