These days when you see something with the title of "White House Blues" a million possibilities spring to mind. Perhaps it is about the election and who will be entering the White House. Maybe it is an expression of sadness concerning Obama's upcoming departure. Those blues themes would make sense where this a protest song. It would be an expression of unhappiness with the country and where it is going.
In this particular case, however, I am thinking of something else. You might have to turn up the volume on the video but it is what we've got. "White House Blues" is an old song, first recorded by the banjo player Charlie Poole back in 1926. However, it is probably even older than that. Poole, himself, knew a thing or two about the blues in both his musical and personal life. A factory worker, musical visionary, and hard drinker, Poole died of heart attack in 1931, bringing a 13-week bender to a close. Yes. He had been drinking steadily for 13 weeks.
The purpose of this song--other than to entertain--is actually historical. That is, it preserves a moment in history. The song, itself, is about the 1931 assassination of President McKinley by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Mckinley was shot twice. One of the bullets was found. However, the other one got lost somewhere in the soft tissue of the corpulent president and gangrene set in.. This is why both our version and Poole's begins with the lines "McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled, the doctor said 'McKinley I can't find the ball.' You're bound to die. You're bound to die.." It is historically accurate! Cheerful.
In fact, this song is oddly perky, which is what initially attracted me to it. The juxtaposition of words and tone may be part of the reason for its survival. Folk music loves a dance-able murder ballad. In addition the chord progression is very simple and fun to play, so many gifted bluegrass musicians use it as a platform for their improvisational solos. There are plenty of examples of this online. The singers mess a bit with the tune to fit their own treatment as well as that of the soloists. That is OK. It is a folk song. Again...you can't break it.
I also find it interesting because of its rather casual treatment of violence. A couple of weeks after we played this in church, The country experienced the Orlando nightclub shooting and a number of similar events in short order. Shootings of and by police have increasingly appeared in the news. Even politicians began to make threats toward their opponents. This song reminds us that we have struggled with issues like these for a long time.
On the technical side, this song makes ample use of 7th chords. This is a key aspect of much of the blues. 7th chords make the song sound ragged and "unfinished" to modern pop-infested ears. Thank God for that! As with the last one, I encourage you to sing along with recordings to learn the words. However, here are the chord changes: G/G7/C7/G7/D7/G. Some folks make that middle G7 (after the C7) a regular G. You can if you want. I do not.
In the video I actually have the uke capo'ed at the 9th fret. I did this to get it out of the range of the banjo. The song is still in G but the chord forms are in C (C/C7/F7/C7/C). Also, I violated ukulele orthodoxy by using a pick! The was done for reasons of texture and volume. Volume is also why I used the "Fluke" instead of a more conventional uke. It is the loudest thing I've got...other than the mando of course.
As you can see we have a slightly different instrumentation on this from what one might think. We have a uke, a banjo, and a bass. Each instrument keeps out of the way of the others. We didn't use a regular guitar because this way it had more of an "Old Time" feel. Guitars were actually a bit late to American music (certainly when compared to the banjo). Also, the uke and the banjo are two of the greatest instruments our country ever produced. They deserve to be heard!
Anyway, here it is, a song from another era that--like ours--was filled with stress and division. Maybe that is one of its most important functions for today. As a country we have been bitterly divided before but have found a way to come back together and move on. Perhaps looking into the past, we can gain some assurance that we will survive yet again.
If you check out other videos you will see the range of approaches and treatments. I am including two here.
The first is the original recording by Charlie Poole.
Here is a different video featuring the bluegrass tendency to use it as a platform for solos...
I wanted to share this video with you. I had held off doing so before because of a variety of reasons. The sound isn't quite right. Lee forgot her strap. The lens on the camera made it seem like we were in different rooms when we are actually right next to each other. We did not reject Lee! There was also mic trouble. Anyway, we had plans to clean it up or make a slide show, but things didn't work out that way. Still, we thought we would put it out even with its imperfections. The message of this song is important to hear right now.
We hoped that the context would be different. “Marching Together” is an old song from the women's suffrage movement, used in the state of Kansas (among other places) to urge men to support women in their quest for equal rights. It was part of our Reformation Sunday service honoring the 19th Century trailblazer, Rev. Olympia Brown. You can hear the congregation singing it with us. We were proud and pleased and hopeful that the work of people like Brown would finally result in the election of a female president in these United States. As we all know now, it was not to be...at least this time.
Of course, it makes even more sense to post this now. It makes even more sense for us all to learn it and sing it. Polls show that most white men supported Trump over Clinton. Many, many did not support him and I am one of those white men. However, we have our work cut out for us. It appears that our society has not come as far as we had hoped from that Kansas suffrage campaign in 1867.
Now, about this song; Songs from the Kansas movement were collected and published together in a variety of forms over the years. This one comes from a book published in 1909. There is a lot of great stuff in it, including the lyrics we are using. I will link to it below.
Actually, there are other versions, too. After we performed it at church we learned that the tune--also used for a happy song about Sherman's march to the sea--had been used for a song supporting the candidacy of President McKinley! There were also many variations to the suffragist version. However, most of of them played the “mother/daughter” card. These days we should be careful about men defining women based on the relationship those women may have to men (sorry Louis CK). I didn't vote for Hillary Clinton to honor my mom. I did it because she was (and is) the right person to lead the country at this time.
