“At Last” as a True American Classic

The taste of a song often has to do with the time of its release and its context.  There are songs out there written without much taste that can be reinterpreted to have depth and value based on when it is being played.  There are also songs out there that can endure time and transition in the world only to resurface decades later with a new meaning or taste.  The song “At Last” is one of these songs.  It was originally released in 1941 and has been covered and revamped by pretty much all soul, blues and R&B artist since then.  The most notable renditions of the song, however, were by Etta James in 1961 and recently by Beyoncé Knowles at the Presidential Inauguration in 2009.  This song is an American classic that continues to be redefined by American revolution and culture.  It is a timeless hit, as every American knows most of the words to this song, beginning from its unmistakable introduction.

etta james copy

Etta James released her version of “At Last” in 1961 with no real connotation other than the obvious representation of love and romance.  Although the song made it to #2 on the charts, it was #2 on the Billboard Black Singles Chart.  Upon the song’s release, segregation was still existent in the United States and the civil rights movement was in its heyday. In the spring the song was released, the Ku Klux Klan was attacking freedom riders and other civil rights activists in Alabama.  “At Last” was under scrutiny by the country’s prejudicial white population and Etta James’ dyed blonde hair did not help her cause.

“At Last” is a classic love song.  Most of the lyrics in the song are typical for romantic songs of all time periods.  “At last, my love has come along.  My lonely days are over and life is like a song.”  The lyrics are revealing someone’s feelings the moment they fall in love.  It gives the tone that as soon as this person came into the singers life, it was completely changed for the better; the typical night and day tendency that most love songs represent.  “Here we are in heaven, because you are mine at last”.  Many love songs use this metaphor of love being like heaven on Earth.  The taste of the song is not too complex in Etta James’ version.

On January 20th, 2009, Beyoncé Knowles, one of the most significant singers in the word today (who also happens to be African American), performed a rendering of “At Last” at President Barack Obama’s inaugural ball.  The performance redefined the song and recreated the impact that the song had on America.  This performance changed the words “at last” from being about finally finding love to being about success and progress in the United States.  By the end of the song, which was the President and first lady’s first dance, the audience, Beyonce, the Obamas were all in tears.

Coincidentally, Etta James released the song in 1961, which was the same year that President Obama was born.  In the fifty years of the song’s existence, as well as Obama’s life, the country endured so much change and the song reflected that.  After Beyoncé performed the song, all kinds of meanings behind “At Last” were interpreted.  “At Last” the black population is viewed as equal, “At Last” George Bush’s presidency is over, “At Last” change is happening, “At Last” youth have a say in what happens in politics.  All of these meanings transformed the song into an anthem for America’s new leaf it had turned along with the election of President Obama.

“I found a dream that I could speak to
A dream that I can call my own
I found a thrill to rest my cheek to
A thrill that I have never known”

This portion of the song speaks to a huge population of the country who left as though they were living in a dream that a black president had been elected.  The term “dream” has always been closely associated with civil rights in America, especially because of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” Speech.  The tone in which Beyoncé presented the song at the inauguration was almost like saying that the dream of Dr. King had been achieved by Obama.  “A thrill that I have never known” speaks to the fact that the country had never seen a black president and that it’s a true honor, or thrill, to see one inaugurated.

The taste of “At Last” transformed and gained depth through the years, just like America.  This song now can represent the huge strides in humanity that the United States of America has made in the past fifty years of its popularity.  It almost accentuates how short of a time period that is as well, if the music from fifty years ago is still relevant today.  By examining this song, it’s obvious how important music is to American culture and how real the soundtrack to history can be.


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