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The hat!

Incredible event, but the hat.... aka "a church hat."Aretha Franklin.

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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Like you Mr. Dauenhauer - this week-end was made for some significant and powerful homilies. We had the inauguaration in conjunction with MLK Day; the history of the church standing by civil rights and the call of Samuel.Instead, we got the revisionist take focused on Roe v Wade - a canned homily from Fr. Pavone and his priests for life. In the process, we condemned all folks who suffer from eating disorders, alcohol/drug addictions, sex outside of marriage, abortion (of course) all tied in to the second reading and the fact that our bodies are on "loan" from God and anything that tears down the body is a rejection of God. (yes, did point out the US issue with weight and tied to universal health needs) with a cheap shot mentioning FOCA.Not a word about the US change in leadership; not a word about the fact that citizens actually elected freely an African-American - doesn't that say something. No link to protecting all of life - Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, N. Korea, Iran, Pakistan - just skipped over. No mention of the financial plight of many including some parishioners, immigration, etc.Oh yeah, in an upper middle class, 90% white parish, we are purchasing a home near the elementary school so that 4 nuns from a missionary order in Malta can help at the school and possibly run a nursery. That was the extent of the announcements (and there I sat thinking about all of the catholic schools and parishes that are closing). Could almost swear that I am caught in a historical time zone experiement - it really is 1960.

Off topic, but I've got to say it. An inaugural day full of sensible talk about morality. Accountability, the poor, peace, you name it. There was nothing from the bishops about today. Should we breathe a collective sigh of relief? Given what I heard this past weekend at my local parish about FOCA, I'm pretty relieved that the bishops stayed home. Isn't that a hellova situation?

At least Aretha can pull it off. (If barely.) Rick Warren in the black homburg and Regis tie-and-shirt combo was too close to Oliver Hardy, a la Orange County.

A church hat with metal rivets --and a bow. It was amazing.

Aretha may have been the best part of the ceremony.I found Obama's speech suprisingly flat, from a rhetorical standpoint. A few good lines, but little that was memorable.And the Rev. Lowery, especially that beginning (with all those Thees and Thous) and the ending (Can I have an Amen!) had it all over Rick Warren.

In so many ways, Rick Warren was schooled by Joseph Lowery. Not sure if everyone knows this, but Lowery started out with the third verse of Lift Every Voice and Sing, by James Weldon Johnson, the official unofficial black national anthem.

Those were rhinestone rivets, and I want one of those hats in purple for my increasingly bad hair days. Yes, I do.Not sure how Obama's speech stacks up against others, but Yale has all the addresses online here, if anybody wants to compare Obama's rhetorical skills with those of other presidents:

Trivia time:I suspect that Rev. Lowerys benediction paraphrased this blues song by Big Bill Broonzy (1898-1958) ( He would have been old enough and from an era in which this song would have been known to him.I remember this because, as a young man in the 1960s, I was in to folk music. Elektra Records released a 4-lp collection called The Folk Box (which I still have) and this song was on it.Black, Brown And WhiteThis song can be found on the CD: "Big Bill Blues" (Vogue). The recording date was September 20, 1951 in Paris. Black, Brown And White (B. B. Broonzy)This little song that I'm singin' aboutPeople you know it's trueIf you're black and gotta work for a livingThis is what they will say to youThey says if you was white, should be all rightIf you was brown, stick aroundBut as you's black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back

I was a little sorry Aretha didn't sing her song, "Freedom," which I'm sure you all remember from the Blue's Brothers, the movie.

I think "My Country, Tis of Thee" would work very well to the tune of "Respect"!

One of the best parts for me was the music by John Williams and played by the four artists - entwining musical passages from Aaron Copeland; some of the black spirituals sung by slaves, etc.Agree with Fr. K - was hoping that the President's usual oratory would have been better - he seemed rushed. Would like for him to have referenced that he stood on a spot and before a building built by slaves. He could have borrowed or merged some of his thoughts with the poetry and musical themes.On the other hand, it was exciting to see history made by the American we have work to do.

Maybe Obama decided that this speech should be more of a "dose of reality" speech. Soaring rhetoric is fine, but, when Kumbaya ends tonight at midnight, tomorrow's panoply of horrible problems won't be solved by rhetoric.

Mollie: Was it "Respect?" Did the chorus have a lot of "freedoms" in it? She's behind the counter right (in the Blues Bros)? Tryin to keep her guy from running of with the ne'er do wells.

Peggy, I hope you won't lose too much respect for me when I admit this, but: I've never seen Blues Brothers. I assume you're right --I do know "Freedom" is an Aretha Franklin song! But I didn't think of it at the time (and I thought "My-coun-try-tis-of-thee" would fit nicely onto the "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" chorus). Maybe Aretha should have done a medley!

Franklin sang "Think" in Blues Bros I, and "Respect" in Blues Bros II. "Think" is the one with the "Freedom" refrain.

One addendum. According to "whispers in the Loggia" Pope Benedict sent a fine message of recognition to President Obama. Compare that message with the message that NCR reports that Cardinal George sent to Obama.

