Photo courtesy of Gene Scheer
By Steve Sears
On January 20, 2021, American songwriter, librettist, and lyricist, Gene Scheer, like many Americans was at home watching the inauguration of the 46th President of the United States.
“I was already happy that (Joe) Biden was elected, and I was watching the speech,” says Scheer, “and then he cited my song, and it just seemed to be a very, very special moment for me. Not just that it was the President of the United States, but it was someone who I believe is a decent person who really was aspiring to the message of the song. That he felt moved by it was incredibly gratifying to me.”
The song the President recited lines from is titled “American Anthem,” which Scheer wrote and published in 1998. “It wasn’t written as a commission,” Scheer says. “Most of my work is commissioned, but this is just something I was moved to write.”
Scheer’s parents were schoolteachers, and his father specialized in American History. They retired and moved to the Berkshires, owned a Bed & Breakfast, and then in their early ‘70s decided to sell it. Scheer recalls, “They had to downsize, and they had a large library that they were giving away like a long sale, that kind of thing. And there was a book on the shelf called, Miracle in Philadelphia, which was a young adult sort of a textbook on the forming of the Constitution that my father had used to teach. I just picked it up and I read it. I went home to New York and I was just inspired, and I wrote the song; what these themes about America meant to me, and I tried to put them into a song.”
“I didn’t write it for anyone,” Scheer says humbly. “I just wrote it as a personal need to express what I was feeling about the country and such. That’s how it happened.”
Scheer, who grew up in Long Valley and attended West Morris Regional High School after his family moved from Chester, knows “American Anthem” is no stranger to the spotlight. It’s been sung at numerous events, including the 2005 inauguration of President George W. Bush. “When Denyce Graves sang it at Bush’s inauguration, I knew that that was happening. The first time she sang it was for President (Bill) Clinton and Hillary at the Smithsonian right around 1998. It was for an event. There was a public private partnership that the Clintons were establishing to raise money for the maintenance and restoration of American monuments, and at the Smithsonian, in front of the Star-Spangled Banner – the flag that flew over Fort McHenry; that was one of the things that needed to be restored and curated that the money was going to go to – Denyce sang my song. And so, President Clinton was there, and I met President Clinton that day.”
Graves, a mezzo-soprano, and others helped the song gain additional legs as they sang it at other events, but a key moment in terms of the song’s trajectory was when Ken Burns heard Graves sing the tune. “He was coming from his father’s funeral,” Scheer recalls, “and it was being played on the NPR station. And he loved the song, he called me and introduced himself, and told me he was doing a documentary of World War II.” Burns had Norah Jones sing the song for the documentary.
Regarding President Biden referencing it in his inaugural speech, Scheer says, “It’s very gratifying that people want to sing it. It’s sung by choirs, a lot of choirs are doing it in schools, churches, and synagogues. I find it very gratifying. There are some amateur choruses all over the country and some professionals doing it, and I think it’s wonderful. But there’s no question that when Biden cited it, it was for me like the biggest moment of the song, one of the biggest moments in my career, certainly of my life.”
For more information on Scheer, visit www.genescheer.com.