The (Presidential) Voice

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President Barack Obama upped the ante in his vocal contest with Mitt Romney last night during a taping of the PBS show, “In Performance at the White House.”

The show featured some huge names, including Buddy Guy, B. B. King, Mick Jagger and Jeff Beck. As Obama prepared to leave the concert, the assembled stars played the first bars of “Sweet Home Chicago”, and Guy teasingly told Obama he needed to continue what he started when he sang Al Green at the Apollo theater. Obama resisted (a little), then took the mic and did a creditable job on the opening lines:

Personally, I never expected in my lifetime to see a U.S. President engage in a duet, however brief, with B. B. King, and not cringe. So Obama gets points for that.

That said, despite the criticism, I think Mitt Romney deserves some credit for his effort last month in Florida:

True, he missed the high notes, but who doesn’t. And he has a fine voice. Most important, his choice of songs is excellent. The tune is easy and clean, much preferable to jumpy, melodramatic melody of the Star Spangled Banner, which started life as a drinking tune for the Anacreontic Society.

And if you haven’t read the lyrics to America the Beautiful recently, you’ll find them an infinitely more enlightened reflection of the American spirit than Francis Scott Key’s fearful, question-mark-riddled effort, which is our National Anthem thanks in part to a collaboration between those American cultural titans, John Philip Sousa and President Herbert Hoover.

Compare:

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

With Romney’s choice:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness
America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

O beautiful for heroes prov’d
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country lov’d,
And mercy more than life.
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.

Obama started the contest with his Apollo theater ad lib, precipitating what some might see as a pro-America base-play by Romney in response. But for the record, none of the people involved at this point, including those on stage last night, can match the composer and original performer of “Sweet Home Chicago”, Robert Johnson:

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