Some months ago, my wife and I dined over Zoom with my daughter and son-in-law. We set our laptop across the table, they did the same, and by dessert we’d circled around to a familiar family topic: the music of dad’s youth. My son-in-law plays the bass, so I believe he was not simply indulging me when I launched into a perhaps overlong lecture from the School of Rock.
I asked if they had seen Sting (another bass player) perform “The Rising” in honor of Bruce Springsteen at the Kennedy Center Honors. They had not, so we switched to screen-sharing, popped it up on YouTube, and watched Sting perform the Boss’s elegiac song.
We then clicked through another three or four clips of the ceremony from the Obama years.
Watching Aretha Franklin sing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” in recognition of Carole King, we—like everyone in the Presidential Box—respectfully, joyously swayed in our seats with the music. I saw my daughter begin to cry. I could tell her tears were more than those we shared, moved as we were by the great Aretha Franklin’s pulling our communal heartstrings. I could see she was actually weeping.
When the clip ended, I asked if she was O.K. She said, “Yes … no. It’s just that I didn’t realize all of this has been gone, missing, like so much, for four long years.”
The Trump White House was a black hole for music and much of culture. During the Trump administration there were no performances at the White House. Not only did the Trumps refuse to attend the Kennedy Center Honors, his administration tried to cut funding year after year for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The only musician visitors I can remember, in addition to a bizarre meeting in the Oval Office with Kanye West, was on the afternoon that Trump greeted Kid Rock and Ted Nugent for a you-can’t-make-this-shit-up photo op.
Watching Aretha Franklin sing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” in recognition of Carole King, we—like everyone in the Presidential Box— respectfully, joyously swayed.
How important is the celebration of music and musicians and songwriters by the president? When we think about this tradition in modern history, we immediately go back to the Kennedys. Jack and Jackie Kennedy famously hosted the cellist Pablo Casals and, a year later, for what must have been an extraordinary dinner honoring André Malraux, then French minister of culture, they invited Isaac Stern to assemble a trio to perform the Schubert Trio in B-Flat.
At J.F.K.’s pre-inaugural gala, Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra sang. President Kennedy gave Casals, contralto Marian Anderson, and pianist Rudolf Serkin the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the first musicians ever recognized for this award. The Kennedys’ chosen artists and repertoire signaled that America was not a poor cousin in the celebration of classical music; the nation was the proud mother of jazz and the richest source of popular music.
Every First Family since then, except the Trumps, has done its part and with far less political posturing than one might expect. Even the Nixon White House presented Duke Ellington with the Medal of Freedom and greeted Johnny and June Carter Cash. Characteristic of Nixon’s paranoia, there were several performers, such as the Smothers Brothers, who made it onto an extended version of his “enemies list.” This was, perhaps, another kind of presidential honor, as his cynical perpetuation of the Vietnam War and the corruption of his office inspired and compelled some of the greatest songwriters to create some of the most powerful protest music ever written.
Jimmy Carter was deeply, genuinely connected to musicians. Before he was elected to the White House, he had developed true mutual admiration with many of them. In the new documentary Jimmy Carter: Rock ’n Roll President, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Nile Rodgers, Gregg Allman, and Larry Gatlin all speak to Carter’s appreciation of their work and the power music has to uplift and unite.
At J.F.K.’s pre-inaugural gala, Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra sang.
Following the divisive Nixon years, it was significant that Carter’s artist and repertoire choices bridged the divide, uniting Motown, Southern rock, country music, West Coast, Woodstock generation, and protest-culture ballads.
In the Ronald Reagan and the George H. W. Bush White Houses, the soundtrack was a nostalgic fantasy of Reagan’s well-worn “Morning Again in America.” Unfortunately, the morning in question had been lost somewhere 30 years earlier: Frank Sinatra returned to serenade Nancy; Mel Tormé, Perry Como, and Tammy Wynette performed; it was as if the 60s had never happened. At times, these administrations ventured beyond the “oldies radio station.” When Reagan attended a summit in Moscow, he not only brought his secretary of state but also Dave Brubeck.
Then Clinton, the first baby-boomer-in-chief, had the ultimate songwriter’s songwriter, Jerry Jeff Walker, perform the night before Election Day, and flew into office on the wings of Fleetwood Mac. Inauguration Night included that band, a luminous Barbra Streisand, and the pop wattage of Michael Jackson and Elton John.
George W. Bush loves music. Throughout his time in office, he celebrated Black musicians, such as Lionel Hampton, James Brown, and the Blind Boys of Alabama. His iPod playlist was leaked, revealing tracks by George Jones, Alan Jackson, Van Morrison, and John Fogerty (but not Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son”).
And then came the Obama years. From his Inauguration Night, when the first Black American presidential couple danced as Beyoncé sang “At Last,” first recorded by the great Etta James, and for the next eight years, we benefited from the most inspiring celebration of high-brow, middle-brow, and popular-culture music perhaps ever to emanate from the People’s House.
While they were in office, in addition to the extraordinary Kennedy Center Honors performances they hosted, the Obamas launched a series of concerts (all available on YouTube) themed across genres, featuring constellations of stars too numerous to list: a Fiesta Latina with Marc Anthony, Gloria Estefan, Los Lobos; Red, White and Blues with B. B. King and Mick Jagger; classical music with Joshua Bell; country music with Alison Krauss and Lyle Lovett; Broadway with Audra McDonald; and more events featuring Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Usher, Common, the Foo Fighters, and De La Soul.
Trump pulled the curtain down. Nixon had his enemies list. In the Trump years, it was he who was on the list. His inaugural team had trouble lining up talent. Many artists declined invitations to play with a vigor not seen since performers boycotted Sun City during South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Then Clinton, the first baby-boomer-in-chief, flew into office on the wings of Fleetwood Mac.
Previous presidents had intermittently made Washington, D.C., into a stage for music and artists that reflected their identity as president and represented the most benevolent aspect of their vision for America.
The memory of my daughter’s tears came rushing back to me when, less than a week after New Year’s, we sat glued to CNN, heartbroken and crushed, watching the unforgivable attack on the Capitol..After four years devoid of promotion of any cultural celebration was a violent and destructive drama—the ultimate Trump promotion, the consummate representation of his identity—acted out on the steps of government.
On Inauguration Day, the Capitol was bathed in sunlight and oxygen. We could breathe a sigh of relief and, along with hope, take in so much inspiring music: Lady Gaga, J.Lo, the beautiful cadences and musicality of Amanda Gorman’s poem. Cowboy hat in hand, Garth Brooks delivered a pitch-perfect a cappella “Amazing Grace.” Jimmy Carter was right when he said, “One of the things that has held America together is the music that we share and love.”
And then, that night, on something like a national Zoom channel, a host of performers sang unabashedly from their hearts, freed, proud, and happy to be part of it. By the end, after Bruce Springsteen, after John Legend, after Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard, after the Black Pumas, the night closed with Katy Perry’s “Firework.” My wife and I turned off the TV, and I received a text from my daughter: “Dad, the music is back!”
The Kennedy Center Honors are also back. They were postponed last year due to the pandemic. This year, on May 17, the honorees will include Joan Baez, Garth Brooks, the violinist Midori, Debbie Allen, and Dick Van Dyke. The Bidens, too, will be there.
Steven Murphy is an American art consultant and writer based in London