By Paul Stroller
Toward the end of February, which is Black History Month in America, the magic of The Blues gloriously slipped into the East Room of the White House, where President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama paid tribute to perhaps the most expressive of American musical forms. “Red, White and Blues,” which you can see on an In Performance at the White House video, was a remarkable event. Here’s what happened.
Accompanied by the classic groove of Booker T and the MG’s, “Green Onions,” the President and First Lady entered the packed East Room of The White House to thunderous applause. They warmly greeted the well-wishers. The President took to the stage to talk briefly about the history, social depth and artistry of The Blues. In short order, he introduced the King of Blues, B.B. King, who was flanked by a great cast of blues artists, including, among others, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Shemekia Copeland, Susan Tedeschi, Keb Mo, Gary Clark Jr., and Derek Trucks. After a short downbeat, B.B. King vigorously belted out the first verse of “Let the Good Times Roll.”
The good times really rolled that night at the White House. After several songs, the incomparable Mick Jagger was introduced. He stormed on stage and brought a diversely aged crowd of black folks, white folks and brown folks — to their feet. They clapped their hands and swayed to music that stirs the soul.
To close the show, President Obama thanked the artists and talked a bit more about the Kansas City Blues, the St. Louis Blues and the Delta Blues, but said that for him and Michelle there is no blues like the song the artists had chosen to close the show, the blues song of his home town, “Sweet Home Chicago.”
The president then rejoined the crowd and began to clap to the beat. He raised his arms, urging the crowd to their feet. Buddy Guy sang. Shemekia Copeland sang. Mick Jagger sang. And then Buddy Guy pointed in President Obama’s direction, urging him to sing. Mike Jagger handed a microphone to the president who chimed in, singing the “Sweet Home Chicago” verses perfectly. The president’s participation prompted a magical moment in which the music created a coming together. The music created a feeling of shared fellowship that melted away social and political differences. Given the contemporary dysfunction of government in Washington, such a much-needed convergence, however temporary, was quite special.
Anthropologists have a term for these unexpected moments of convergence. We call it communitas. In communitas, according to the anthropologist Edith Turner,
There is a loss of ego. One’s pride in oneself becomes irrelevant. In the group, all are in united, seamless unity, so that even joshing is cause for delight and there is a lot of laughter. The benefits of communitas are quick understanding, easy mutual help, and long-term ties with others.
When you enter a small club where The Blues are played, you are likely to experience communitas. In the 1980s and 1990s I liked to travel to Chicago to visit friends and hear The Blues. I liked going to blues clubs on Chicago’s South Side — the famous Checkerboard Lounge as well as Lee’s Lead Free Blues Club. Although these clubs were in crime-ridden neighborhoods, I never felt any danger, for these venues offered me the fellowship of the blues club where the human dimensions that connect us become more important than your race, social class or nationality.
One night at the Checkerboard Lounge, I heard the gripping music of Magic Slim and the Teardrops. During a break I went to the bathroom. When I returned to my table, I saw a group of Japanese musicians on stage. The announcer said: “They may not look like our guys, but they sure can play.” Indeed, they played wonderful blues and the diverse Checkerboard crowd went wild — clapping, swaying, and dancing, just like the diverse crowd in the East Room of the White House.
What is it about The Blues that brings on this special moment of convergence? For me, the music eloquently evokes those things that are profoundly human — love and loss, faithfulness and betrayal, courage and fear, compassion and heartlessness. These are the dimensions of experience that constitute the human condition. When they are evoked they remind us that no matter how much pain we suffer, no matter how much we have struggled, we can sometimes count on others to show us a way to endure the present and move toward the future.
And so the magic of The Blues worked itself way into the White House, providing a moment of communitas in Washington, D.C., a moment of unexpected unity in our divided society. The Obamas let that special moment evolve and it filled the room with a rare glimpse of social and political convergence.
That is the power of The Blues.
Can you imagine a “President Romney” hosting such an event?