Thursday, March 01, 2012

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: Politico Rock!

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
March 2 2012

After three years of a terrible economy, a downright hostile Congress, and basically being forced to prove he’s not some sort of foreign impostor, President Barack Obama showed that he knows something about the blues.

B.B. King and The President
He recently proved it at a White House concert in honor of Black History Month, which featured an all-star blues band — B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Mick Jagger, Shemekia Copeland, Gary Clarke Jr., Jeff Beck, and others.

After thanking the musicians, the president stepped off stage. Guy, noting that Obama had recently sung a few bars of “Let’s Stay Together” at an Apollo Theater event attended by Al Green, coaxed him back. Obama demurred at first, but after Jagger handed him a microphone, the Leader of the Free World started singing the chorus of “Sweet Home Chicago.”

“Hey, baby, don’t you want to go,” Obama sang, muffled at first but at full force when repeating the line. Then he handed the mike to B.B. King, who sang the next words, “Back to that same old place.” The president, who by now seemed to be enjoying himself, finished the chorus: “Sweet home Chicago.”

Reviews of the performance -- like everything else in these poisonous political times --  probably broke along party lines. Most of the people I talked to thought it was kind of cool.

But one Obama critic I know tweeted that it made him “look like a clown.” And it only took a day or so for the Republican National Committee to produce an ad with a 15-second clip of the song with a chart of rising gasoline prices superimposed over it, ending with the message, “Obama’s Got America Singin’ the Blues.”

Not bad.

For reasons far beyond me, it is usually controversial when a political leader shows any musical talent.

Singing or playing popular music in public doesn’t destroy a politician. But political opponents will imply that it should.

After Obama’s Apollo appearance, Newt Gingrich sniffed, “I’m not going to compete with Obama in singing, because I’m not running for entertainer in chief. I’m running for president.”

There was similar scoffing by Clinton critics in 1992 when the sax-blowing, sunglasses-wearing future commander in chief played “Heartbreak Hotel” on The Arsenio Hall Show. At the time, Clinton was badly trailing in the polls. Some believe the moment helped him turn that around. Greil Marcus, in his 2000 book Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives, boldly declares, “Elvis Presley won the 1992 election for Bill Clinton.”

It doesn’t always work.

John McCain got little political advantage when he sang a line from a song associated with The Beach Boys. Of course, the Arizona senator substituted some lyrics: “Bomb bomb bomb/Bomb bomb Iran.”

Some folks just don’t want to take a politician seriously — especially a politician they’re not fond of — if he opens his mouth to sing something other than “The Star Spangled Banner” or “God Bless America.”

Roberto Mondragon sings on Plaza 2009
New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Charles Daniels and I talked about this a couple of years ago. Before he was appointed to the high court, Daniels was a guitarist in the Albuquerque band Lawyers, Guns & Money. What’s the big deal? Daniels pondered. Some people play golf. He plays guitar.

The first public official I ever interviewed at the Roundhouse, in 1980, was then Lt. Gov. Roberto Mondragón — he had just released one of his albums of Spanish-language songs. Mondragón told me that he got so tired of people asking him “Where’s your guitar?” that he started bringing it to work.

There have been some notable musician politicians. The late Sen. Robert Byrd played fiddle, releasing an album called Mountain Fiddler backed by ace bluegrass pros including Doyle Lawson.

In college, (or was it high school? ) Sen. John Kerry played bass in a surf band called The Electras, though he never played it publicly when he ran for president in 2004.

And don’t forget Kinky Friedman, who ran for governor of Texas in 2006.

Gov. Jimmie Davis
One politician known as much — perhaps more — for his music as for his politics was Jimmie Davis, a two-term governor of Louisiana, who co-wrote and performed “You Are My Sunshine.” When he first ran in 1944, Davis sang the song on the campaign trail. However, some of his earlier, raunchier songs stirred up a little trouble. In his 1977 book Country: The Biggest Music in America, Nick Tosches writes, “The opposition ran advertisements in newspapers listing some of his older, profaner songs. (His 1936 ‘Bed Bug Blues’ was called ‘depraved vulgarity.’).”

There were plenty of these kinds of songs to choose from. Among Davis’ risqué repertoire were tunes including “Red Night Nightgown,” “Tom Cat and Pussy Blues,” “Organ-Grinder Blues” (with lyrics like “Gonna get me some monkey glands / Be like I used to was”), “High Behind Blues” and “She’s a Hum Dum Dinger From Dingerville.” Tosches notes that before the end of the 1930s, Davis had become more of a mainstream crooner. “By 1938, the dirty songs had ceased.” But when he ran for governor again in 1960, “the dirty songs were dragged from the closet.” But again, Davis won.

There was no uproar from decent citizens last year when, on his talk show, bass-playing former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee backed Ted Nugent on “Cat Scatch Fever” and the Nuge sang -- right there on Fox News, "I can make a pussy purr with the stroke of my hand.

But just imagine if Obama and his White House blues band had sung a more menacing blues standard like John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ King Snake” or Muddy Waters’ “Rollin' Stone” instead of “Sweet Home Chicago.”

Imagine the “Obama promotes the occult!” hysteria on talk radio had he sung “Hoochie Coochie Man” or “Who Do You Love.”

“Sweet Home Chicago” was a safe choice. In the end it probably will have no effect on the outcome in November. I just wish I could have been there for the show.

Enjoy some politician music:

Here's Obama ...

Gov. Jimmie Davis

John Kerry was a surf rocker

Kinky coulda been a governor

Everyone remembers "Heartbreak Hotel," but Bill Clinton also did this Billie Holiday classic.

Get them pussies purrin', Huck!

Remember this guy?

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