-by Ronald M. Johnson

On July 4, 1981, in the hour and half before the Washington Monument fireworks began, thousands of locals and visitors to the city gathered on the U.S. Capitol Grounds to enjoy the always entertaining Pearl Bailey, accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra, sing patriotic and popular songs. There were also thunderous marches and inspirational readings that night as a national television audience joined over 200,000 at the event. It proved a magical night of music and song. As evening fell, and the sky lit up, the event concluded with cannon firing as the orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

A new tradition was born that night, one that continues to this day. Organized and staged by Jerry Colbert and the non-profit Capitol Concerts, Inc. he had founded, the show proved an instant hit. Those at the performance and others watching across the nation registered their approval with comments and support. Such musical occasions have had a long history in the nation’s capital. This event, however, and its continual reoccurrence every year, can be seen as the launching of a new, sustainable, and growing use of the Capitol Grounds and other public spaces in Washington for musical performances.

Neil Diamond performs at the 2013 Capitol Fourth concert.

Neil Diamond performs at the 2013 Capitol Fourth concert.

This blog will review the origins of that first Capitol Fourth, the long period of gestation which brought it about, and invite readers to respond with their own recollections of the evening. The blog builds off of a large body of existing commentary about the role that the U.S. Capitol and the larger National Mall has played in fostering a broader public appreciation of our country’s musical traditions.

The historic roots of the 1981 concert are deep in 19th and 20th century musical performance history. As James R. Heintze has noted, musical concerts on July 4th began in the late 18th century and continued to expand in number over the next two centuries, at first in cities such as New York and Boston and then, after the Civil War, increasingly in Washington. He documents that the tradition of summer concerts was well established in the national capital by the turn of the twentieth century, particularly on the Capitol Grounds.

During the first half of the new century, stimulated by the momentous impact of two world wars and the Great Depression, Americans increasingly enjoyed patriotic marches and popular music that sounded sentimental themes and words. In the post-WWII years, the west side of the Capitol Grounds—along with National Sylvan Theater near the Washington Monument—became the focus for a growing number of musical performances. As the Cold War settled in, the call for more concerts with patriotic music increased. Even the 1960s and anti-war protest did not slow the rise of such events, such as in 1970 when Kate Smith sang “God Bless America” at the July 4 “Honor America Day” ceremony in Washington. Throughout the decade, in cities across the nation, summer night concerts with patriotic music provided enjoyment as the sense of national pride grew.

In that context, the National Symphony Orchestra launched the first concert on the Capitol Ground’s west lawn on July 4, 1979. The event immediately drew a large crowd prior to the fireworks. After that first concert, a young PBS producer who had arrived in Washington a few years earlier, approached the organizers of the event about televising the festivities. They accepted his offer. Jerry Colbert’s vision of the event as “a party at the most special building in the country” led him to found Capitol Concerts, Inc., a non-profit organization which raised the funding needed and moved the event to a new level. His motive was clear: “We need to come together as Americans,” he told Rebecca Smith in 2008, ”’and remember it’s been a great experiment in democracy.”

From the beginning, Colbert showed a genius for bringing together the technical and logistical support needed to host a live-telecast event that, through the network of PBS stations, would reach a national audience. Every year since that first concert, he has expanded the dimensions of the event, from working with a multitude of governmental entities, including the Military District of Washington, National Park Service, and Architect of the U.S. Capitol, to bringing together a small army of savvy television producers and talented artists, many of whom essentially donate their time and efforts to bring the concert off. He has been quoted as saying: “You have to juggle a lot of hats when you do this,” referring to the myriad of roles he fulfills throughout the year and especially in the final staging of the event.

Over the years, the event has also reflected the broader context that frames the music. In the 1980s, as the first concerts were staged, the technical underpinning of the Capitol Fourth evolved and expanded. Better broadcast and filming equipment emerged as well as improvements in sound and recording. In the early 2000s, weather conditions, always a potential problem, led to a larger and more protected performance shell, erected each year in late May for the Memorial Day Performance, also staged by Colbert’s non-profit organization, and ready for use again five weeks later.

The long list of well-known MCs and both emerging and established performers have documented the changing tastes in popular music while, at the same time, providing for new ways to perform the traditional patriotic melodies that are at the heart of the show. In 2002, new security procedures were adopted in light of the 9/11 tragedy. Finally, by 2012, the size of the live audience and that of national viewership elevated the Capitol Fourth to first place as the nation’s largest combined audience to attend and view by telecast a live performance, a ranking it continues to enjoy today. As the nation has changed and evolved, so has this remarkable event over the last three decades.

In brief, this is the story and the history, but what do you personally remember about the Capitol Fourth concerts? The Blog of History is interested in hearing from you. We welcome any thoughts and, if you wish, any statement on how the music and fireworks have enriched your own understanding of the Capitol Grounds as a venue for celebration. We look forward to your comments.

Note on Sources: There is a wealth of material on the Capitol Fourth concerts on-line. The Capitol Concerts, Inc. website provides good information on the event at http://www.pbs.org/a-capitol-fourth/home/ and the biographical sketch of Jerry Colbert found on the Faith and Politics Institute website at http://faithandpolitics.org/jerry-colbert/ provides an interesting perspective on the man behind the event. Rebecca Smith provides background on Colbert at http://magazine.holycross.edu/issue_42_3/42_3_colbert?page=2. Finally, the historical background on July 4th musical performances has been explored by James R. Heintze, American Musical Life in Context and Practice to 1865 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994). Heintze’s on-line chronology of July 4 musical performances is accessible at http://www1.american.edu/heintze/music.htm.

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