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Music, Arts, Education, and History

A Story as Told by the National Mall in Washington, DC
As interpreted by Robert B. Morrison

It had been an incredibly invigorating week in Washington DC and my mind just would not turn off. More than seventy music and arts education advocates had been convened by the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) for their annual “fly in.” This was a chance to meet with our members of Congress to help advance arts education in the United States.

Between the training and events, food, more events, music, more food, press conferences, fabulous speakers (The legendary Congressman John Lewis, Former Secretary of Education Richard Riley, Yankee Legend Bernie Williams, Political Pollster Charlie Cook, Actor Doc Shaw and Opera Star Carla Dirlikov), did I mention food – we had been busy.

On our first evening together, Congressman John Lewis regaled us with stories from his youth in Troy Alabama. He spoke of raising chickens, segregation, and his calling to the civil rights movement. He spoke of Selma and Dr. King. Of the violence in the south to the historic moment on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the famous words… “I have a Dream.”

He then looked up at all of us and stated:

“Without Music, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.”

It would take some time for the gravity of those words to truly sink in.

On Wednesday, we culminated our time together by spending the day lobbying for music and arts education with our congressional leaders and then celebrating at a reception overlooking the U.S. Capital Building.

After two days of meetings and making the case for music and arts education with our nation’s leaders the excitement and adrenaline rush would just not subside. I was back at my hotel (on New Jersey Avenue no less) and I just could not sleep. As the night wore on I tossed and turned. A brief doze here and a short one there. By 5:30 AM I had had enough. Determined to do something useful I decided I would go for a walk/jog (to work off some of the food, of course).

Seeing that we were only a few blocks from the National Mall I decided to shun my hotel treadmill routine, put on my shorts, workout shirt and sneakers and headed down to Constitution Avenue where I entered the mall at the very foot of the capitol steps. I decided to walk from the Capital to the Lincoln Memorial and back then head to Starbucks for my morning green tea.

As I entered that great green lawn of the National Mall my brain was still on overload with thoughts racing by a mile a minute. I decided to shun my routine of listening to music to just walk/jog in silence so I could take in the sights and sounds as I tried to organize the jumble going on inside my head.

My family and I had lived in Northern Virginia twenty years ago. We had been on the National Mall dozens of times for fun and dozens more for work. This time, something was different.

What stuck me immediately was something I had never seen or heard at the Mall. SILENCE! There were no cars, no tourists, no mega buses, no joggers, no construction, no whistles, no families with pets or kids running across blankets.

The place was empty.

Not one person appeared for as far as I could see. It was like having the entire National Mall all to myself! Then I noticed some sounds. What was that? Birds! They were chirping from the forest of trees that line both sides of the Mall and with their call they invited me to see our nations capital through a new set of eyes.

I began my walk toward the Washington Monument and my frenetic brain activity began to organize itself… almost as if this great historic national park was calling to me eager to share a story… so I listened.

As I traversed the Mall I passed the National Museum of Art on one side and the Air and Space Museum on the other. Places that celebrate both our creativity and imagination that literally transcend both time (centuries!) and space (on our own planet and beyond). On my left appeared the National Museum of the American Indian and the celebration of the history and culture of this continent’s great native people. Next came the Hirshhorn Museum which houses so many great works of contemporary art.

I continued on, passing on my right the National Museum of Natural History with our nation’s natural wonders and then to the National Museum of American History filled with our man made wonders and home to that most iconic of all flags, the Star Spangled Banner; the flag that flew high over fort McHenry signaling the country had survived the night in what could have been the downfall of the fledgling republic in September of 1814, and the inspiration for what is now our national anthem.

A musical and artistic theme was starting emerge in my mind. This idea of the connection between music and arts education and our great national history began to reveal itself to me as I passed the National Museum of American History was fitting since this is also the home to one of the great musical instrument collections.

Just past the Museum of American History and rising from the Mall to my right was the still under construction museum of African American History and Culture… the soon to be home for cultural icons like Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Chuck Berry’s car and Leadbelly’s songbook.

From there I went to the Washington Monument and thought about the man who was our greatest Army General and our first President. I thought of fifes and drums calling our Revolutionary soldiers to battle under his command. I also thought of his duets playing the flute with his granddaughter. I looked to my left to see the Jefferson Memorial and the silhouette of the statuesque Jefferson in the soft gray morning haze of the Potomac. I thought of him playing his violin and the importance he placed on the arts in his own life.

