Have a Ball! Or, How to Stay Warm, Avoid Crowds, and Host Your Own Inauguration Celebration

Good for what ales us?

In case you haven’t heard, the 56th Presidential Inauguration is scheduled to take place on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, on January 20. Apparently, lots of your countrymen have heard about it: Some estimates predict that upwards of 2 million people are going to attend the event, reportedly one of the largest turnouts for the ceremony since 1965, when Lyndon Johnson’s swearing-in drew about 1.2 million. And other than creating a much-needed gesture of fellowship and goodwill for the country — as well as producing a transportation nightmare and a whole lot of garbage — the one thing that will be generated by having that many people crowded together in one place is body heat. And that’s a good thing. The weather forecasters are calling for an unseasonably cold and wintry day in the nation’s capital.

In addition to the windswept outdoor swearing-in ceremony, there will be much windiness and plenty of related longwinded activities all day Tuesday, including a parade, dozens of receptions, tea parties, happy hours, galas, and other airs and graces, along with 10 officially scheduled grand balls and more than a hundred “unofficial” ones. Not surprising, there are several Web sites (including this one, these two, and this) devoted to providing all the information anyone needs for partaking in the Inauguration celebration. There are events calendars, pages of biographical and historical facts, photo galleries, as well as maps to print out, sign-ups for emergency alerts (yikes!), and special links so the social networkers out there (and you know who you are) can follow the whole thing on Twitter and Facebook, too.

So, what about the remaining 301 million Americans who can’t get to D.C. by noon (when the term of president officially expires) on January 20, or could get there but don’t want to deal with the crowds and cold? Should you feel left out and ignore the whole thing? No, by Jingo! Show some good old “Merkin” moxy and Yankee ingenuity. Throw your own Inauguration Day celebration. You only need a few ingredients — something presidential (and prolix) to read or recite, some patriotic music for dancing, some native food and a drink to make a toast — and you’re ready for a DIY do. Luckily, Scribbleskiff, posting a day early, is here to help. I swear.

What to Read. If you like history or just need a little background on the reasons why we Americans bother with (and spend tons of non-chump change on) the whole affair, there’s plenty to jaw on here and at this site. It seems the obsession with this public ritual is nearly as old as the country itself.

Also, the official theme of this year’s inaugural, “A New Birth of Freedom,” to honor the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, is taken from the Gettysburg Address. I encourage you to read this document outloud, if you have never done so, if for no other reason than to get an idea of how great an orator Lincoln was. The haiku-like brevity and compactness of the speech is a headshaker to me, when compared to what today’s podium pounders deliver. While you are at it, you should glance at a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, mainly because these are the key playbooks for the new administration and it seems like it’s been awhile since our public officers have referred to them in the huddle.

Want something to recite? Read a poem by Elizabeth Alexander, who will become only the fourth poet in history to deliver a poem during a U.S. inauguration. Information about the Yale professor and samples of her work can be found here (I like “Ars Poetica #28: African Leave-Taking Disorder”) and here. Let’s just hope that Mother Nature cooperates and doesn’t decide to play critic with the new poem, available to read after the 20th, as she did with the one Robert Frost wrote for JFK’s inauguration.

When in doubt, you can always read the official oath of office, which has been in use since 1884. It’s not very scintillating, but it’s by far the briefest (only 71 words) and awesomest  job description I’ve ever encountered. I suspect that Mr. Obama’s Inaugural Address, which comes at the end of the ceremony, will be longer than that and more interesting to read (here is a transcript). One can only hope, so help us God.

What to Play. The choices for appropriate patriotic music at a Presidential Inauguration party are as varied as the musicians hired to play them, and the revelers paying to hear them. But there are some commonalities that should be taken into consideration, at least for the sake of party-goers. Take “Hail to the Chief,” for instance. There are more than 100 versions of this chestnut available for download on iTunes. That’s impressive, considering the tune was written nearly two centuries ago. Now, I’m not suggesting that the throng in the mosh pit will be shouting out requests for it at this year’s balls. But, considering the march traditionally accompanies the president at nearly every public appearance, you know it’s going to be played at least 10 times on Tuesday night.

That said, the savvy DIY host should have a few versions on hand, other than the U.S. Marine Band’s. I like the ornate grandeur that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir gives it on God Bless America, along with the brass-heavy treatment by Will Shaefer found on the Patriotic America collection. But I might hold the kitchy oompah version on the Best of the Belgian Band Organ or John McCutcheon’s comic folky take on Hail to the Chief! And Other Short Shelf-life Classics until late in the evening.

