There is a joke that makes the rounds in Washington, D.C. when a politician attracts mirth or somehow does not belong: An old rancher is talking about politics with a young man from the city. He compares a politician to a "post turtle". The young man doesn't understand and asks him what a post turtle is.
The old man says: "When you're driving down a country road and you see a fence post with a turtle balanced on top, that's a post turtle. You know he didn't get up there by himself. He doesn't belong there; he can't get anything done while he's up there; and you just want to help the poor thing down.”
This joke has been tried on for size with Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, as well as Barack Obama (though in the latter case it was fellow Democrats, ironically enough, who described him as such). But as Obama took the oath of office at the Capitol Building in the company of nearly 2 million people last Tuesday (with countless millions more watching around the world), it seems a fatuous comment to make. It is obvious who put him there and why - and millions are celebrating the fact that he is “up there” and that he will get things done.
Two miles of human beings stretched from the Capitol to the Washington Monument where we secured a place in view of a Jumbotron, which recorded the events at the Capitol with a two second delay. Another mile of people stretched back to the Lincoln Memorial at the west end of the National Mall. The British journalist Alistair Cooke, in his radio address (and then later, book) Letter from America, said, in 1947, that Washington, D.C. “exists in everybody’s eye as a newsreel image of a dome... a huge statue of Lincoln and a parade of some sort.”
All these things were immediately visible to anyone who was in the area on this day. Being in Washington D.C. at this inauguration was like being in an instant newsreel. Complete strangers hugged and shared coffee. A chalkboard in a bar stated: “Obama for your mama and mine.” (Whether it is a new cocktail or simply a gleeful statement is not clear). These people formed the largest gathering of this sort in the city’s history; it is also clear that nobody else alive could draw a crowd of this size.
In a gift shop near the Lincoln Memorial which became a temporary refuge from the cold, I overheard someone complain about paying $6 for a sandwich. “Why don’t you give it to me for free? What about freedom?” he joked. The vendor looked at his watch and declared, “Freedom begins at 12 today.”
As enshrined in the Constitution, at noon on Inauguration Day, the power of the office is passed peacefully to the next president. Taking an oath of office, in which the new president swears to defend the Constitution, is merely a formality, and Obama had already been president for three minutes when he took the oath at 12:03pm, 20 January, 2009.
The ceremonious events this week and the media analysis have been rich in symbolic grandeur and the pulling of heart strings. This year, inaugural organizers had the difficult task of trying to put on a ceremony that took sufficient note of the historic nature of the inauguration, but somehow also took into account that the country is in an economic crisis. The hopefulness that, for many, is tied in with this new era is a by-product of genuine fear over their jobs and an uncertain future.
For a few days at least, the presidency itself is put on hold while people celebrate. As was true for the campaign, music played a prominent role in the celebration of Obama and American history. On Sunday 17 January, at the free “We Are One” concert put on as part of the week’s events, Obama said that “music is the creative heartbeat of the American experience.”
One kind of music in particular seems to capture the cautious hopefulness of the American people at this moment: the blues. Change, probably the word most associated with the crafting of Obama’s campaign message, features strongly in the genre, which expresses lament but also a cautious hope. The African-American struggle is also very much tied in with the blues tradition, and there is no escaping this piece of history this week. Obama's own ancestral path may not have come through American slavery, with a Kenyan immigrant father and white American mother, but a lot of his musical tradition did. His diverse background means that a great many types of people see some of their own lives and struggles in him, and the blues have emerged as a perfect soundtrack to the moment. Blues are so called because the songs used blue notes - notes at a slightly lower pitch for purposes of expression. The use of blue notes and the prominence of call-and-response patterns in the music and lyrics are indicative of African influences.
Felix McClairin is the president of the DC Blues Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading awareness of blues’ role in American heritage and is funded in part by national endowments. They put on a pre-Inaugural “Obamarama” party. As McClairin explained, Obama fits in well with the American blues experience: “Obama’s election as 44th president of the United States is truly a momentous occasion and deserves mention in the context of the blues. In the midst of economic decline, false wars, and unparalleled greed and cynicism, the nation is certainly feeling the blues. In his book, Hope on a Tightrope, Princeton University professor Cornel West says that people have been looking to blues again to provide vision to a nation with the blues. The blues, in its inherent paradox, is hope. It is incumbent upon the makers of this uniquely American music to continue to carry on the struggle…Blues belongs to the people.”
From New York, Lex Grey and the Urban Pioneers is a three-piece “blues and burlesque” band that performed on the Saturday before the inauguration in Adams Morgan, a diverse and vibrant neighbourhood that lies to the north of the business end of D.C. and is known for its bars, restaurants and live music. In a D.C. institution called Madam’s Organ (redheads drink for free in here), they played a blues set tailored to the occasion. Between songs, Grey explained how blues are the perfect celebration of American heritage-expressing guilt, violence and death. “I was elated when Obama won... I was cynical after the last election, but the feeling out there lately among people is much more friendly, open and relaxed.”
When offered the opportunity to play in D.C. on the inaugural weekend, they jumped at the chance: “We wondered if the illusion was real, and it was.”
Guitarist Victor Deyglio said that "not since the Beatles has America been so captivated by a ray of youthful optimism."
Grey explained that the genre is complemented by the credit crunch-induced scaling down of musical performance, and the attendant decrease in conspicuous consumption: “As an artist whose material is blues-based, the recent economic recession has not interfered with our ability to work, but has changed the style of venue. There are fewer fancy dinner clubs and theaters, fewer big festivals. People are going out less, but the gigs are more intimate, in-your-face and wild. There is a perceptible energy and some walls are coming down and barriers are dissolving. Being a musician at this time (or at this second) makes you the entertainment and collective voice for the biggest attitude adjustment in recent history. As a musician, you are the soundtrack of the moment. Blues music is as universal as it is indigenous; it fits so well with the current climate because it is music about pain and work, or lack thereof, and love, or lack thereof, and overcoming obstacles.”
Many of Grey’s musician friends have made the pilgrimage to D.C; others are planning a meal with family to gather together and watch the ceremony on TV. “As for me, I have some champagne chilling and a guitar in my lap. I'm ready for the ride.”
History so often moves incrementally, or takes years to crystallize. Millions came to Washington this week to celebrate a great leap forward. For a few days, we could suspend our political cynicism. At the very least, it seemed that in one fell swoop the American flag was no longer the symbol of the skewed patriotism the Bush administration demanded while embarking on the War on Terror; it has become an altogether more neutral symbol of a country and the ideals it has preached in the past.