Big Ears in the White House: Obama’s boomer soul, and predecessors

Thanks to President Barack Obama, January-February 2009 has been a great time for American popular music. It’s well known he’s got big ears. But Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and Herbie Hancock at the Lincoln Memorial, Aretha Franklin singing at the Inauguration, Paul Simon and Esperanza Spaulding among those paying tribute to Stevie Wonder, winner of the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize — who himself tore it up on “Superstition” and “Signed, Sealed and Delivered” —  at the White House!?! What other U.S. leader has so valued and spotlit our internationally popular vernacular music?


W. seems to have been as tone deaf to music as to public policy — he certainly didn’t do much to exploit one of our country’s most powerful arts-for-export.Bill Clinton plays tenor sax badly, digs others who do it better and remains a deeply soft-rock kinda guy,

George H.W. “Daddy” Bush gave a National Medal of the Arts to Dizzy Gillespie, but there’s no evidence he ever listened to “Night In Tunisia” — in remarks at the ceremony in 1989 he said, “The music of the frontier led to the blues of the bayou and the swing bands of the cities,” which seems ahistorical if not simply inaccurate. At Ronald Reagan’s funeral, the American music was strictly religious — by William Bolcom and Stephen Paulus — or iconic  (“Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Amazing Grace“), though his campaign manager, the odious Lee Atwater, loved the blues (while disdaining what they’re all about). 
Jimmy Carter earned my enduring admiration for hosting the best jazz concert ever to take place at the White House on June 18, 1978, with Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Eubie Blake,  Mary Lou Williams and many others playing, ailing Charles Mingus in the attending crowd. He’s been quoted as saying, “Whenever we visit New Orleans or St. Louis or Chicago, we go out of our way to attend a jazz concert of nightclub.” Ok, Pops!
Gerald Ford proclaimed October “Country Music Month” in 1976 — is it still celebrated as such? Unbelievable though it is, Richard Nixon composed a piano concerto — here playing it on the Jack Paar tv show.

Post-Watergate, Nixon seems to have disassociated himself with music. Lyndon Johnson’s major contribution to America’s sonic arts seems to have been the war in Viet Nam, which inspired many a rousing protest song. In November 1961 John F. Kennedy invited Elliott Carter, Aaron Copeland, Henry Cowell, Roy Harris, Alan Hovhaness, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein, among other highbrow American composers to the White House for a Pablo Casals concert, and was the first to present jazz there, though it was the soft-core Paul Winter Sextet; he may be even better remembered as the object of Frank Sinatra’s “High Hopes” and “Happy Birthday” as sung here by Marilyn Monroe. 

None other than Irving Berlin was responsible for the “I Like Ike” campaign song and slogan that elevated Dwight Eisenhower from General of the Army to civilian Commander-in-Chief. Harry Truman played piano, but is most famous for his critique of a music critic who dumped on his daughter.
I’ll stop there, about the time I was born, except to add the anecdote reported by eye-and-earwitness John Hill Hewitt regarding the unfortunate experience of mid-19th century autodidact composer Anton Philip Heinrich upon performing “Dawning of Music in America” in the White House parlor for John Tyler, 10th POTUS:

The composer labored hard to give full effect to his weird production; his bald pate bobbed from side to side,  and shone like a bubble on the surface of a calm lake. At times his shoulders would be raised to the line of his ears, and his knees went up to the keyboard,  while the perspiration rolled in large drops down his wrinkled cheeks.

The ladies stared at the maniac musician, as they, doubtless, thought him, and the president scratched his head, as if wondering whether wicked spirits were not  rioting in the cavern of mysterious sounds and rebelling against the laws of acoustics. The composer labored on, occasionally explaining some incomprehensible passage, representing, as he said, the breaking up of the frozen river Niagara, the thaw of the ice, and the dash of the mighty falls.  Peace and plenty were represented by soft strains of pastoral music, while the thunder of our naval war-dogs and the rattle of our army musketry told of our prowess on sea and land.   

The inspired composer had got about half-way through his wonderful production when Mr. Tyler restlessly arose from his chair, and placing his hand gently on Heinrich’s shoulder, said; “That may all be very fine, sir, but can’t you play us a good old Virginia reel?”  

Had a thunderbolt fallen at the feet of the musician, he could not have been more astounded.  He arose from the piano, rolled up his manuscript, and, taking his hat and cane, bolted towards the door, exclaiming;  “No sir; I never plays dance music!” 

Fortunately, Stevie Wonder has no such qualms. President Obama and his charming First Lady sat in the front row holding hands, maybe bobbing heads and shoulders as Wonder and ensemble funked it up, but the notably young and pan-ethnic White House staff, as seen on the PBS broadcast, was movin’ hips/with a feeling/from side to side. Could this spectacle possibly disconcert any American with life still in ’em? Isn’t it a glorious, immediate manifestation of the stimulus package?

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  1. Mark Stryker says

    On the subject of Jimmy Carter and jazz, there is this story that I’ve been told: At some point in the ’80s on a trip to Chicago, Carter asked some folks where to go to hear some great live jazz. He got directed to the Get Me High Lounge where saxophonists Ed Peterson and Lin Halliday were playing. The story as I heard it was that the secret service agents came in and cased out the join right before Carter entered. What’s hilarious is that the Get Me High was among greatest dives you can imagine — a crackerbox in which I remember that not only did you have to walk on the bandstand to get to the men’s room but sometimes you literally might have to walk between band members.
    Howard, I assume you were in Chicago at that point. Does this story ring a bell? (I should probably verify it sometime with Ed Peterson.)
    HM: I lived in Chicago at the time and recall the Get Me High, such a dark joint I don’t recall ever *seeing* a bathroom. Decent music, though. Good of Carter to venture there, I wonder who tipped him off. Probably Jim dj, the Man in Black (Chicagoans, including Ed Peterson, know of whom I speak).

  2. CR says

    I loved the Gershwin prize show although it’s a shame that Obama, who can clearly get down, felt he had to sit upright, with his hands properly crossed on his lap for most of this blazing hot concert. You just know he wanted to move it like he felt it! Maybe in his second term!
    HM: See Stevie Wonder at the White House getting his Award from the Prez and starting “Signed Sealed & Delivered” — (I think the rest of the performance clips must be up somewhere, too)

  3. says

    About Mark Stryker’s Get Me High post from February…I lived less than 2 blocks away and was in there many nights after work for a few years. Yes, the bathroom was on the stage.
    I remember the night when former president Jimmy Carter was there well. I was sitting at the bar before the show and my friend, Rick came in and told me the Secret Service was outside. I asked, “how do you know they’re Secret Service?” Rick replied, “They’re talking into their wrists. I stuck my head out the door and saw men in trench coats talking into their wrists.
    Here’s how he got there. President Carter’s son, Chip, lived in Evanston, and liked the Get Me High, and so took his dad there.
    At the end of the evening, we saw President Carter approach Peterson, who autographed a piece of his music and gave it to President Carter.