Not a fan of march music? Well, then, the next obvious choice for dancing the night away in honor of America’s First Family is jazz, America’s First Dance Music. Putting on some LPs from the early part of the 20th Century, but especially the Swing Era (1930s and ’40s), will have your juke-joint crowd jumping for hours. There are plenty of choices for musicians, songs, and recordings, but my favorites include “One O’Clock Jump” by Count Basie and his first big band (circa 1937), which can be found on The Complete Decca Recordings and other compilations; “Cotton Tail,” recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra in the early 1940s and featuring tenor saxophonist Ben Webster; and “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” or anything, for that matter, by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra — the famous Carnegie Hall concert is a good place to start.

According to reports, when it comes to jazz, President-elect Barack Obama has a preference for bop, especially Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Not exactly dance music, if you know what I mean. But, if you want to impress the prez, should he stop by unannounced, you ought to have copies of Kind of Blue or Charlie Parker With Strings on hand.

As for his non-jazz interests, Obama told Rolling Stone this summer that growing up he listened to the music of Elton John and Earth Wind & Fire, but his “musical hero” was Stevie Wonder. Get your hands on Songs in the Key of Life and one of the best-of collections and you’re set. But if you want to play more contemporary-sounding music, while still sticking with the theme, you couldn’t go wrong choosing tunes by artists who performed recently at a gala concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial: Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, U2, Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow, Herbie Hancock, John Legend, John Mellencamp, Usher, Shakira, Bruce Springsteen, will.i.am, and others. Can you make a great playlist of songs from this concert? Yes you can!

What to Eat and Drink. The short answer is, anything American. But what does that mean? Glance at a list of the most popular American foods and you’ll be hard-pressed to get a definitive example. There’s everything from fried chicken and barbecue spare ribs, to pizza and macaroni and cheese, to fajitas and pancakes. Delicious and comforting, yes (characteristics especially important during these tough times), but certainly not an easy mix with which to build a menu.

Diners at the official Inauguration Lunch, held in Statuary Hall, will be served a seafood stew, “a brace of American birds” (roast duck and pheasant) with sour cherry chutney, and sweet potatoes. That’s a more harmonious and distinctive offering, for sure, but a bit too fussy I think if you decide to host a Neighborhood Ball party for everyday Americans.  Barack Obama’s favorite foods include chili and pizza, if that helps.

Whatever dish you decide to serve, you’ll want to pick an authentic American drink as accompaniment. The Inauguration Luncheoners will be served several California wines, which seems appropriate. But we know better, don’t we? Nothing says “proud to be a patriot” louder than malt-based beverages. Certainly one of the most uniquely American varieties in this category is bourbon, a type of whiskey (or distilled spirit, mainly made from corn) named for Bourbon County, Kentucky. There are several types of bourbon (straight or Tennessee, for example) and a couple dozen distilleries in the country, including Maker’s Mark, Jack Daniels, and Jim Beam. The most appropriate bourbon to pour, but likely the most difficult to obtain, would come from George Washington’s private distillery, which was recently renovated, but no word yet on when bottling will begin.

No matter which brand you choose, I suggest a uniquely American recipe for an Inaugural cocktail, such as the Old Fashioned — because it’s one of the originals, and because a lot of what’s new these days is old (hip cocktails, bank troubles, high unemployment, etc.). There’s also the Manhattan, another old saloon standby, and the Sazerac, which though made with rye was born in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. A combo that would make Uncle Sam proud.

The other, arguably most predominant malt beverage of course, is beer. And although this drink originated in Europe, American craft brewers have been working for decades to put their own spin on old-world favorites: American pale ales, amber lagers, Imperial IPAs, etc. (all of which pair well with chili and pizza, as well as roast duck). I have several aptly named beers in my fridge that I plan to crack open at dinner on Tuesday, including a bottle of “Ale to the Chief” that I’ve been saving since Election Day, and the remaining bottle of “Celebration Ale,” from Sierra Nevada. For suggestions of other All-American beers, see my post from last 4th of July.

According to reports, the sale of alcohol and other so-called “sin stocks,” such as chocolate, are on the rise, despite (or likely, as a result of) the slumping economy. If you can’t make your money woes go away, I guess, you might as well ease their pain a little. In effect, then, it seems patriotic to join in, at least for one day, to help boost one sector of the economy a little by eating some cake and raising a glass to toast the efforts of the new president. He is going to need all the help (and hope) he can get. Cheers!


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *