Watching We Are One, the inaugural celebration concert in Washington on HBO, I kept thinking of transformation. Not “change,” that politically-charged-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness concept, but rather the way that great (and even not-so great) American songs (and even not American songs) evolve over time.
Take the opening performance (after the National Anthem): Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising. The Boss changed the song’s cultural referents by playing it with a gospel choir, but it also evoked the turns the U.S. has gone through since 9/11, which inspired the song. In 2002, it spoke to the national mourning over the dead, whose voices it channeled; in 2004 and 2008 John Kerry and Barack Obama adopted it as a campaign song; here, Springsteen tied it to American themes going beyond a single election or a single century.
Likewise John Mellencamp’s Pink Houses, misread when it came out as an anthem of Reaganesque Americana (Reagan once tried to use it in a campaign ad); with a once-unlikely President-Elect sitting in the audience, there couldn’t help but be a different cast to the dark lyrics about opportunity (“They told me when I was younger / Boy you’re gonna be President / But just like everything else those old crazy dreams / Just kinda came and went”). Or Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come—whose lyrics Obama paraphrased at Grant Park—can’t help but sound a little different now.
The concert overall ranged from the inspiring to the bland to the puzzling: no offense to them, but Jack Black and Steve Carrell? (Jamie Foxx’s Obama impersonation, on the other hand: priceless.) The concert went straight down the roster of America’s Most Broadly Palatable Singers: Josh Groban, James Taylor, Jon Bon Jovi.
Much of the concert referenced—directly or obliquely—the fact that Obama is the first African American elected President. This, of course, is the chief reason this Inauguration is being called historic, and it’s a legitimate one.
But let’s be honest: it’s also a political event, and as nonpartisan as We Are One presented itself, presumably many of the people thronging the Mall—and on stage—were also thrilled for Obama the politician, or for the end of the Bush years. Pete Seeger is an American musical giant from any political standpoint, but he’s also an old school lefty as well as a civil rights veteran. How thrilled must he have been, this late in life, to be standing in Washington singing Woody Guthrie’s New Deal era anthem This Land Is Your Land, not just to the first black President-Elect, but to a former community organizer planning FDR-like government activism?
(Here’s a shaky but legal—and still moving—video of Seeger and Springsteen as seen from the crowd.)
The overt pronouncements from the stage were mainly nonpartisan. It was a little surprising that the one potentially controversial moment—declaring that freedom is also a “Palestinian dream”—came from Bono of U2, who’s always been outspoken but has become a master of realpolitik in recent years in his work on global poverty.
What was finally striking about the event, though, was not any issue of the moment, or even the music itself, but how the images and evocations—from the songs to the symbols on the Mall—tied this one moment to a chain of them in American history. At both an exciting and terrifying time in America, the day, like The Rising, evoked ghosts: “Spirits above and behind me / Faces gone, black eyes burning bright / May their precious blood forever bind me / Lord as I stand before your fiery light.”
Among the reminders of the Civil War, the Great Depression, the March on Washington and 9/11, that was the story: a nation suffering and burning and yet—its ashes commingling and carried upward with the smoke—rising into that endless skyway, with a faith in becoming something greater.