Many of us got a little dopey after Barack Obama’s big win on election night. People started talking to deceased friends and relatives who would have dug seeing this amazing thing that America had done. “Allan Pasternack, you won’t believe what just happened . . . ,” I heard myself saying, as though a long-departed friend devoted to civil rights was standing right there. Obama had it wrong at his first press conference as the President-Elect. It wasn’t Nancy Reagan doing the séances. It was all his slap-happy supporters.
In another gesture unworthy of a decent journalist, on the way back from watching voters in northern Ohio make history, I stopped off at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland to pay homage to a few guys who would be doing handstands if they got the news. Like Sam Cooke. Obama never mentioned him by name, but his great election-night speech in Chicago was like an answer song for Cooke’s haunting hymn, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” “It’s been a long time coming,” Obama thundered to the crowd in Grant Park, echoing Cooke’s lyrics. “At this defining moment, change has come to America.” Sam Cooke, raised on the gospel of Chicago’s South Side, would have sung an “Amen.”
As would Ray Charles. The man they called “Brother Ray” always avoided being pegged politically. He tended to favor presidents whose portraits were on large denominations. But that didn’t stop him from turning a tired old anthem into the greatest patriotic tune ever heard, one guaranteed to move the stoniest hearts, left or right. Ray’s special genius made him start with the third verse of “America the Beautiful”—the one only grade-schoolers ever get to: “O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife/Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!” Ronald Reagan’s team knew something special when they heard it, and hired Ray to perform his transcendent song at the 1984 Republican National Convention. Ray knocked out the crowd. No wonder Reagan won in a landslide. Ray Charles died on June 10, 2004, just a few days after Reagan himself kicked. When they closed the government a couple of days later to honor “a great American,” a lot of us knew who they meant.
James Brown, the late, great Soul Brother No. 1, almost made it. J.B. stepped off the stage for the last time on Christmas Day two years ago. Despite his occasional scrapes with the law, Mr. Please, Please, Please considered himself a true patriot. He also spent a lot of time thinking about his country, which is where tunes like his “Living in America” came from (“Hand to hand, across the nation . . . got to have a celebration . . . Yoww!“). He also called for an Obama-style victory back in 1974, when he cut his “Funky President (People It’s Bad)”: “We gotta get over before we go under,” he declared back then.
Then there’s another magnificent soulster from Chicago who would have written a bucket of ballads about Obama’s achievement were he still around. Curtis Mayfield, more than any other songwriter of his time, used his music to prod people to keep on pushing, as he put it. That’s where his “People Get Ready,” “It’s All Right,” and, yes, “Keep On Pushing” sprung from. Mayfield also wrote achingly about the toll taken by the inner city. You can’t get much bleaker than “Freddy’s Dead” and “Pusherman.” But right up to the end, in 1999, even in a wheelchair, he was still a defiant and upbeat troubadour, singing his “It’s My Country” and “We’re a Winner” with the sure conviction of someone who knew that, given enough pushes, the door had to open.
A couple of days before the election, another Hall of Famer—this one thankfully still around—played to a massive throng of 80,000, who filled the plazas across from the museum for one of Obama’s final rallies. Bruce Springsteen sang “Youngstown,” his ode to vanished blue-collar jobs, and “The Rising,” the chant that sparked many Obama events during the campaign. In between, he sang his reworked take on “This Land Is Your Land”: “We’re at the crossroads,” Springsteen hollered, his rasping voice echoing up and down the lakefront. “We’re at the crossroads.”
On Monday, the day after the rally, union organizer Kevin Doyle, one of the hundreds of New Yorkers who trooped to Ohio to help get out the vote, knocked on a door answered by a young black man. He’d been at the rally the evening before and had heard Springsteen’s songs. “You know,” he said, “I found myself thinking, ‘This really is my land.’ “
Music was obviously the proper way to celebrate this astonishing event. Back in New York, it was everywhere in the air. Saturday morning after the election, rhythm-and-blues DJ Felix Hernandez spun a stream of tunes to mark the occasion on his WBGO show. He played the Whispers’ ethereal “Great Day”; the Pointer Sisters singing Allen Toussaint’s bouncy version of the Obama chant, “Yes We Can Can”; and the Staple Singers’ lofty “I’ll Take You There.” Hernandez will hail the victory all over again at one of his massive and happy dances at Roseland on December 6.
It’s a good idea to do the celebrating now, as the hill Obama must climb becomes steeper each day. The economy sinks further; the Clintonistas, who muffed so many of their own opportunities, cluster around him suffocatingly, like moths to the light.
Obama has already fulfilled one small piece of his campaign pledges by barring lobbyists and corporations from picking up the tab for the inevitable inauguration parties in January. But he needs to go further. The idea was first broached by Denis Hamill in his Daily News column and deserves a strong second: Obama should make this a true people’s inauguration. He should renounce the usual round of obscenely costly insider balls as totally inappropriate, given an economy of hard times and two ongoing wars. He should insist that the tens of millions of dollars usually spent on these affairs is grossly improper, given the need to simply keep people in their homes.
He should go back to his army of small donors and ask them to ante up one more time. He should use those funds to turn Washington’s National Mall, site of King’s prophetic “I have a dream” speech, into one vast public celebration. One where Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and every other living member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should be invited to play for a nation celebrating a new day, a party to summon the spirits of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Curtis Mayfield. If he needs help, he should call Nancy Reagan.