Creation of the “Angels Over America” Poem and Video
I have always felt that the poem “Angels Over America” wrote me more than the other way around.
I first learned of the attacks while walking my dog. Two men in a truck, who had just heard the news on the radio, pulled off the road in a state of shock to tell the first person they saw. I ran home and turned on the TV in time to see the second plane crash into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Along with the rest of the world, I was glued to the TV following the 9/11 attacks, in a state of disbelief and horror, fear and sadness, hope and confusion. I kept hoping and praying to see some good news; some miracles of survival; some joyful reunions. From this familiar flickering font of information, I sought answers and guidance and reassurance that there would not be further attacks.
As time passed, only one thing seemed certain: Life as we had known it seemed gone forever. We had experienced a loss of innocence on a national scale. Scenes of 9/11 haunted me continually. Any attempts at resuming a normal life were disrupted by thoughts and images related to that day, and words and phrases demanding a voice.
Section 1: Titans
It was when I heard people speak with awe at how long the Twin Towers had stood after such brutal attacks that I recognized the voice. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a family of engineers, architects and builders. I grew up climbing through the rafters of new houses; watching buildings spring to life from drawings as “skin” covered the “bones,” and they sheltered the families who moved into them. Maybe that’s why the voice I heard was that of the Towers. I felt a deep empathy not only for all of the people, but for the buildings themselves. I felt them crying out, too, and their struggle to remain standing, and their agony and shame at being unable to save their charges.
A poet always seeks a metaphor because it speaks in so many tongues. The Twin Towers became that metaphor for “Angels.” They had literally embraced and protected people, but they were also everyman. The Titans were the archetypal heroes, and their unique perspective gave them special insights.
Section 2: Battle
“Titans” was the original poem, but it could not stand alone, because the magnitude of subsequent events had too great an impact on our world.
When the next two planes crashed into the Pentagon and the farmer’s field in Pennsylvania, we knew that our entire country was under attack, and that we were vulnerable to a degree never before imagined. The all-encompassing impact was that “In a moment, a young nation grew old.”
The voice in “Section 2” is that of the nation, moved by the tragedy and heroism of all that was unfolding before it, and also reflecting back from the future on these events.
Section 3: Prayer
The universal sympathy for our nation’s crisis rose like an anthem from every corner of the world. And when all hope was lost, our nation seemed transformed by a newfound brotherhood; a greater reverence for life; a keen awareness of our helplessness in spite of our great power; an appreciation of our heroes and our interdependence on one another; a desire to embrace peace over war. The “Prayer” captures that mood.
Concern that such goodwill would be short-lived, or at odds with those—or the lesser angels within all of us—who sought immediate, unguided and heedless revenge, inspired this prayer stanza:
Help the angels of our better natures rise to freedom’s song
And lead the charge of justice on her path,
So our own avenging angels do not strike in blind revenge
And wreak unbridled ruin with their wrath.
Section 4: Ascension
Only in “Section 4” does the poem become personal, and as such, truly universal. My journey through “our once gleaming cities . . . now dimmed by tears, and the soot turning day into night,” is everyone’s journey. As “The silence of fear held me tight in its grip,” so it held the entire Country. My delight at seeing the first plane flying after 9/11, and the concurrent vision that helps me transcend our shared tragedy, uplifts those who see it through my eyes as well.
The four segments of “Angels Over America” trace the evolution of awareness, emotion and understanding that lead to transcendence.
Creating the Video
Once the poem was completed and I began sharing it, I was urged to have it set to music. My search for a talented musician led me to award-winning arranger and composer Mark Freeh of New York.
Mark is a world-class arranger who has worked with Warner Brothers, the New York Philharmonic Brass and Canadian Brass, and he has shared in both an Oscar and gold and platinum records for his work on film and albums. He was so deeply moved by “Angels Over America” that he did far more than set the poem to music.
He co-produced the video from the poem with rarely-seen clips and photos of the event against the backdrop of his stirring arrangement of “America the Beautiful,” and moving renditions of “Amazing Grace,” both performed by the New York Staff Band of the Salvation Army, and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” played by Imperial Brass.
Scenes and footage from September 11 corresponding to themes from the poem were arranged in a meaningful way with music inspired by the patriotic theme of the poem and the heart-wrenching feelings evoked by the footage. Mark selected “America the Beautiful” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” because they are the two most beautiful American songs, and “Amazing Grace” because it is one of oldest American Hymns.
“America the Beautiful” was originally recorded by Carmon Dragon of the Hollywood Symphony Bowl; Mark was commissioned by the River City Brass Band of Pittsburgh to do a brass arrangement of it which was later recorded by the New York Staff Band of the Salvation Army.
“My Country ‘Tis of Thee” was first arranged by Bruce Broughton for the 1976 Bicentennial, and later adapted by Mark for use by Imperial Brass.
“Amazing Grace,” arranged by William Hines, was performed by the New York Staff Band of the Salvation Army
© 2001, Carolyn K. Long