Every presidential inauguration – heck, every major public event – deserves a custom-made playlist. In putting one together for the inauguration of Joe Biden as president of the United States on Wednesday, Jan. 20, at noon, it was tempting to make a list of songs not unlike those you would play at a wedding – songs of celebration, happiness, and unity. But as I dug a little deeper into possible numbers for inclusion on the list, I was overwhelmed by the gravity of this historical moment. Surely it is a time for celebration. But it is also a time for taking stock and facing up to the grim reality of the task that lies ahead for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris — and for all the rest of us, too.
“Celebration” – Kool and the Gang
First things first — our four-year-long national nightmare has come to a conclusion. Therefore, it’s time to celebrate. And every celebration has to begin with this Kool and the Gang classic.
“Won’t Get Fooled Again” – The Who
But before we get carried away by the celebration, we must acknowledge our recent past and the horrors that were inflicted upon our nation by the outgoing demagogue. While Joe Biden does not represent the full-fledged revolution for which many were hoping, Pete Townshend’s lyrics sung by Roger Daltrey—”I tip my hat to the new constitution, take a bow for the new revolution”—seem chillingly apt for the occasion.
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” – Patti Smith version
I am a sentimental fool, so part of me is just plain happy for Joe Biden, who has seriously wanted to be president for at least 40 years and maybe longer. Despite the adversity that has plagued his life, Biden has never taken his eyes off the big prize. Even though victory has come at an advanced age and at a time of political and cultural upheaval, his is still a story of grit and determination. Yet, as Patti Smith reminds us in her cover version of this Tears for Fears hit, there is always a dark side to the desire to rule.
“Everything Is Broken” – Bob Dylan
As noted above, Biden assumes the presidency at a signal moment in American history. He inherits an America riven by hate and destruction fomented by his predecessor. Nobel Prize-winning rock poet Bob Dylan charts a road map through a Kabbalistic landscape laid to waste.
“There Is No Time” – Lou Reed
Paired with Dylan’s apocalyptic scenario, Lou Reed’s prophetic warnings are plainspoken and shockingly of the moment given that this song was written and recorded in 1989. Reed sings, “This is no time for celebration / This is no time for shaking hands / This is no time for backslapping / This is no time for marching bands / This is no time for optimism / This is no time for endless thought / This is no time for my country right or wrong / Remember what that brought.”
“We Can Work It Out” – The Beatles
Lest we allow our cynical Jewish rock prophets Dylan and Reed to poison the joy we feel upon this day, we turn to the Beatles — and specifically Paul McCartney — for some consolation. Joe Biden has always seen himself as the great unifier, the man who can cross the aisle and find common ground with his political opponents. “Try to see it my way,” sings McCartney, which could be Biden’s motto.
“Land of Hope and Dreams” – Bruce Springsteen
Built upon a palimpsest of Woody Guthrie’s “This Train Is Bound for Glory” and invoking Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” for good measure, the Boss sings “This train dreams will not be thwarted / This train faith will be rewarded / This train hear the steel wheels singin’ / This train bells of freedom ringin’.” Not a bad metaphor for President Amtrak.
“Beautiful Day” – U2
Here we turn to the world’s best-known Irish outfit for what superficially seems like an upbeat anthem but hides within itself a warning about environmental devastation. After four years spent undoing all the previous progress that had been made to protect earth, land, and water, and of reversing measures to deal with the climate crisis, a President Biden offers hope for sanity and a new, beautiful (green) day.
“American Tune” – Mandy Patinkin & God Bless America” – Mandy Patinkin
The world’s best-known singer of Yiddish songs offers renditions of two classics about what it means to be American, written by Jewish songwriters — Paul Simon and Irving Berlin, respectively — and sung by Mandy Patinkin in Yiddish translation.
BONUS TRACK: “I Got You (I Feel Good)” – James Brown
Because I do.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward.