History of Musical Performances at the Inauguration

Ahead of Wednesday’s inauguration, we thought it’d be fun to take a look at the history of music and artists in presidential inaugurations!

2009 We Are One Concert as part of Obama's Inauguration
Inauguration concert @ Lincoln Memorial by Steve Bott, Licensed via CC By 2.0

If you didn’t know, the tradition of celebration and musical performances surrounding the Presidential Inauguration is nearly as long as the history of the presidency itself!

Many of today’s traditions surrounding the inauguration date back to the 1800’s. In 1801, the Marine Band played for the inauguration of President Thomas Jefferson, a tradition that continues to this day. In 1809, the first official Inaugural Ball took place to celebrate the newly inaugurated James Madison.

Inaugural Balls

The history of inaugural balls starts with Madison’s Inaugural Ball, held at the Long’s Hotel in 1809. The event, put together by friends, cost $4 for a ticket (about $85 in today’s money). Reportedly, First Lady Dolley Madison was the belle of the ball, and President Madison described the event as “exhausting and unpleasant.”

The balls of the 1800s and early 1900s often took place in local hotels, government buildings, or temporary structures. Lincoln’s second inauguration was the first to feature a ball in a government building, the Patent Office, to be precise. This was in part due to an increasing demand for tickets to such events, and a lack of adequate space to host them! The number of inaugural balls has also increased over the years due to demand.

One notable inaugural ball held in a temporary structure was that of Ulysses S. Grant. His 1873 ball is one of the coldest in history, with a high of 16°F, and a wind-chill of -15° to -30°F! The temporary structure wasn’t properly heated, and so the party was a complete disaster. The orchestra could barely play, the drinks and food were frozen nearly solid, and the canaries (hung in cages to add to the atmosphere) got so cold they died and occasionally fell on the attendees!

It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that the inaugural balls became the slightly-less-formal affairs that we’re familiar with today. In fact, throughout the 1800s only William Henry Harrison (inaugurated in 1841) danced at his inaugural ball! Lyndon B. Johnson was the first to break this over-century-long tradition of formality in 1965. He also joked around with the dancers, telling them to make sure to get to bed early that night so they can “get to work early tomorrow for the Great Society.”

Special Guests

Also gaining popularity in the mid-1900s was the presence of special musical guests at the inaugural galas and the inaugurations themselves! In 1961, John F. Kennedy’s pre-inaugural gala, organized by Frank Sinatra, featured performances from Nat King Cole, Ethel Merman, Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Gene Kelly, and Sinatra himself.

In 1977, for Jimmy Carter’s inaugural events performers included Aretha Franklin singing “God Bless America,” Linda Ronstadt performing “Crazy,” and several Broadway performances.

Bill Clinton’s Inauguration

For Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, more musical guests than ever before turned out. In the days before the inauguration, event organizers put on America’s Reunion on the Mall, a festival held at the National Mall between Capitol Hill and the Washington Monument. On Saturday and Sunday, artists across myriad genres performed across 10 stages on the Mall. On Sunday evening, an all-star lineup of Diana Ross, Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, LL Cool J, Ray Charles, Melissa Etheridge, Kenny Rogers, Smokey Robinson, and many many more performed at a free concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

For Clinton’s Gala, which took place the night before the Inauguration, Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, a reunited Fleetwood Mac, Chuck Berry, and many more performed.

Barack Obama’s First Inauguration

In 2009, the Lincoln Memorial saw yet another pre-inaugural concert! The event, We Are One, featured performances by stars from Beyoncé to Stevie Wonder. Other special guests shared readings of historical passages and quotes. Check out the full lineup from the poster below:

We Are One was part of Obama's Inauguration Celebration. We Are One musical guests included:  Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Jon Bon Jovi, Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow, Renée Fleming, Caleb Green, Josh Groban, Herbie Hancock, Heather Headley, Bettye LaVette, John Legend, John Mellencamp, Jennifer Nettles, Pete Seeger, Shakira, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, U2, Usher, will.i.am and Stevie Wonder

Other special guests included: Jack Black, Steve Carell, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Foxx, Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, Ashley Judd, Martin Luther King III, Queen Latifah, Laura Linney, George Lopez, Kal Penn, Marisa Tomei, Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker and Tiger Woods

The night before the inauguration, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden hosted the Kids’ Inaugural: We Are the Future at the Verizon Center, honoring military families. Disney Channel and Radio Disney broadcast the event, which featured performances from Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, and Demi Lovato. Bow Wow, George Lopez, Corbin Bleu, Queen Latifah, Billy Ray Cyrus, Shaquille O’Neal, and Jamie Foxx also appeared.

On Inauguration Day, Aretha Franklin performed “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” her third inaugural performance. Guests at the various inaugural balls included Beyoncé, The Dead, Jack Johnson, James Taylor, and Jay-Z.

Joe Biden’s Inauguration

Of course, this year’s inaugural events will be much different than the last 200 years. However, event organizers are doing their best to keep with tradition despite the many reasons this year is different.

As plans currently stand, Biden will be sworn in sometime around noon on Wednesday, January 20. Lady Gaga will sing the national anthem and Jennifer Lopez will also perform. Instead of the usual parade, there will be a “virtual parade” of sorts.

In lieu of inaugural balls, the Presidential Inaugural Committee has put together a television event, “Celebrating America”. You can catch the event on TV on ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, or MSNBC, or online on YouTubeFacebookTwitter, or Twitch, starting at 8:30 pm. Tom Hanks will host the event, and special guests include Justin Timberlake, Demi Lovato, Ant Clemons, and Jon Bon Jovi.

On Sunday, January 17, Keegan-Michael Key and Debra Messing will host the virtual “We the People” concert. The event will feature Fall Out Boy, AJR, and Will.i.am, among others. A donation of at least $1 to the Biden Inaugural Committee is required to access the stream.

For more information on this year’s inauguration events, visit bideninaugural.org!

Did you ever attend an inauguration event? Or watch one on TV? Planning to watch this year’s? Let us know in the comments below!

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