Much has been made of the playlists of the erstwhile presidential contenders. Back in 2016 Trump’s obsession with winning was given voice by Queen’s “We are the Champions,” who have, as the lyrics put it, “no time for losers.” How wistfully the deposed tyrant must now look back on his infamous entry, as if a god materializing from the heavens, at the previous Republican National Convention.
The aggrieved band could not stop Trump’s expropriation of their anthem of triumph. The president’s supporters were wont to bellow the song up until Election Day 2020.
Among Trump’s other unsportsmanlike musical favorites was Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”; the hit’s bullying words when heard from MAGA loudspeakers was gloss on “You’re Fired!”: “Don’t want to see your face, you’d better disappear.” In the 1990s the singer and his then-secret bride, Lisa Marie Presley, bought a luxury apartment in Trump Tower a few floors below the future president’s penthouse. Such proximity aside, entertainment elites generally hate Trump, all the more when he kidnaps their tunes for political purposes.
No such celebrities have taken up residence in Wilmington’s loft district of late, but the relationship between Joe Biden and the stars of musical firmament is much brighter than it is over Trump Tower and the White House, at least until January 20th. The famous talents of our time sing for Biden: from the sublime expressed power of Jennifer Hudson at the Democratic National Convention, to ever-loyal Democratic bard and cantor of American greatness and grit, Bruce Springsteen, to would-be visionaries of the younger, threatened generation like Billie Eilish.
Last week, Stevie Nicks, her music once favored by another New Democratic, Bill Clinton, dedicated “a lyric video” of her 2008 song ”Show Them The Way” to Biden and Harris. Nicks is sure the pair will “do great things.”
Her song serves up a smorgasbord of references to JFK and MLK that anticipates the much longer musings on Kennedy, King and American history heard in Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul,” released last March during the first pandemic Lockdown.
If one seeks to understand why so much of America hates the Democratic Party and its allies in the world of entertainment, it’s only necessary to make it thirty seconds into Nicks’s video and the song’s first verse with its cloying epiphanies gained at a swank beach house where she’s already done some fund-raisers:
“I had a fragile dream in a gray house in the Hamptons
I’d been there before, singing songs and doing benefits
Was in a room alone putting on my makeup
Like so many things that come to me
The dress came across the Persian carpet
As I fell into the dress, a thought came to me
Into my heart, I have a dream
And a door opened
I turned to face the music
I was ready for the Kennedy’s”
On another side of this grating recitation of rich-and-famous lifestyle choices and pampered spirituality comes the prayer of the chorus:
“Please God, show ’em the way
Please God, on this day
Spirits all given the strength
Peace can come if you really want it”
The simple, heartfelt melody, heard here through a studio gauze of ambient piano, is well-calibrated to reach Biden’s musical sensibilities, themselves a gauge of his political inclinations as accurate as the bars and needles on a big-time music producer’s mixing board.
We know Biden to be a devout man, a man of prayer. He ends his public addresses with the words, “God Bless our Troops.” At his victory speech last month in Wilmington he quoted the refrain of his favorite, a hymn, “On Eagles Wings,” written by the Reverend Jan Michael Joncas, a Catholic priest and church musician: “And he will raise you up on eagles’ wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of his hand.”
His most famous composition now boosted to still greater heights of fame thanks to Biden, Joncas has stressed that the words are all drawn from the Bible. Yet one can’t help but notice that the God-blessed creature of the air also happens to be the American National Bird, a symbol of military might—an embodiment of Biden’s blessing of the troops.
Joncas’s song has the endearing, sometimes ecstatic simplicity of much Christian praise music; its popularity is not confined to the Catholic church. I have played it at many funerals in various Christian denominations, most memorably accompanying a singing preacher at a then-new church in the Silicon Valley in the early 1990s. Any eyes that had remained dry up until his powerful rendition were soon no longer so—my own included. His mighty baritone crescendo soared on the chorus’s updrafts as tears fell. Not long after this the pastor was removed from his post for having an affair with the church secretary, and on church premises: many a church father, from Augustine on, would have heard, and likely condemned, the sensuality of “On Eagles Wings”: its spirituality is seductive.
As Biden quoted the song’s chorus in Wilmington last month for the uplift of the nation, I couldn’t help but think of the closing scene of the movie Forrest Gump where a feather — the soul of his beloved — is lofted skyward by similarly maudlin music.
In contrast to Trump, who bragged in ‘The Art of the Deal’ that he punched one of his music teacher’s because the guy didn’t know anything about music, Biden is self-deprecating about his musical talent and knowledge. But he does know what he likes. He’s drawn to the straightforward and downhome.
Biden claims the Chieftains as he favorite band, and has said on occasion that he would break into their version of “Shenandoah” if he could sing.
Even if Van Morrison burdens his rendition of the song’s simple pentatonic melody with much ardent filigree, the yearning, direct sentiment of the tune comes through — handerkchieftains at the ready to dry those eyes after yet another folksy tear-jerker. The glowing nostalgia of the song is displaced to geography— the flowing rivers, the Shenandoah and the far Missouri.
Only a glimpse now remains of the lyric’s original, longer tale of a white trapper’s abduction of a young Native woman — or girl. This comes in the second of the four verses: “Oh Shenandoah, I love your daughter” — this Shenandoah claimed by some folklorist to refer to an Oneida leader who fought on the British side in New York during the French and Indian War.
Early versions of the tune tell the story more fully and are unlikely to be exhumed by originalists:
“Missouri, she’s a mighty river.
Away you rolling river.
The redskins’ camp, lies on its borders.
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.”
Across the nineteenth century the song travelled the globe, sung by Indiamen and even public school boys, as W. B. Whall informs us in his collection ‘Sea Songs, Ships & Shanties’ published in Glasgow in 1913. The volume accompanies the song’s text and melody with a Romantic pictorial image of interculturul love:
But the final strophes found in Whall’s book paint a darker picture — one of drug deals and sex slavery:
Maybe there’s guilt in the yearning melody of Shenandoah still. But what Biden hears and loves in this tune, now mostly purged of rape and pillage, is its sentimentality — a dangerous emotion for any politician to be carried downriver by.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)