First: Mollie, put "Blues Brothers" on yer damn Netflix queue.Second: I have to dissent (shocker!) from the coalescing wisdom that the speech was just okay. I thought it gathered force, and above all there was a moral seriousness to it that we haven't heard in a long time. As I wrote below, refernecing Jill Lepore, inaugural addresses are very rarely "great" speeches, and even the great ones are only seen that way by future generations in light of subsequent events. They reflect the times, as much as the person. Obama could have gone a lot of places rhetorically, but could also have made it second-hand MLK, or all about race. So much post-speech commentary was about the breakthrough of an African-American president, but it seemed to me he used race as a template for the kind of reckoning that Americans not only need, but can accomplish, even if it takes generations. It wasn't about him, per se, or race, but about the ideals of America. Also: The last personage in Washington to speak so forcefully about truth--self-evident truths that our forefathers knew and with which we must re-connect--was perhaps B16 last April. And "era of responsibility"? That's pretty mature stuff, a challenge, a real generational shift. I think Obama has been clear, since at least the Democratic convention, that he is being up front about the seriousness of the trials we face, not just econimically and abroad, but also morally, spiritually. Good stuff. Then again, I think mine is something of a minority opinion. And I am from Puritan stock.

Thank you, Jean; Think it is!I did not mean to turn our attention from the speech or the event by notice of "The Hat." I love Aretha, and I was happy she was there. Her hat just confirmed my fandom, though I don't wear hats. The speech was sober and on target. Americans aren't going to get off the hook so easily with Obama. Gwen Ifil's interviews tongiht on the NewHour were as tear-rendering as the event itself. So, let's hope Obama can get us all to pay attention to what the nation is doing to itself and to the world.

Aretha has always had some great hats. Anybody remember the cover of the Amazing Grace LP from back in 1972? (Sadly, I think her voice has declined since those glorious days.) On another note, the above commenters are right on about Lowery. Praying that "yellow" people would be "mellow" -- classy stuff.

I know, of course, that Lowery was just riffing off the old blues classic "Black, Brown and White" from Big Bill Broonzy, but that song didn't have the part about "mellow yellow." It was sort of an . . . unexpected way to end an otherwise eloquent prayer.

Thank you Jean, I am educated (or I will be after I take David's advice). I missed the poem, and Lowery's prayer -- tuned in just in time to see 'Retha, and left after the speech. (We have a magazine to get out!) But I'm hoping to see all that online at some point.

Here, you go, Margaret: for you, Stuart, from 2001: now for something completely different, just because it rocks:

>>Aretha has always had some great hats. Anybody remember the cover of the Amazing Grace LP from back in 1972? (Sadly, I think her voice has declined since those glorious days.)<<Yes, I remember that hat, and I think even thinking that Aretha's voice has declined in 30 years is to have sinned in your heart, at least if you live here in Michigan.

In part what I meant by calling the speech "flat" is that his delivery was too rushed. Perhaps it was nervousness, or maybe he had to go to the bathroom, but some of his better lines required a more measured pace. On the other hand, I liked it that there he didn't do any of those rhetorical bits that aim at getting people to interrupt him with applause.

Not just Aretha's hat...but did you see how many men were wearing hats? The man-hat is coming back!Bring back the fedora!

I wonder how much of the "flat" sense of the speech came from watching it on TV. The acoustics of CNN kept audience reaction to a minimum (I wonder how much people on the mall could hear?--any first hand accounts?). Only watching the new stories later did I realize how "present" the audience on the mall was. Obama has the job of keeping hopes up, while dampening down expectations of quick fixes, and engaging the rest of us in taking responsibility. I thought the speech accomplished that. Naturally I thrilled to the criticism of the unnamed 43 and vice-43. Obama (and the rest of us) have a huge mess on our hands. Wherever you look there are big problems. I am expecting a riff somewhere about why America elected its first Afr.-American, "They left the country in a mess, and now they expect Black people to straighten it out." That's probably been a joke somewhere already.

Peggy: The Onion had a Nov. 5 story with the headline "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job." (Though I personally liked this take better.)

Jean--you are right--they are rhinestone rivets. I saw it replayed on the tv at home, and the sparke was clear.I love that hat. But I'd look like a dollar store lamp if I wore it. Aretha, well, looked fabulous.

Let us not forget Etta James. After all Michelle and Barack danced to At Last at the ball last night.

Actually, those were Swarovski crystals (and I am ashamed to say that I wasted part of the morning listening to the fashion report so I could gather that factoid, but I have a cold, so I felt I could indulge myself). They looked like rivets because the fabric was too light; you need a dark, clear color to make sparkles pop.And, Jason, yes, let's bring back the man-hat! Raber always wears a chuke, inside and out, in winter, because he's going bald and says his head is cold. I'm sorry, but a chuke just does not give a sport coat the dash of, say, a fedora or homburg. Or even a white Stetson like LBJ's.

