By ERIN ALLEN
On Feb. 25, newly elected President Barack Obama presented Stevie Wonder with the second Gershwin Prize for Popular Song at a special concert in the East Room of the White House. Two nights before, Wonder brought the house down with the premiere of “Sketches of a Life,” a special musical work he wrote on commission for the Library of Congress. (See story on page 65.)
“As George and Martha Washington peered over the temporary stage from their portraits, the stately East Room was transformed into the world’s most exclusive music hall (roughly 150 invited guests; not a scalper in sight) as Wonder headlined his own gala coronation-cum-concert,” wrote J. Freedom du Lac of The Washington Post.
“Stevie has always drawn on the incredible range of traditions in his music and, from that, he’s created a style that’s at once uniquely American, uniquely his own, and yet somehow universal,” said Obama, according to the Associated Press.
Outlets such as Agence France-Presse, UPI and USA Today also noted the more personal comments made by the president and first lady, including the fact that Wonder’s song “You and I” was their wedding song.
Other media outlets running stories of Obama’s presentation of the Gershwin Prize included Fox News, NPR, ABC’s Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, BBC, Billboard, Voice of America, Rolling Stone, New Musical Express, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune and other newspapers from Colorado to Tennessee to Massachusetts; international outlets from Australia and the United Kingdom; and a variety of websites and blogs.
As an aside, Wonder told USA Today reporter Elysa Gardner that he discovered George Gershwin through Sam Cooke’s rendition of “Summertime.” “Later I found out it came from ‘Porgy and Bess,’ and was amazed to learn about all the different places and genres” his music drew on, and the diversity of artists who embraced it.
“You have jazz musicians playing it and opera singers doing it. That’s incredible music,” he said.
Perhaps it was this inspiration that led him to complete his Library commission, “Sketches of a Life,” which Wonder said had been a work-in-progress since the 1970s.
Washington Post reporter du Lac also covered the Feb. 23 concert in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium. “Accompanied by a 21-piece chamber ensemble, Wonder alternated between piano, electric keyboard and his trusty harmonica during a largely autobiographical work in nine movements. His melodic gifts were on generous display during the nearly 20-minute piece, though the chords tended to be darker and more haunting than the ones Wonder usually writes. The music, though, was no less lyrical or soulful.”
“On a scale of Billy Joel to Elvis Costello, it was Paul McCartney-plus. Meaning, Wonder is one of those pop guys who can do classical,” he added.
“Mr. Wonder spoke movingly of his own emotions upon returning to the piece,” noted Adam Mazmanian of The Washington Times. “In it, he said, he hears echoes of his late mother. ‘I can hear her voice, I can hear her joy, I can hear my cry of missing her,’ he said.”
DCist blogger Chris Klimek admitted his “under-educated ears” were more attuned to “the relatively simple sonic vocabulary of pop,” but he knew what he liked, and he liked Wonder’s composition.
Roll Call’s “Heard on the Hill” column reported several congressional members in attendance at the Library’s concert, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), who was spotted wiping away tears during one point in the show.
Speaking of the president, the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division has organized a display of “Obamabilia”—Obama-related memorabilia from Africa. (See Information Bulletin, January-February 2009.)
AP reporter Nafeesa Syeed spoke with several Library curators, who said that “the items convey pride that a man with African heritage came to power, and a renewed faith in U.S. democracy. The interest Obama generated abroad is unprecedented.”
The AP story ran in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Yahoo, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Orlando Sentinel, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The China Post, salon.com, abcnews.com, boston.com, philly.com and mercurynews.com.
Clutch Magazine reporter Sky Obercam said, “Ultimately, Barack Obama’s image, and inspiring message, hasn’t just influenced the hearts and minds of American citizens — he managed to convey the essence of hope on a global scale as well. Mary-Jane Deeb, [chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division], says it best: ‘American elections have always been of enormous interest to countries around the world, but this particular election has broken the mold.’”
Erin Allen is a writer-editor in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.