UPDATE: After this story was published, Norah Jones sent a statement to Billboard about Biden quoting “American Anthem” lyrics in his inaugural address. “Hearing President Biden share those familiar lyrics was deeply moving,” Jones said. “‘American Anthem’ is a beautiful and meaningful song that resonates with so many people. I was honored to be asked to sing the song, written by Gene Scheer, for Ken Burns’ documentary, The War.”
The Jan. 20 inauguration of 46th president Joe Biden had a number of firsts, including the swearing-in of the nation’s first female, Black and South Asian American, Vice President Kamala Harris. Another notable moment was the quoting of a pop song lyric during Biden’s stirring address.
The heart-swelling speech by the former two-term VP and long-serving senator — which paid homage to the more than 400,000 lives lost to the raging global COVID-19 pandemic while urging a return to civility and an adherence to telling the truth — including a moving passage in which Biden quoted the lyrics to a song popularized by Norah Jones. In 2006, the singer recorded a moving rendition of “American Anthem,” which was prominently featured in Ken Burns’ epic 14.5-hour WWII documentary The War.
“Will we master this rare and difficult hour? Will we meet our obligations and pass along a new and better world to our children?” Biden asked from the steps of the U.S. Capitol, which just two weeks ago were overrun by a violent mob of Donald Trump supporters. “I believe we will, and when we do, we’ll write the next great chapter in the history of the United States of America — the American story. A story that might sound something like a song that means a lot to me,” Biden said before sharing several lines from the operatic anthem written by librettist Gene Scheer in 1988 as a love song to his parents.
“The work and prayers of centuries/ Have brought us to this day/ What shall be our legacy?/ What will our children say?” Biden recited. “Let them say of me/ I was one who believed/ In sharing the blessings I received/ Let me know in my heart/ When my days are through/ America, America I gave my best to you.”
The song was first performed at the launch event for President Bill Clinton’s “Save America’s Treasures” in 1998 by soprano Denyce Graves, who also later performed it at the 2005 inauguration of George W. Bush. Burns featured the Jones-sung version in his Emmy-winning PBS documentary series.
“Norah Jones’s performance of my song, ‘American Anthem,’ is stunningly beautiful,” Scheer said in a press release from Sony Music Entertainment in 2007. “I have been blessed to have some wonderful singers sing the song in the past, but her performance stands out not only for its beauty, but for the almost mystical way in which she has distilled the essence of the song. The song was meant to be a celebration of our past, but at the song’s core is a sense of yearning to be a part of not just our own personal stories, but the American Story.”
The piano-and-voice version by Jones is available only on the soundtrack to the series.
Listen to Jones’ and Graves’ version of “American Anthem” below.