Few political figures – indeed, public figures – anywhere in the world engendered in their lifetimes as much controversy, love and loathing as Richard Nixon.
The Southern California native proved singularly adept at inspiring extreme reactions to his public policies and private opinions across every facet of his career, from his red-baiting days as a young congressman in the 1940s to his vice presidential tenure in the 1950s and, most significantly, through his presidential term from 1969-74.
There is a reason the media has been filled this week with retrospectives of Nixon’s rise and fall as the nation marks the 40th anniversary of his resignation. Pundits and audiences along the way can look anew on Nixon’s strengths and weaknesses, lofty visions and unbridled hates.
But then, popular culture has long been fascinated by Nixon. Pop music in particular, as a voice of young dissent in the ‘60s and ‘70s, criticized Nixon for his first Vietnam policies and then the sordid scandal that became Watergate. Many of these musical protests maintain steady radio rotation across the country – Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio,” Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth,” David Bowie’s “Young Americans.”
And there are dozens of similar tunes from that era that are now all but forgotten. When was the last time you heard John Denver’s “The Ballad of Richard Nixon,” Phil Ochs’ “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon,” Steve Miller Band’s “Jackson-Kent Blues,” Country Joe and the Fish’s “Tricky Dick” or Tom T. Hall’s “Watergate Blues”? The always political Gil Scott-Heron, at the height of his formidable powers in that era, regularly turned his poetry on Nixon.
Blues and jazz artists also created musical broadsides against Nixon and his policies, although their efforts are overlooked today.
Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown in 1973 cut the track "Please Mr. Nixon,” in which he pleaded:
Don't cut off that welfare line
I want you to give up more money
So we can live good in this country all the time
You send this Agnew all over the country
Just to do your thing
He didn’t do much to help you
I said, please Mr. Nixon, don't shut off that welfare line
Blues guitarist Thomas Shaw offered a similar appeal on his “Richard Nixon Welfare Blues.”
Howlin’ Wolf in ‘73 released a different “Watergate Blues” on his “The Back Door Wolf” album. The lyrics ask:
Everybody, have you heard the news?
The folks at the White House have the Watergate blues
Don't do us wrong, don't make no mistake
Because we will blow the whistle on you
Just like we did at Watergate.
Bob Kirkpatrick was even more pointed on his “Watergate Blues" from the same year:
We got trouble in the White House
Oh well, never have no peace America
Until we get rid of him
Three and a half more years of torture
Is more than we can stand
Because the Watergate affairs
Is flooding all over the land
As a primarily instrumental genre, jazz was less suited to brandish broadsides at the chief executive. The most notable composition in that direction is Percy Heath’s “Watergate Blues,” which was featured on the Heath Brothers’ “Marching On!” (1976) and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Boogie Woogie String Along for Real” (1978) and the Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Echoes” (1984).
Nixon himself played a bit of piano and even composed simple pieces for the instrument, as he demonstrated once in the early ‘60s on the “Tonight” show with Jack Paar. He also awarded Duke Ellington a presidential honor and counted among his closest advisors was Leonard Garment.
Garment has had a long association with jazz, starting with his career as a saxophonist with Woody Herman's band before entering law school. In the 1970s, Garment served as chairman of the board of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. More recently, he was one of the founders of the Jazz Museum in Harlem. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2005 as an arts advocate and patron.
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