A very interesting album is going to be released by Chicago’s Cedille Records in June. Notorious RBG in Song includes nine original songs composed and sung by Chicago soprano Patrice Michaels about her mother-in-law, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The songs are based on things associated with RBG that wind up telling a compelling story about her life: all culled from judicial opinions, speeches, letters and other texts. From friends, family and other people. Michaels’ husband, Jim Ginsburg runs the not for profit recording company that produced the CD (and full disclosure, I’m on the board of directors).
On Monday, all nine songs were sung–at the Union League Club of Chicago during a Musicians Club of Women concert and luncheon–by Patrice and other sopranos. Songs based on things like a letter from RBG’s mother, Celia, who wondered, among other things, whether her daughter, away at college, was practicing the piano and not giving in to her “emotions.”
Another song is about her mischievous son, the aforementioned Jim–who got into quite a bit of trouble for pulling pranks in third grade at the Dalton School (as told to songwriter Patrice by mother and son). And there is one about RBG’s daughter, Jane: When Jane was a little girl, in 1961, her friend’s mother told her daughter to be nice to Jane because “her mommy works.”
And there’s a song based on her father-in-law’s advice when Ruth wanted to go to law school: “If you really want to go to law school, you will stop feeling sorry for yourself and you will find a way to do it,” he admonished.
There’s a song that explains the only case that she and her late husband, Martin, a tax lawyer, worked on together; it was before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. A litigant was claiming a tax deduction for his dependent mother–and that was the case that started “Ruth’s…new career as an appellate advocate,” the song explains through Martin’s words.
Another song explains the “conversion” of Anita, a steno pool member, who typed up material from “a lady lawyer.” At first, Anita called what she was typing “nonsensical” gender-based discrimination. Until she finished typing. Then she understood. RBG’s writing converted her, as she typed herself into a deeper level of understanding about what goes on in this world.
Song number VIII in the song cycle, Dissenter of de Universe: Five Opinions and a Comment, includes RBG’s words from five cases, including Ledbetter v. Goodyear and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.
“…the court does not comprehend or is indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination,” are some of the words sung from Ledbetter.
And beseeching her fellow jurists in Hobby Lobby, the song goes like this: “The Court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield” by allowing employers to deny coverage for contraceptives based on religious beliefs.
In any case, as I sat enjoying one song after another on Monday, I couldn’t help but wonder what sorts of songs could eventually emanate from my very own legal career. Nothing nearly as monumental as RBG’s life set to music, of course, but some things like these below might suffice.
- Like the time I decided to write a story about the more humorous excuses I was hearing when I was a prosecutor for the City of Chicago, from men who’d gotten arrested and gotten their cars impounded for being involved with street prostitutes. I made a list of 21 excuses, and instead of using bullet points (as I am here), the Chicago Reader decided to use teeny little penises as the graphic instead. Hmmmmm….
- Or, when I advised Michigan lawyers how to argue an impoundment case in front of the United States Supreme Court years ago; none of their prosecutors had as much experience as I did in Chicago. They won the case, which was chock full of concurrences. And guess who bought–and transmitted–my arguments hook, line and sinker in hers? Justice Ginsburg!
- Also, during the same time I was a prosecutor for the City, I was also writing a weekly column for the Chicago Tribune (my column was a cross between Anna Quindlen and Erma Bombeck) and I was interviewing long distance in my office one day a Rodeo Drive big shot who made up the best dressed or worst dressed Oscar attendees every year. And I looked out into the hall at the people waiting for their hearings, people arrested for gun and drug possession, for instance, on the mean streets of Chicago and I thought, has there ever been a split screen more incongruous than this: me on the phone with him, and them waiting within earshot for me?
- Maybe the time I wrote a little piece for the Woman’s Bar Association of Illinois newsletter about another renowned trailblazing woman lawyer after she passed away, Esther Rothstein? That might make a good story to set to song. In it, I talked mostly about how my dad had encouraged me in the 1970s when I was a telephone installer for Illinois Bell–climbing telephone poles and traversing rat-infested basements throughout the Edgewater, Uptown and Rogers Park neighborhoods in Chicago–to try to get on to the Illinois Bell board of directors. It’d be a first, he said. “The only woman installer in the State [at the time] and on their board!” Anyway, I tried but it didn’t work. But shortly after that, Rothstein was appointed to the Illinois Bell board. And my dad always thought they did it because I pointed out that they had no women…. Anyway, the story’s headline was “Esther Rothstein and Me.” My late husband at the time, Paul McGrath, was a photographer and taking a lot of pictures for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. He happened to see a reporter in the Law Bulletin office one day reading the piece, and he said jokingly, “I think the headline should just be ‘Me.'” But really, Esther had gotten so many accolades in so many obituaries, why not tell my unique story as it related to her?
- Which brings me to one more idea for a song. It just so happens I have two wonderful pictures of myself with Justice Ginsburg that Paul took not long after her 1993 appointment to the Supreme Court when she visited Chicago. Paul even said to her that “the best thing Clinton will do during his presidency is to have appointed you”–and she beamed with pride. I will never forget that interchange as long as I live. I also have two beautiful pieces of correspondence from Justice Ginsburg from the 1990s, as well. I had mentioned her in my writings a couple of times, once before she became a justice and once after, and each time a mutual friend of ours, a federal judge in Chicago, mailed the mentions to her. And she wrote to me using such beautiful words both times. And both those pieces of correspondence were also mentioned in my aforementioned Chicago Tribune column back in the 1990s, too–because I was carrying them around in clear vinyl sleeves and I wrote a column about my overstuffed purse!
Hey, Jim and Patrice! The album doesn’t come out until June 8, right? Any chance of going back to the drawing board and including a new song? Like the one about RBG above? Or better yet, how about I add a few more anecdotes of my own and we record a whole new album, “The Notorious Bonnie McGrath, esq.?”
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