December 14, 2020
On January 20, 2021, Joseph R. Biden, Jr., and Kamala Harris will assume the offices of president and vice president of the United States. There will be new faces, new ideas, new policies, and undoubtedly a different personal style of governing.
And there will inevitably be different music at the White House. I have not the slightest idea what Biden’s and Harris’s tastes are, but in a spirit of helpfulness for the new administration, I’d like to offer some musical suggestions.
Of course, between now and January 20th, President Trump will still be in office. I’ve some musical ideas for him as well. Trump would ordinarily be preparing to leave office at this point, but for some reason, he seems reluctant. After having held the most powerful and all-consuming position in the land, he will once again be merely an ordinary citizen without Air Force One to shuttle him around the world.
President Trump, to provide you with a modicum of comfort during this time of transition, may I suggest Duke Ellington’s Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.
Come to think of it, sudden inactivity may be the least of your problems, sir. Undoubtedly, you entered office four years ago accompanied by the stirring sounds of John Philip Sousa’s Hail to the Chief. Leaving the White House with a heap of legal troubles apparently coming your way, a more appropriate title for Sousa’s music, and your exit, might be Jail to the Chief.
But Trump is the past. Let’s talk about our incoming president and vice president, Joe Biden and KamalaHarris. As they enter the White House for the first time, I suggest a rousing rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus from George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah, followed by Happy Days are Here Again, a song long associated with the Democratic Party. When Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt arrived in Chicago in 1932 to accept his party’s nomination, the sound of Happy Days are Here Again greeted him.
So long sad times
Go long bad times
We are rid of you at last
Howdy gay times
Cloudy gray times
You are now a thing of the past
Unfortunately, happy days will not be waiting for Biden and Harris. The immediate order of business for their administration will undoubtedly be the raging COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of this writing almost 250,000 Americans have died of the virus. Béla Bartók’s Sixth String Quartet seems a fitting memorial for those that have passed away and for their loved ones left behind. It was written as Bartók’s beloved mother was dying, with the Second World War imminent. A slow melody marked “Mesto” (mournful) begins each movement of the Hungarian composer’s work. The Quartet’s fourth and final movement is gripped with a sense of despair and desolation, and ends with a series of hauntingly strummed notes on the cello. Profound sadness yet with a sense of inner acceptance hangs in the air as the sound dies away.
But there is also wonderful news alongside the ongoing tragedy of this pandemic. Kamala Harris will be the first woman of color to become vice president of our country. What an exhilarating and hopeful moment in this country’s long struggle against racial inequality. To witness Harris about to enter the White House is a sign of how far we have come from the days of slavery and the hope embedded in such African-American spirituals as Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Taken from the biblical story of the Prophet Elijah’s journey to heaven by a chariot, the song, and specifically the word “chariot,” became the code word for a slave’s passage to freedom on the Undergound Railroad.
Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home
Biden and Harris will be further challenged by the withering echoes of the Trump era. Can the Democrats and Republicans get anything accomplished this time around? Not by looking at the past. The situation reminds me of a song from the late 1930s, Undecided.
First you say you do
And then you don’t
And then you say you will
And then you won’t
You’re undecided now
So what are you gonna do?
You’re gonna get something done for us, Congress. Please!
Biden and Harris are unquestionably decent and sincere people, but how will they convince the climate-deniers that without quick action we could be on the verge of mass extinction? As glaciers melt, seawater rises, and a combination of drought, violent storms, floods, and massive forest fires beset us, I cannot help but think of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Messiaen wrote the work while a prisoner of war in German captivity. Scored for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano, the musicians at the first performance had only decrepit instruments as they played for four hundred prisoners and guards. The work was inspired by text from the Book of Revelation:
And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was on his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire… and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth…. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and swore by him that liveth for ever and ever… that there should be time no longer.
So Joe and Kamala, as we listen to the sixth movement of Quartet for the End of Time, please fight to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, set up electric power stations throughout the country, and let solar and wind energy flourish. Perhaps, with success, that mighty angel standing upon the sea and the earth will reconsider putting an end to time.
And if in fact time does not stop, there will continue to be masses of immigrants huddled at our border in uncertainty and chaos. And this is occurring as we head into Christmas—a time for generosity of spirit, for opening our arms to people in need, and especially to acknowledge the essence of who we are: a nation of immigrants.
One such immigrant, named Israel Baline, arrived in this country at the age of five speaking not a word of English, and yet he was able to become a man we think of as being essentially American. That man, who changed his name to Irving Berlin, composed over 900 songs during his lifetime. They include White Christmas, which will undoubtedly be sung all over the country during the coming holidays, and God Bless America, introduced on Armistice Day, 1938. Berlin wrote both the words and music to this song that threatened to replace the National Anthem because of its patriotism and popularity.
God bless America, land that I love
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with the light from above
From the mountains to the prairies
To the oceans white with foam
God bless America, my home sweet home
Upon taking office, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, may you and our scientists conquer the COVID-19 virus, stem the tide of pernicious racism, find the means to create jobs and alleviate poverty, take a bold stand against global warming, and please, do not forget those immigrants at our borders who dream of becoming American citizens. Another Irving Berlin may be among them.
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