Wednesday, January 21, 2009
So much has already been written about the place of these events in US history and the impact on domestic and global issues that all I really want to here is to share some personal impressions gleaned from the past couple days.
* I was so happy to see Pete Seeger leading the crowd in the best ever version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," joined by his grandson and Bruce Springsteen. It has always seemed the alternate National Anthem to me and, when, in his inaugural address, President Obama spoke about choosing "our better history," Guthrie's song rings out as a canticle for that better history.
I swear I could almost make out the sounds of J.Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy and all the HUAC members spinning in their graves as the 89 year old blacklisted folksinger smiled broadly and included the "forbidden verses," He sang:
In the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
There was a big high wall that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, said "private property;"
But on the back side it didn't say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me."
* When Joe Biden took the oath of office I was surprised by this wave of emotion that hit me when what this really means sank in:
Dick Cheney isn't the Vice President of The United States anymore.
* I thought the piece John Williams wrote based on the Shaker folk melody "Simple Gifts" was surprisingly beautiful. Violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma are clearly the classical superstars and played (in the freezing temperatures) with passion, but it was clarinetist (and Peabody Conservatory faculty member) Anthony McGill who added the unique sound of an instrument so closely associated with American music. The ghosts of Benny Goodman and George Gershwin seemed to rise above the crowd for a moment.
* For me, the person who really hit one out of the park was Elizabeth Alexander, whose poem "Praise song for the day" seemed as perfect as such a thing is capable of being, ending,
What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.
In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.
* At the end of the evening I tuned in to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. This was a mistake; it was too early for the inevitable cynicism and I didn't laugh so much as want to slap him. And he got it wrong, too! In a clever bit in which he juxtaposed lines from Obama's speech from next-to-identical lines from Bush speeches, the conclusion was that they don't sound so irritating coming from Obama because he doesn't really believe them. I'm sorry, I disagree. I think the difference is one of substance. I (don't have to) wonder what would happen if you were to ask each man to write an essay on what those phrases actually mean; to put them in their historical context and discuss their evolution as ideas that power a national ideology.
* At some point I think I heard someone compare the inauguration to the moon landing on July 20, 1969. I believe that's slightly off the mark. What I felt watching Barack Obama take the oath of office (with no help from John Roberts) was more like watching Apollo 11 lift off its launch pad on July 16, 1969.
I remember watching it on a small black & white TV. I remember that it went up, slowly, straight, looking like all systems were working. I remember the feeling of hope we all had that it would reach the moon and that it would return, safely. It was watching the potential for a great and wonderful thing begin its journey. This seems much more like that. And, when you consider the list of problems we face, it really does seem a bit like "shooting for the moon."