We also chose this version because of the Kansas connection. It is quite likely a version that Olympia Brown would have sung during her work organizing there. I know I have mentioned her elsewhere. She is a hero of mine. A gifted minister, businessperson, and politician, she was the first woman ordained and recognized by her denomination (Universalist). She was also one of very few first generation suffragists who lived long enough to vote, herself.
The song has simple chord pattern which, of course, is best for something everyone should sing.
Bring the good old bugle, boys!
And let the truth be shown
That woman has as many rights
As any man has known;
And let us help her win the fight
She may not win alone
A(7) D G
While we go marching together
G G C G
Hurrah! Hurrah! We bring the jubilee!
G G A D
Hurrah! Hurrah! For woman shall be free!
G C G G (Em)
And have as many sacred rights as God gave you and me,
A(7) D G
While we go marching together!
This is our arrangement, more or less. The other lyrics are in that songbook linked below. Lee Manuel set this up for us. Anything in parentheses is optional. 7th chords (in case you don't know) will make it sound old timey. We used them in the video but usually had someone else just play the regular chord at the same time. It keeps things exciting! Don't worry about changing stuff around to suit your style, skill level, and taste. You can't break it. It is a folk song.
So there you go. Apparently some Trump supporters want to take the country back to a magical before-time. Let's give it to 'em and fight the patriarchy the 19th Century way!
Here is a link to that book. It is wicked cool! You will notice that most of these songs are set to older tunes. This is a common practice in actual folk as singing along is a key part of the exercise. Just like hymns in church.
It is about 11:50pm on election night and I was planning to go to bed. The "paths to victory" for my candidate, Hillary Clinton, are closing rapidly and I don't know if we will win or lose, but the tone of conversation among the pundits, my friends, and my family makes it clear. We are expecting the worst. I was going to hit the sack, rest up, and head back out tomorrow. I really was going to do that. The computer was off and the lights were out.
I want to say something that will hopefully still make sense when I look at it in the morning.
I just went into the living room to turn off the TV and I saw my son falling asleep on the couch, still waiting for Pennsylvania. When I saw him, my mind drifted back to when I was his age. It was election night and I was in the "Governor's Suite" at the Portland Sonesta Hotel. We had gathered the family along with close friends and key campaign officials to plan the exact steps that would lead to my father's concession speech in his race for governor of the state of Maine. There was silence mostly, and tears. Eventually we lined up and walked to the door, Then we slowly marched down the hall and into the elevator to the 1980's-tacky ballroom where more people waited. There was more silence and more tears. The son of the outgoing governor appeared next to me and guided me, my sister and brothers up to the riser and behind the lecturn. "It is going to be OK," he said. Then he drifted into the crowd.
I was standing directly behind my parents and slightly to the right. My mom was standing next to my dad. Then he began to talk. I don't remember much about the speech but it was one of those gracious ones. Dad had lost to a man who had been a friend and rival since high school. They had the sort of respect for each other you don't see anymore. What I do remember was watching Dad finish reading a handwritten page of his speech and then slipping it to Mom in a way that the people out in the audience--shocked and dismayed--could not see. Her hand was on his back and Dad stood as still as he could but we were all shaking.
It was one of the darkest moments of my life and I haven't really felt that way since. Now I remember it. I remember the sadness. I remember the sense that we happy few had worked so long and so hard and all had been for naught. All that we had hoped and dreamed wasn't going to happen after all. We--all of us in that hotel ballroom--had lost. In the morning we would need to face the new world. We would have to live with someone else's goals and dreams.
You know what? I remember something else, too. I cannot tell you where the voice came from. Maybe it was inside me. Maybe it was something my parents said. Maybe it came from somewhere else in the room. Whatever it was and wherever it came from I remember standing up there looking out at the people and the cameras while saying four short words to myself over and over and over again.
"So now we fight".
So now we fight. That is what rattled around in my head at the lowest of moments when I was fifteen years old. We fight for every person who stood by our side. We fight for everyone who needs someone to struggle with them or on their behalf. We stand up for that cause we believed in enough to dedicate our time, our effort and our money. We will enter this new world with a firmness of resolve and a chip on our shoulders. Dammit we were right! That rightness was--and is--worth fighting for.
You know what? Those four words have guided my life. That awkward kid in the picture is seventeen-year-old me at the 1988 Democratic convention fighting again, this time for Jesse Jackson. I sure know how to pick a winner, right? That week in Atlanta was when I heard the call to ministry. I chose to be a pastor because it gave me a voice. It gave me a way to enter into the struggle.
It is now 12:30 and I have spent more time on this than I should. The outcome is clearer now. My son is yelling at the TV. I am glad he is a fighter. We are entering another new world. There will parts of it that will truly be awful. We need to keep hope alive. We need to check in with each other. We need to stand up for each other, especially for those who will probably receive the heavy blunt end of the backlash against our shared dream. Women, Muslims, LGBTQIA, poor people, Native-Americans, African-Americans, latinx and other minority groups need every ally they can get. We cannot let the side down.
Dammit, we are still right! We will act that way. We may have lost but we are not defeated or dead. We must remember the requirements and responsibilities of a just society and we must shout them from the rooftops. We need to rush out of our houses tomorrow to continue what we began. Hold your heads high. Meet every gaze firmly and with confidence. No sulking. No hiding. Now is not the time.
So now we fight. We will be back. The truth is on our side. and in the end...
We. Will. Win.