The president’s home was eerily quiet during the last administration. When Celine Dion, Jennifer Holliday, Elton John and other musicians refused to perform for Trump’s 2016 inauguration, it may have led his administration to roll up the red carpet for musicians and artists in general, convinced it would be hard to get big names to accept the invitations.
Still, the contrast with the Obama administration could not be more profound. The 44th president’s celebration of music included almost every genre imaginable, with country, hip-hop, classical, pop, rock, R&B, Latin and Broadway artists taking their turns in the East Room. The sights and sounds of figures like Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, B.B. King or the cast of “Hamilton” performing for the Obamas and their guests was the norm. President Barack Obama used his office as an excellent forum to expose this country and its inhabitants to our rich, diverse musical heritage.
Music creates a feeling that words cannot convey. In a country where citizens sometimes seem to be polar opposites, music has the ability to soothe the soul and find commonalities where it appears there are none. Very simply, music is a pleasure and a place for refuge that virtually everyone has used to step away from this thing called life. As American soprano Jessye Norman wrote in her foreword to “Music at the White House: From the 18th to the 21st Centuries,” “Music is not only the universal language: it is the language of the universe.”
The U.S. presidency has played a long and rich role in that tradition. When John and Abigail Adams moved into the nation’s new presidential residence in November 1800, they set that relationship in motion by inviting the U.S. Marine Band to play at their first reception on New Year’s Day, 1801. Even during wartime, the sweet sounds of music emanated from the White House. Abraham Lincoln could neither sing nor play an instrument, but he loved music. “Honest Abe” was a great opera lover, and hosted frequent musical performances in the White House, featuring artists ranging from the Marine Band to opera star Meda Blanchard and Native American soprano “Larooqua.”
One of the first East Room concerts in 1882 featured the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who sang “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” so beautifully that President Chester A. Arthur wept in the audience. Some of the performers had been enslaved just 17 years before. In 1931, President Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover were the first to invite an artist to play for visiting heads of state. This combination of diplomacy and music became a staple for future administrations. During the 12-year administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, more than 300 concerts were held in the White House, soothing the soul of a nation as it worked through a depression, isolationism and war.
These concerts became such a tradition that PBS in 1978 inaugurated “In Performance at the White House,“ an intermittent series that broadcasts these shows to the nation.
Although Biden and Vice President Harris need to be focused on big national issues, I am counting on them to strike up the band, sing a simple song or maybe even cut a rug in the White House.
It will be incredible to see the reemergence of music as part of our national psyche. The releasing of a 46-song musical playlist by the new administration to celebrate the 2021 inauguration was a good start, but I hope they do more to soothe our troubled souls in a fashion that only music can achieve. As a theme, I hear the 1983 song “Let the Music Play” by Shannon as our new beginning. Perhaps in the spirit of uplifting a dispirited nation, they can at least hold the first year’s concert on Zoom.
Let me know, President Biden, so I can pencil it into my schedule. It will be our own musical liberation day.