Like most people under 35, I learned about Watergate in school. But I don’t remember exactly when my teachers covered it because the dry lesson plans about the scandal were unmemorable.
Yet as Washington looks back on 40 years since the political scandal, I am reminded of the history lesson I received on the subject that made the most lasting impact: It was from the late Gil Scott-Heron.
Scott-Heron took on Watergate in a spoken-word recording, cheekily titled “H20Gate Blues.” The song appeared on the 1974 album “Winter in America” and channels the cultural commentary that made Scott-Heron’s 1970 poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” a pop culture mainstay.
“H20Gate Blues” offers a glimpse of the political insight Scott-Heron gained while living in the District in the ’70s. In 2009, the artist told Post columnist Courtland Milloy that the song was his “way of explaining to people outside the Beltway what Watergate was really all about.”
Appropriately enough, the song was recorded inside the Beltway — at D&B Sound in Silver Spring. In his posthumously released memoir, “The Last Holiday,” Scott-Heron recalls recording it as a “live ad-lib” to a blues backing with the introduction — a clever riff on how there are “500 shades of the Blues” — done off the cuff. The track includes comments (and laughter) from the audience as they respond to political zingers like:
But tell me, who was around where Hale Boggs died?
And what was the cause of LBJ's untimely demise?
And what really happened to J. Edgar Hoover?
The king is proud of Patrick Gray
While America's faith is drowning
beneath that cesspool — Watergate.
“H20Gate Blues” is typical Heron: unsparing, ironic and clear. It spoke to many African Americans and those on the political left disenchanted with Nixon’s America. Indeed, the song embodied another element of what made Scott Heron different than other performers at the time: He was a social activist. In a spoken word piece entitled “We Beg Your Pardon (Pardon our Analysis),” he’d later set the plight of many in the black community against the backdrop of the pardon that Nixon received from President Gerald Ford in September 1974.
In his memoir, Scott-Heron notes that “H20Gate Blues” almost didn’t make it onto “Winter in America,” but drummer Bob Adams insisted. Scott-Heron writes:
I got a lot of political insight from being in Washington. But the reason I’d left it off the record, I told him, was because nobody outside D.C. seemed to know what the hell I was talking about. He replied that even if people didn’t understand the politics, it was still funny as hell.
Some of the lyrics are funny: “And that ominous phrase that ‘if Nixon knew, Agknew,’ but Ag didn’t know enough to stay out of jail.” But it’s the way in which it captured the sentiment of the time that makes it such an important and enduring commentary on a major point in American history.
Milloy remembers the song as a counterpart to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” noting that Scott-Heron tackled systemic corruption “with poetry and power.”
“The illusions, the smoke and the mirrors — Gil could see through it and capture it and did so very well,” Milloy said, adding that “at the time there was nobody else who was able to deal with the corrosive political structure as poetically as [Scott-Heron] did.”
I had a very Generation Y education when it came to Watergate, having had the standard lesson plan in grade school history classes and counting both “All the President’s Men” and “Dick” as movies I’ve seen more than once (okay, more than twice).
But it’s this record that taught me the most.