On Tuesday night the president and first lady paid tribute to blues music as part of the PBS In Performance at the White House series. Seated around a brightly lit stage, about 200 guests gathered in the White House East Room and waited excitedly for the show to begin. Spotted in the crowd: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; Reps. Karen Bass, Bennie Thompson and Sheila Jackson Lee; and "first grandma" Marian Robinson.
Getting the night off to a hipper-than-usual start, once the president and first lady were announced, they walked through the cheering audience as a band played the organ-heavy "Green Onions" by Booker T. and the M.G.'s.
"That sounded pretty good. We ought to try that instead of 'Ruffles and Flourishes,' " President Obama joked after taking a podium for welcoming remarks. "You know, one of the things about being president — and I've talked about this before — is that some nights when you want to go out and just take a walk to clear your head, or jump into a car just to take a drive, you can't do it. Secret Service won't let you, and that's frustrating. But then there are other nights when B.B. King and Mick Jagger come to your house. That evens things out a little bit."
Other artists who performed throughout the evening were Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Shemekia Copeland, Warren Haynes, Susan Tedeschi and Keb' Mo' — all introduced by emcee Taraji P. Henson.
But before the show got started, the president took a moment to give some history on the blues. He recounted a 1941 trip throughout the deep South by folklorist Alan Lomax, during which Lomax recorded local musicians on behalf of the Library of Congress — and came upon a then mostly unknown guitarist and singer, Muddy Waters.
"This is music with humble beginnings — roots in slavery and segregation, and a society that rarely treated black Americans with the dignity and respect that they deserved. The blues bore witness to these hard times," Obama said. "Like so many of the men and women who sang them, the blues refused to be limited by the circumstances of their birth."
He continued that the blues laid the foundation for rock and roll, R&B and hip-hop. "This music speaks to something universal: No one goes through life without both joy and pain, triumph and sorrow. Blues gets all of that, sometimes with just one lyric or one note. As we celebrate Black History Month, the blues reminds us that we've been through tougher times before."
The president closed with a lesson to be learned from blues musicians channeling their problems into art. "Even as we confront the challenges of today, we imagine a brighter tomorrow, saying, 'I can do it,' just like Muddy Waters did all those years ago." With that, the president introduced B.B. King, who kicked the night off with a rollicking presentation of "Let the Good Times Roll."
The full concert will air on PBS stations nationwide on Monday, Feb. 27, at 9 p.m. (ET).
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.