Isn't This a Time: Live-Blogging Sunday's Inaugural Concert
By Al Giordano
HBO has asked all local cable companies to make Sunday's concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial available free to their viewers whether they subscribe to HBO or not.
The line-up is no less than spectacular but there's one name that sticks out above all others for me, and it's my 89-year-old pal Pete Seeger...
Pete sang on picket lines with union organizers and joined forces with Woody Guthrie and others in the 1940s to give voice to their struggles through The Almanac Singers (later known as The Weavers). After a number one hit w ith Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene" they were blacklisted as communists from radio play in 1953. In 1955, Pete was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (he brought his banjo and tried to sing them a song, which they would not allow, so he recited the lyrics instead to "Wasn't That a Time" while also refusing to name names, telling the committee, "I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.") For that he was sentenced to ten years in prison for contempt of Congress, a conviction later overturned on appeal.
Pete marched from Selma to Montgomery in the Civil Rights struggles of 1965, played tirelessly at rallies for that cause, also for ending the war in Vietnam, for the environment and always for unions and against censorship. He was with us time and time again in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s, so on and so forth. Living in Beacon, New York, with his wife, Toshi, I saw him there two years ago by his beloved Clearwater Sloop boat, continuing the fight. In 2006, Bruce Springsteen and friends called the Seeger Sessions Band tour resurrecting Seeger's music and struggle for a wider public and on Sunday Pete will be there to ring in the new president of the government that spent decades trying to silence and even destroy him. It will be an especially emotional moment for many of us.
Update 2:40 p.m. First músico up, Bruce Springsteen, with a gospel choir, singing his 2000 song, The Rising.
2:50 p.m.: Next up Mary J. Blige singing Bill Withers' 1972 work, Lean on Me. (Note of trivia: All the singers are being backed by the same band. I'm trying figure out who's in it and will let y'all know when I do.)
2:54 p.m.: Between the musical numbers, Hollywood types and social leaders and videos are recounting quotations from the likes of FDR, JFK, Jefferson, Thurgood Marshall, etc. Third up musically, Bettye Lavette and Jon Bon Jovi dueting on Sam Cooke's 1964 "A Change Is Gonna Come." (Note how the songs chosen so far are themselves already classics in American folklore lexicon.) They're followed by Tom Hanks, backed by a military orchestra playing Aaron Copeland's Lincoln Portrait, quoting from and talking about Abraham Lincoln.
3:08 p.m.: James Taylor with electric guitar singing his "Shower the People." Now John Legend takes the second verse, Jennifer Nettles on the third...
3:31 p.m.: After some ancillary noise from Joe Biden (sorry, Joe, but, really), John Mellencamp comes out with an unidentified guitarist to play his "Ain't That America." The TV isn't identifying the other guitar player (nor a couple of previous back-up singers for James Taylor), which is somewhat annoying... Into a later verse, a huge gospel choir is revealed to sing behind him. They're not identified either.
3:23: Josh Groban takes the next part of "My Country 'tis of Thee" from archival footage of Marian Anderson singing it at that same Lincoln Memorial - Queen Latifa had just told that story by way of introduction - during the FDR era. Heather Headley joins him in duet. Gospel choir behind them, still unidentified.
3:29: Herbie Hancock with Sheryl Crow & will.i.am sing Bob Marley's "One Love." Herbie on piano. Tiger Woods intros "The US Naval Academy Glee Club" but it's Renée Fleming singing "You'll Never Walk Alone" from the 1945 musical Carousel. Oh, there's the glee club now! (In the musical, the song was sung to console a grieving wife after her bandit husband killed himself after a failed robbery, but whatever...)
3:40: Garth Brooks - pioneer of the headset microphone! - with guitar sings (an abridged version of) Don McLean's "American Pie." A school choir is behind him. It's so cold they have to do their clapping with mittens on. And now he's doing the Isley Brothers' 1959 "Shout." (Actually, I think this is the best performance so far, because it's less buttoned-up and wilder in tone and of course its incongruities. A punk rock moment from a country star! More of that please.) Then the medley segues into his 1992 "We Shall Be Free":
When the last child cries for a crust of bread,
When the last man dies for just words that he said,
When there's shelter over the poorest head,
We shall be free,
When the last thing we notice is the color of skin,
And the first thing we look for is the beauty within,
When the skies and the oceans are clean again,
Then we shall be free
I confess that I never would have expected Garth Brooks, of all the talents on the bill, to steal the show, but so far he's done that.
3:50: Stevie Wonder on the keyboards, Usher & Shakira dueting (and looking for their lost last names?) on Wonder's "Higher Ground." Then Samuel Jackson comes on and tells Civil Rights movement stories and that of the day of MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech on the same memorial steps. And he introduces U2 to play Bono's tribute to King, "In the Name of Love." Bono: "In two days, his dream comes to pass." Then U2 plays "City of Blinding Light."
4:08: "We will now water-board this American Bald Eagle."
4:12: Obama speaks:
What gives me that hope is what I see when I look out across this mall. For in these monuments are chiseled those unlikely stories that affirm our unyielding faith - a faith that anything is possible in America. Rising before us stands a memorial to a man who led a small band of farmers and shopkeepers in revolution against the army of an Empire, all for the sake of an idea. On the ground below is a tribute to a generation that withstood war and depression - men and women like my grandparents who toiled on bomber assembly lines and marched across Europe to free the world from tyranny's grasp. Directly in front of us is a pool that still reflects the dream of a King, and the glory of a people who marched and bled so that their children might be judged by their character's content. And behind me, watching over the union he saved, sits the man who in so many ways made this day possible.
And yet, as I stand here tonight, what gives me the greatest hope of all is not the stone and marble that surrounds us today, but what fills the spaces in between. It is you - Americans of every race and region and station who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there.
(Among the scheduled performers, two haven't yet performed: Beyonce and Pete Seeger. My guess is we'll hear from some surprise guests, too. My guess: a "This Land is Your Land" with all the performers together, led by Seeger and Springsteen.)
4:18: Heh. Nailed that one!
4:20: And Pete delivers the punk rock moment extraordinaire:
As I went walking I saw sign there
And on that sign it said "No Trespassing"
But on the other side it didn't say nothin'
That side was made for you and me...
Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking down freedom highway
I dare anyone living to try and stop me
Because this land was made for you and me...
That's more like it.
Now Beyonce ends it with "America the Beautiful." (I really did just predict that here in the newsroom, but neglected to post it to the blog. Ah, well. Hopefully they'll surprise us with a little somethin' extra next.)
Post-concert: Here's video of Pete's mischievous and conquering all-at-once moment. The significance of it did not go unnoticed. Way to go, Pete...
I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling a sense of vindication - and justice - here.