It was standing room only in the pendulum area of the Smithsonian's Museum of American History last night for a free "Evening of Song, Recollection and Dance" celebrating "Folk Music in the Roosevelt White House." The occasion was as memorable for its informality and audience involvement as it was for the era-evoking performances and tale-spinning of those on stage.
Instead of "history through objects" it would be an evening "about memory through people;" the promise was fulfilled as folklorist Alan Lomoax, who wrote the script, spoke of FDR's "openly declared affection for American folk song" and son James Roosevelt, seated at a small wooden table with a shaded lamp, reminisced about his father and mother.
Frequently changed photographs cast upon a stage backdrop depicted FDR in his early presidential years, pince-nez perched on his nose and a cigarette clenched in his teeth. Moving film caught him seated among members of a Georgia string band and depicted first lady Eleanor changing partners in a square dance.
Memory piled upon memory as Depression-era scenes flickered on the screen as a visual commentary to the songs of Josh White Jr., whose blues-singing father had led Blind Lemon Jefferson on Texas streets in the '20s and later sang at the White House.
The audience craned necks and stamped feet as the Soco Gap Square Dance Team from Haywood County, N.C., strutted its energetic stuff to an extended jam by Speedy Tolliver and the Melody Trail Boys. And the marble columns seemed to tremble as the Belleville Acappella Choir, a gospel group from Suffolk, Va., led by Thomas Stephenson, rendered "Honor, Honor," with soprano Anita Brabson earning a standing ovation. Banjoist Wade Mainer offered songs he had performed at White House sing-alongs and told of Eleanor Roosevelt accidentally knocking his dish of ice cream to the floor. Tom Corcoran Jr. delivered in an Irish brogue ditties and ballads his father had sung at impromptu White House gatherings. Also performing were the Priority Ramblers and Beverly White, daughter of Josh.
A penultimate wrenching photo showed the worn and haggard leader in his final days. Then, there was a flashback to that earlier grinning president at the wheel of his car as the Belleville Choir brought it all home with a rousing "Down by the Riverside."