About the Rev. Mr. Warren, the Rev. Mr. Lowery, and others. I've not made a study of this, but over the years it has seemed to me that when Protestant clergy give invocations and blessings and such in public places, they are far more likely than Catholics to spend time telling God a llot of things that -- if He really is omniscient -- He presumably already knows. Do they doubt God's omniscience? or do they simply believe that God needs to be prodded and reminded from time to time?About the hat: I thought it was spectacular; but might bright red have been a better color on a cold day?

Protestant preaching and praying: Robert McAfee Brown once wrote a piece for Christianity & Crisis called multi-directional prayer in which he explored this tendency to address everyone, including God, taking note of what was obvious to everyone, especially God. It does sometimes seem God could use some prodding--but of course that is not the purpose of prayer or preaching.Red: that might have answered Jean Raber's fashion alternative (Mrs (aka Dr.) Biden certainly stood out, but the gray was subtle, nuanced; I liked it.

"It was great to see Aretha wear the Hat. The Hat said that this really was change we could believe in. There is a cultural change in the White House, and a cultural change in the nation, and I have no idea what it's going to look like, but it's going to include the Hat, and all the ladies who wear hats like that on Sundays. They are inside the gates now and walking down the corridors of power, and if you give them sass, it will be at your peril..." ~ Jon Carroll

I second Nicholas Clifford's observations. It's one of the problems I have with the ICEL translation of the orations of the Mass. Out of the presumption that no one can understand a relative clause, they wind up telling God what he has done, which one might think wouild be unnecessary.About the hats: In driving to the church where I say Mass on Sunday, I sometimes go past an African-American church, and it's always great to see the people well dressed, and all of the women wearing hats. I talked about this once with the black grand mother-in-law of one of my nieces, who was quite insistent: You're not dressed properly for church if you're not wearing a hat! So maybe Aretha was thinking of the inauguration as church!

When my grandfather died, my mother didn't own a hat, and I was hauled to every hat store in our town plus the next two towns over to help her find a black hat with a veil that could be firmly affixed to her big mid 60s hairdo if it was windy at the cemetery and easily removed at the gathering back at the house without having to redo the coiffure.I was only in the fifth grade, so a black velvet headband did for me.I've always felt that my life has been the poorer for never having been requested or required to attend a function where the right kind of hat and coordinating gloves were de rigeur.So much for My Memory Lane of Hats. Didn't Marion Anderson sing "My Country Tis of Thee" all those years ago at the Lincoln Memorial? I wondered if that's why Aretha sang that song at Obama's inaug.

The wearing of hats at Sunday worship - what a wonderful tradition. Appreciate your connection from Aretha's singing to Marion Anderson's singing. My guess is that there were lots of folks in the Mall who made these types of connections to history; obviously, MLK and his words but also other moments such as Marion Anderson.If you watch some of the interviews with folks out in the Mall, notice how often the women are wearing hats - it shows respect; shows that something special is happening; it indicates that this time is set apart for something bigger; out of the ordinary. The same goes for our political dress - men wearing hats was de rigeur in the old days. Wonder if we have lost some of our emotional messages because things have become so routine and ordinary?

Fashion Notes:On Hats: We who once had hats and grew up in households with all too many hats suspect the demise of women's hats comes down to storage space. Each hat requires a hat box, bigger than the hat. After you've stacked three or four on the upper shelves of the already crowded closet, you have to begin to choose among them. Some people still do. But some.... just enjoy looking at other people wearing hats. And then, Church hats, whether for men or women, are pretty useless in the cold. Notice that Arentha's came down over her ears. A church hat made for winter. That takes special care.The NYTimes used to run an Easter Parade photo page chronicling the dress and hats of churchgoers on Easter Sunday. The hats and outfits of Afr.-Amer. had it all over the Presbyterians and Episcopalians (that is, the white ones). Those from St. Patrick's were, as I recall, not notable.

Peggy: We can all break out into: 'In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it..." (All, that is, of a certain age...)When I was first ordained (ca. 1964), I happend to be in NYC in my clerical suit, but without a hat. The then Msgr. Cooke happend to meet me on the sidewalk and he made a point of indicating that I was not properly dressed without a hat.Only one of my sisters regularly wears a hat, and she always looks great in it.When I was in high school, my mother met me after classes and we went down to 14th St. in NYC and she proceeded to look for a hat. I think she tried on every hat in every store from there to 34th St., and came away without buying one! "Well, I didn't see one that I liked," she explained to me. It was my first (unfortunately not the last) lesson in why one should not go shopping with a woman.

Woman and hats: My mother took to making everyone's hats at some point (we were three girls plus herself). So we didn't have to shop; we had to stand still while she worked her decorative magic!Joe: Trying on hats was probably fun in itself for your mother. A bit like changing the costumes of paper dolls. Do you count the absence of shopping with a woman one of the side-benefits of your calling? I happen to be on your side here: my mother and grandmother and aunt conducted endless shopping forays with a kid or two dragged along, infinitely boring. It's safe to say there was more shopping than buying. Shopping was an entertainment, rather than a consuming responsibility.

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