EXCLUSIVE! Q&A with journalist/musician Angela McKenzie

Published Sunday, September 11, 2011

Please take a moment to remember all the souls that were lost on this day 10 years. May they find their peace.

Angela McKenzie with former Missouri Senator and US Attorney General John Ashcroft

By Annamarya Scaccia

FROM THE PRESS RELEASEJohn Ashcroft penned his patriotic ballad “Let The Eagle Soar” long before he became Attorney General of the United States in 2000 and well in advance of his performance of the song for a receptive audience at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 2002. A recording of his performance went viral on theinternet and was subsequently exploited by late night talk show hosts for political satire. Nine years later, an unexpected collaboration emerged between Ashcroft a seasoned songwriter and Angela McKenzie a singer and producer of the public radio chat show “Initiative Radio with Angela McKenzie.” The two agreed that McKenzie would rearrange and record “Let The Eagle Soar” in a style that could reach a broader audience and keep its’ patriotic message intact. The only other singer to get Ashcroft’s blessing to remake the tune was Guy Hovis a cast member of “The Lawrence Welk Show,” who performed it at the second inauguration of President George W. Bush. McKenzie’s version was released without much fanfare as a digital download through Initiative Radio Records on Independence Day 2011 and is available at Amazon.com, CD Baby, iTunes and most online music retailers.

McKenzie who is a 2011 Peter Jennings Project for Journalists and the Constitution Fellow, last dabbled in music when she released an album entitled 9 in 2006. She cites Joni Mitchell and Johnny Cash as two of her musical idols because she considers them gifted songwriters and storytellers and her journalistic heroes include newsmen Peter Jennings for his attention to detail and impeccable presentation and Bob Schieffer because he can front a country music band on a Saturday night and manage a televised round table of high level politicians on a Sunday morning. She exclaims, “Bob Schieffer is living my dream!”**

What motivated you to remake “Let the Eagle Soar?”
Honestly, I believe “Let The Eagle Soar” is a well-written song that became misunderstood and misbranded because one, when John Ashcroft performed it live [in 2002], he bravely sung it through a podium microphone, on a sound system that probably wasn’t made for mixing music. Two, when the video of his performance went viral on the Internet, many people used it for political satire and to underscore their opposition to Ashcroft’s policies as the US Attorney General – the most famous example of this is filmmaker Michael Moore’s use of “The Eagle” in his [2004] film Farenheit 9/11. And thirdly, when I discovered the song in 2009, I noticed that if you were part of the minority who openly expressed liking the song, you were ridiculed and pretty much shut down. Well, I’ve sung “The Star Spangled Banner” at a few major league sporting events in my time so, to me, “The Eagle” is just that kind of big, image evoking, patriotic song whose time will come and when it does, my rendition will become a part of history. If I am alive when that happens, I guess I’ll have the option to say “I told you so.” In short, I like it and I think it should be given a fair chance.

What did you hope to achieve with your remake?
What I’d like to see happen in due course of time is for people to hear the remake and understand that it’s just a patriotic/love song like Lee Greenwood’s “Proud To Be An American” or Neil Diamond’s “Coming To America.” The great thing about music is, you can enjoy it even if you’re not a regular fan of the songwriter or singer. Politics should not be used to divide music lovers of any genre.

You have received criticism for recording “Let the Eagle Soar,” not only on a musical level but also on a political one. The song’s critics seem to align the message of “Let the Eagle Soar” more with conservatism rather patriotism because of John Ashcroft, yet you lean more towards liberalism. Do you feel the response to the remake has been misguided?
If I had to define my own political leanings, I would say in the past I could be easily boxed in with the Liberal/Democratic set but, as time goes on and I observe the US and the world from more of a birds eye view, I’m starting to understand that political parties are made up of people who want to serve their country and, regardless of which party they choose to align themselves with, their dedication to serve is worthy of respect. Admittedly, working on “Let The Eagle Soar” helped me to come to this realization because I had a chance to observe how people can get wrapped up in politics out of context. I am indeed guilty of having done this too. For example, I interacted a few people who, under normal circumstances, are very open minded, pro-choice, pro same-sex marriage, pro-environment and pro- anything else liberal you could think about, [and they] listened to the remake and loved it but when it was revealed to them what song they heard and who wrote it, they searched for ways to negate it. Why couldn’t they open their minds and accept the “The Eagle” for what it is? A song!

With that, would you say the hesitation to welcome the remake is fair in terms of natural reaction, considering the controversy and dislike that follows John Ashcroft?
I think it’s natural for people to have negative, visceral reactions to things associated with people they don’t like but I don’t think it’s always healthy or fair.

Has the criticism deterred you from promoting your remake?
Nah, I’m not deterred at all. In fact, I find the resistance refreshing because I enjoy challenges. Also, “Let The Eagle Soar” is a bigger project for me beyond the remake but we can talk about that another time.

What praises have you received for the song?
I am happy to say it hasn’t been total negative criticism. The first good response that came about is [when] the remake was announced as fast breaking online news by the major television networks across the nation and it continues to get some decent buzz on Twitter. In fact, more recently an editor at Rolling Stone Magazine tweeted that I should duet with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, who just released his 9/11 tribute song “Reason To Believe.” Backhanded as that tweet might be, it’s positive that “The Eagle” is on her mind and hopefully on her iPod too.

In the end, what do you hope listeners take from your remake?
In the end, I want listeners to realize that there is diversity to the people who perform and enjoy American Roots and Country music and as corney as this sounds, when it comes to American patriotism and patriotic music, it’s not about red or blue states, it’s about the red, white and blue standard.

To listen to Angela McKenzie’s remake of “Let The Eagle Soar,” visit: http://angelamckenzie.mymusicstream.com/.

Disclaimer: Angela McKenzie is a friend and fellow 2011 Peter Jennings Project for Journalists and the Constitution Fellow. This interview was done with the intention to highlight McKenzie’s project. 

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