Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Three inaugural moments

Two of my three favorite moments from today's speaking are from President Obama's Inaugural Address:

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. . . .

What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
These passages speak for themselves in their insistence upon dedication and seriousness of purpose. But I hope I'm not hearing things when I detect an echo of Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern in the exhortation to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again. I like the idea of bringing the lyric of an American popular song to the most solemn of occasions. If you've never seen Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time (1936), go ahead: click on that link. Right now: I insist. But do come back.

Moment no. 3 is from Rev. Joseph Lowery's benediction, the closing passage, which joins an 1864 Anglican hymn, "For All the Saints," to a bit of African-American folkloric observation:
Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.
I think that "yellow, mellow" and "red man, get ahead, man" are Lowery's rhymes, not traditional ones. Either way, that benediction made it difficult to remember much of anything about Rick Warren's invocation or Elizabeth Alexander's rather bland poem. If I were thirty years younger, I'd say that Rev. Lowery brought it.

If you're wondering about the beginning of Lowery's benediction, it's the final verse of the poem that became the song known as "The Negro National Anthem," James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

And if you want to see Elizabeth Alexander's poem with its proper line breaks (they seem to have eluded all news organizations), the poem is at Poets.org: "Praise Song for the Day."

More reading
Text of President Obama's Inaugural Address (Time)
Text of Rev. Lowery's benediction (Associated Press)

[I just realized: "there is work to be done": George and Ira Gershwin, "Strike Up the Band" (1927)!]

comments: 6

macon d said...

Thanks for all of the information in this post.

I posted one of my favorite moments too.

macon d said...

Oh, and maybe this was alluded to today too?

Michael Leddy said...

That's great, MD, and I hadn't yet seen it — I only got to see a few minutes of the balls tonight (hadda work). I bet Etta James isn't too pleased though.

Your suggested link goes to what the words "folkloric observation" go to in my post. Same performance. Follow that link!

normann said...

Re: song lyric. I was thinking the exact same thing, so we were both hearing things.

Michael Leddy said...

Norman, I'm glad that you caught it too.

There was an Astaire-Rogers touch at the balls tonight — Barack saying that Michelle does everything he does, only backwards and in heels. (I'm not sure who first made that remark, but it concerned Astaire and Rogers.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link with Eliz. Alexander's line breaks, Michael. That helps some, to see that she envisioned strong three-line stanzas. Strengthens my idea that she was writing a kind of poem mosaic.