The funniest thing about presidential inaugural ceremonies is that anyone takes them seriously at all. This latest edition reached new heights—and depths—of comic excellence.
To his credit, Barack Obama had a hard time keeping it together last Friday: in full view of the nation and the world he guffawed and backslapped and splashed about in the cesspool of corruption as if it were the hot tub at one of Donald Trump’s bachelor parties—which it basically was. During this reality TV ritual’s pseudo-solemn moments the outgoing chief executive tried to act like he was praying, though it looked to me like he was holding in a hit of Laughing Buddha, that giggliest of cannabis strains, and trying not to crack up.
George Bush also had a jester-like spring in his step, prancing in place and bobbing his head to the jaunty patriotism of all those Souza Marches (garnished with fanfares by John Williams) as the other political grandees tottered or were wheeled into the gallery. Like Barack, George Junior had clearly sprinkled some uppers on the morning cappuccino — and probably had a few tokes of an uplifting weed in the limo on the way to the show.
Both Clintons, but especially Hillary, must have come directly from their personal physicians and been prescribed heavy sedatives. Michelle was surely on something too, but she was the only one having a really bad trip. It was a good thing that for all those grandstanders in the inaugural grandstand there was no drug testing.
As for Trump he must have had Melania massage just enough Novocain cream onto his jowls to prevent him from breaking into a fabulous grin, but not enough of the stuff to stop him from delivering his blistering attack on the politicos arrayed behind him.
As the next president—(stifle your titters!)—was sworn in, I sent in my feedback to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies: next time around put a Whoopee cushion on every seat. There’s a bi-partisan gag even funnier than the Pledge of Allegiance!
The inaugural committee is chaired by the junior Senator from Missouri (I mean, Monsanto) Roy Blunt, who was an outstanding straight man host for the Capitol comedy. The other members of the committee are also a pork barrel of laughs: Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer— that grinning, slobbering limelight hound, who got a lot of laughs in my living room for his routine waving of the Bloody Shirt in the form a letter written by a Union soldier before the First Battle of Bull Run. It was about as uproarious as a Gitmo palm buzzer. It really was difficult to keep from busting a gut, what with all those deft one-liners about peaceful transfer power and American exceptionalism. Henny Youngman saluted with the tip of his violin bow from his grave in Queens.
A ripping revue like the inauguration has to have its musical crowd pleasers, too, and you can always count on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. After they sang their signature production number “Battle Hymn of the Republic” back at the inaugural parade in 1981, Ronald Reagan dubbed them “America’s Choir.” He was right to do so. They’re big, they’re white (with just enough trace elements of ethnic color to show the reach of Manifest Destiny and Moroni’s trumpet), and they’re loud. On Friday they weren’t just white, but wore white, too: white turtlenecks, white frock coats, white gloves, and red-white-and-blue tartan scarves. I didn’t get a look at their leggings, but probably all they needed to have on beneath all that blindingly Caucasian sartorial armor was their trusty Mormon long johns—white, of course.
Their outfits dazzled even through the off-gassing of dangerous levels of hairspray from the coifs of the ladies—and of those men who still had something on top. This approach to hair management was in clear violation of the Clean Air Act and a harbinger of Trump’s scorched earth approach to environmental policy. It was amazing that these blanched birds could sing at all through the toxic haze and do frontier justice to their arrangement of “American the Beautiful,” one that had more key changes than Brigham Young had wives.
The warm-up choir for the Mormons was the Missouri State University Chorale, a group hailing from inaugural committee chair Blunt’s home state. Its act was separated from the massed armored division from the shores of the Great Salt Lake by Schumer’s rib-tickling monologue and the tongue-in-cheek swearing in of Veep Pence, the latter a double act featuring the scintillating Clarence Thomas. The Associate Justice played the nervous ingénue, his head tipped forward in a posture suggesting debilitating stage fright. One expected a mousy peep to emanate from his massive frame as he read out the oath, but instead he cut loose in a magnificent baritone—a well-judged and perfectly timed comic twist and much-needed palate cleanser before the barrage of heavy sonic artillery from Utah, a state, it might be added, that didn’t even give half its votes to the randy shock-jock from Trump Tower.
Against the polished performance of the Mormons, the students from the reddest Republican heartland of southern Missouri had the look of a comedy improv group, albeit a thoroughly rehearsed one. To appear spontaneous takes immense practice. Even when the laughs flagged, the student ensemble could fall back on its running gag, one of the best of the morning: though they were dressed in black in contrast to the Mormon white, the Missouri Staters achieved the astounding feat of being even less ethnically diverse than the Tabernacle Choir.
The Missouri State Chorale received the invitation to perform at the inaugural festivities back in early October, a full month before the knockout punchline of November 8th. During the home stretch of the campaign, even these talented young men and women from Missouri probably thought Hillary would win the election. It was doubly impressive, therefore, that the commissioned piece could hit its comic mark with such uncanny brilliance. The text was solicited from poet Michael Dennis Browne, a 1965 immigrant to this country from Britain. Browne showed his talent as a comedy writer with his farcical “Now We Belong”—each strophe ending with the lines: “Once we were strangers, / We were welcomed, / Now we belong and believe in this land.” There were some other pretty good bits: New Age eco babble about “sacred stones” and “the leaves of every tree”; and the close of Browne’s refrain, “Feed Love, Feed Longing” was even funnier the second time we heard it at the anthem’s rousing conclusion. Lewd Trump would have liked that last line especially, had he been listening.
The composer of this comic chorale was John Wykoff. He gave real comic punch to Browne’s winning material with unison acclamations, mock stentorian pronouncements from the men, dreamy reflections from dueting women, and emphatic outbursts of polyphony suggesting diversity and culminating in the acceptance of the migrant “strangers” welcomed at last to the new land in the spirit of musical and social unity. Wykoff’s was a challenging piece and impressively done.
Trump looked bored and chatted through the anthem, probably trying his best to suppress a monstrous belly laugh.
Wykoff is an assistant professor at Lee University, a “Christ-centered” evangelical institution in Cleveland, Tennessee. His undergraduate degree is from Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. In between his time at these Christian campuses, Wykoff did graduate work in Trump’s Gomorrah at the City University of New York. The homepage of his website has a photo of the Capitol and then a bold disclaimer below it: “Statement regarding my music for the 58th presidential inauguration: I am honored to compose music for this important national ceremony. Some have asked, and I don’t hesitate to say, that my involvement is not intended to communicate any political views or endorsements.” Wykoff then seeks covering fire with a link introduced with the schoolmarmish “Learn about the bipartisan Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.”
Probably the commission has bolstered Wykoff’s tenure prospects at Lee University, assuming he can clear that hurdle before the Trump sex tape comes out. His seemingly high-minded claims about serving his nation but with no political cause are weak and hardly persuasive. True, his anthem would have been heard if Hillary had been the one sworn in, though it wouldn’t have been half as funny.
In the good old days, composers didn’t waffle about when serving up their best material for the apotheosis of the powerful. Bach dedicated “A Musical Offering” to Frederick the Great after that king had invaded the city of Leipzig where the composer was then living. There was no “it don’t mean a thing” from Bach. Bach’s great work, like Wykoff’s far lesser one, will always be associated with the leader who reigned over its presentation and performance. So don’t hide behind the bipartisan bunkum, Dr. Wykoff! Inaugural music is a political act. Thank you for proving again that it can be very funny, too. On Friday, January 20, 2017 your anthem, “Now We Belong” was a goddam laugh riot.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J.S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)