After an Inauguration, the Stars Come out to Play

Ever since George Washington danced after his inauguration, the ceremony has brought big names in the arts to the capital city

U.S. Marine Band on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

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This year, Franklin, the Queen of Soul, will give a free concert at the Kennedy Center, Sweet Honey in the Rock will give a children’s concert and Washington music venues have booked special lineups. The big names will be as varied as the musical genres: rap star Jay-Z will perform at a theater in downtown D.C. and electronica maven Moby will deejay a midnight dance party at a night club. Other high-ticket inaugural balls will feature performers including Rihanna and Elvis Costello.

Presidents, concert organizers and musicians have had differing opinions about whether popular or classical music is appropriate for inaugural concerts. In 1961 the director of the NSO, Howard Mitchell, expressed relief that Kennedy’s concert would include only “serious classical music,” such as Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi. “I remember playing for Mr. [Franklin] Roosevelt,” Mitchell told the Washington Post. “We’d play a number and then Mickey Rooney would come out and amuse them.”

Reciting poetry at inaugurations is a relatively new addition. Robert Frost delivered the first poem in 1961 for Kennedy, though it wasn’t the poem he penned for the occasion. On Inauguration Day, the glare from the freshly fallen snow blinded him, says Jim Bendat, author of Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President. “I’m not having a good light,” the 86-year-old Frost said. Vice President Johnson tried to shield the poet’s eyes with his top hat, but Frost recited the poem “A Gift Outright” instead, telling the crowd he was dedicating it to John Finley, a Harvard scholar colleague of Frost’s, not John Kennedy.

Three decades later, Bill Clinton carried on the tradition, inviting poets Maya Angelou in 1993 and Miller Williams, a longtime friend from Arkansas, in 1997. Both Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” and Williams’ “Of History and Hope” evoked words and images from the civil rights movement.

This year, Beyoncé will sing the National Anthem at the U.S. Capitol during Obama’s swearing-in on January 21. In 2009, she performed at the inauguration concert and sang Etta James’ “At Last” during an inaugural ball. The lineup also includes Kelly Clarkson singing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” and James Taylor singing “America the Beautiful.”

However large the crowd for these performances, the audiences this year will likely outnumber what McKinley’s writer predicted.


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