Long live the music. Let it live because B.B. King still plays that guitar the way blues and electricity run through his fingers. Because Eric Clapton is the greatest living rock guitarist. Because Sheryl was once a music teacher and they called her Miss Crow. Let it live because Al Green--the Rev. Al Green--got the holy ghost. Because Lenny Kravitz is so fine in his leather and Afro, singing vintage rock-and-roll.
Let it live because the thrill isn't gone, and the White House believes in rock-and-roll, and can jam, and did so at Saturday afternoon's Concert of the Century. The concert on the South Lawn, a year in the making and presented by cable TV's VH1, brought together some of the greatest performers of the past 40 years to "save the music" in public schools.
The VH1 Save the Music Foundation has sponsored instrument donation drives, supported teachers who have fought to keep music programs alive in schools, and raised millions of dollars to organize and save music programs in big-city schools across the country. Last year President Clinton, the rock-and-roll president who has said he was inspired by Elvis Presley, donated one of his own saxophones to a student in a District school, and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a call to help bring, and save, music and arts education for schoolchildren.
A long list of stars came to town Saturday to play the music and save the music.
Stretch limos lined up along Pennsylvania Avenue, which is usually closed to traffic. Local teenagers watched the show live on cable at 4 p.m. and then gathered outside the White House, trying to steal a look at the stars. But there were no star sightings.
Still, the fans held out hope. They pressed their faces to the cold iron gates and called names. The White House glowed from a distance, as if it were having a house party.
Near the Rose Garden, music legends, actors and actresses, members of Congress, video program staffers and teachers gathered under a big white tent that should have melted from the force of the music.
"All of us here have the same goal: to put music back into our schools," Hillary Clinton said. Thanks to VH1's campaign, the first lady said, "so many children have instruments to play and the confidence to go as far as their talent and dreams will take them."
Clapton opened the show with a sultry rendition of "Ramblin' on My Mind." Then Grammy winners Clapton and Kravitz teamed up for "All Along the Watchtower." Kravitz went on to perform "Fly Away."
A long list of music and acting greats followed. They included rock giants John Fogerty and John Mellencamp; Gloria Estefan and 'N Sync, who performed with students from the East Harlem Violin Program; country star Garth Brooks in a big blue hat and jeans; Melissa Etheridge; and the Paul Shaffer Band, which seemed able to back up anybody.
They each were introduced by a Hollywood star: Angela Bassett, Robert De Niro, Calista Flockhart, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Keri Russell, Kevin Spacey and Meryl Streep.
The actors didn't seem to be acting when they looked into the cameras and thanked their music teachers for teaching them patience and rhythm, and egging them on. A brown-haired Paltrow said dreamily, "When I think back on my education, I'm right back in class . . ." Estefan thanked teacher Roberta Guaspari and her students from the East Harlem Violin Program, saying: "Saving music is not about one concert. It is an ongoing story we can't afford to end."
Despite all this goodwill under one tent, the show never turned saccharine even when music's best joined hands at the show's end and sang, "This land is your land, this land is my land."
Earlier, Spacey had introduced a legend: "We are honored this evening to have among us not only the president of the United States and a possible senator, but we also have a king. This man not only sings the blues, he is the blues. The thrill is not gone."
And B.B. King appeared. It seemed as if his great body had molded itself around his electric guitar all these years. King and Clapton teamed up, singing "The Thrill Is Gone." Afterward, King patted Clapton's shoulder and said, "You get better all the time, young man."
Then King called on Etheridge to join him, and they performed "When Love Comes to Town."
When VH1 President John Sykes thanked the Clintons for their work on behalf of public education, he gave the president a signature B.B. King electric guitar. Clinton again thanked his music teachers. "I don't think I would have become president if it hadn't been for school music." And somehow you believed him.
Clinton, who has turned a space in the White House into a soundproof music room, where he collects music and instruments, also thanked the performers: "We respect and honor them for their talent and for what they have given us tonight. I respect them so much I left my saxophone in the White House."
Clinton, in cowboy boots, rocked like he believed in rock-and-roll, clapping and singing along as Garth Brooks sang "American Pie."
Bye, bye, Miss American Pie.
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry.
An' them good ol' boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye
Singin' "This will be the day that I die, this will be the day that I die."
It was teacher and preacher Al Green who almost brought the tent down, singing a spiritual by the late Sam Cooke. In a champagne-colored raw silk suit, he sang the civil rights anthem "A Change Is Gonna Come."
He sank to his knees. And the crowd rose.
Maybe the music had saved their mortal souls.