I turned to my right to see the south portico of the White House which brought back the memory of its first inhabitant, John Adams. His voice was suddenly in my head:

“I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”

– Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, post 12 May 1780

And then I remembered my own experience sitting under a huge white tent on the south lawn of the White House in the fall of 1999 where I was executive producing a live Concert for Music Education. My good friend and colleague Joe Lamond (NAMM CEO) was in the tent with me. President Clinton climbed upon the stage to tell HIS story of the important roll of music in his life and then uttered these words historic words:

“I would not have become President if it were not for my school music teachers.”

As this phrase and the southern drawl through which they were replayed faded from my memory I continued from the Washington Monument staring out to the Lincoln Memorial to see nothing between us… no people or noise… just some ducks, their ducklings and this story our National Mall was committed to telling me.

I entered into the reverent World War II Memorial and was awestruck by its beauty. The fountains were running, breaking the silence of the dawn. Iron wreaths hung over each pillar in tribute to every state and territory. I went to the left center pavilion constructed to honor the war in the pacific. I passed the inscription honoring Pearl Harbor and then entered the pavilion and stood in awe of the massive eagles holding a horizontal wreath above my head. I then looked below to see the inscription “Victory on Land, Victory in the Air and Victory at Sea.” It was here that I heard the words of Winston Churchill. During World War II, Britain’s finance minister recommended to Winston Churchill that they cut arts funding in order to better support the war effort. Churchill’s reply was clear and to the point:

“Then what are we fighting for?”

I then continued on my journey toward the stoic statues of the Korean War Memorial slogging through the muck and mire to my left and the elegant angled black marble wall paying tribute to those who fought and died in the Vietnam War to my right.

Indeed… what are we fighting for?

I walked along the reflecting pool and started to contemplate my journey this week. I then came to the Lincoln Memorial and started to climb the steps. As I reached the top of the steps I passed through those huge marble columns and entered the Memorial to look at President Lincoln in complete and total peace and quiet. No people, no sounds, no crowds. I read the inscription over his head. And then turned to my left to read the poetry of the Gettysburg Address chiseled into the white marble wall.

I walked back out between those same marble columns and looked out upon the still empty vista, across the vast reflecting pool to the Washington Monument and Nation’s Capitol in the distance beyond. I stood on the place where Martin Luther King stood some 50 years prior. Where his noble Lieutenant John Lewis stood by his side.

I felt a shiver.

And then, finally, the scramble in my brain started to make sense.

You see, John Lewis stood before us just three days earlier… himself a living statue to the great struggle for civil rights. He was a partner with Dr. King and is now a sitting Congressman from Georgia. He spoke about the struggle for civil rights, his life growing up in the segregated south, his efforts to raise chickens and his struggle to raise his people.

Reflecting on his past, his own place in history and this specific moment in time he uttered those words:

“Without Music, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.”

The words came back to me and hit me hard as I stood on that spot, Dr. King’s spot, John Lewis’s spot on the Lincoln Memorial.

What this great National Mall had revealed to me on this morning, the sense it had made of my scrambled brain activity was this:

Our collective national, state and local efforts on behalf of music and arts for everyone are connected in real and meaningful ways to the through lines of our great national history.

We are just one small part of a much larger continuum; we are fulfilling the desires and dreams of our both our founding fathers and world leaders of our recent past that traverse across our history for centuries with a centrality to our humanity I had not really understood before.

The Mall reminded me how we had new icons in our midst as we tackled the current educational challenges of our time — From Congressman Lewis who spoke on our first night, to Bernie Williams (former Yankee now suiting up for the music and arts education team) who walked the halls of Congress with us. And sitting with us through it all, advising and counseling us throughout the week was the person I have placed on my own personal Mount Rushmore of individuals who have gone above and beyond for music and arts education, Former Secretary of Education Richard Riley. He is the man who when he had the chance showed true leadership by making music and the arts a core subject in federal law some twenty two years ago.

All of us who gathered in Washington, and indeed the thousands of people back in their own homes who advocate for music and arts education are just the current keepers of the flame… working to keep the dreams of our forefathers alive by protecting and advancing the right of this and the next generation of citizens to a complete education that includes music and the arts and to whom we shall pass this torch for them to carry on for the next.

We are building our chapter of this larger story and have been given great gifts of support, information and guidance to make a difference in Washington and our own communities right now.

We are the keepers of the flame handed down from our forefathers.

Our job, our obligation, and yes our duty is to not let them down.

About Robert B. Morrison