Who would have thought? We all knew that former president Bill Clinton liked the odd tootle on the saxophone, but Anthony Blinken playing the guitar comes out of the blue(s). Even my friend in Texas (the sole Democrat in his rural suburb half an hour out of Austin), who knows that former Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke was in an El Paso band called Foss, was taken by surprise. It turns out that we weren’t paying attention.
When Anthony J Blinken was nominated for US Secretary of State, Rolling Stone, Guitar and other publications reported on his “rock & roll heart”. Rolling Stone stated that Blinken could play guitar “reasonably well”, that he’d published record reviews as a student, and that he’d written songs. We’ll get back to this after I introduce the first video. At the launch of a programme called Global Music Diplomacy Initiative, several acts performed before Blinken stepped up to play some Muddy Waters:
Now that’s a deep cut for a Secretary of State to play! Written by Willie Dixon and first recorded by the great Muddy Waters (1954), Wikipedia describes Hoochie Coochie Man as a blues standard that refers to “hoodoo folk magic elements and makes novel use of a stop-time musical arrangement”. The song became Waters’s signature song and was instrumental to Dixon becoming Chess Record’s chief songwriter. The Global Music Diplomacy Initiative launch where Blinken performed was on 27 September 2023.
Blinken’s Hoochie Coochie Man followed songs by Herbie Hancock, Dave Grohl and singer Gayle. The Initiative will see the US send artists to China, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, for a start. It includes mentorship for foreign musicians and will lead to the English courses run by the State Department worldwide including song lyrics. It is essentially a revival and recalibration of the cold war initiative that saw jazz and classical US artists encouraged to perform abroad. This video is a classic:
That was Marian Anderson singing Lead Kindly Light in Delhi, India, 1957. Sponsored by the State Department in its bid to use Jazz Ambassadors to promote peace and democracy, she was the first Westerner to perform at Gandhi’s memorial.
The new initiative will kick off with Herbie Hancock traveling to Jordan on the anniversary of the 1963 tour by jazz pianist Duke Ellington. Hancock will also play in Saudi Arabia, where foreign music has been frowned on. In November 2023, The Philadelphia Orchestra will be in China to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its first tour there in 1973. US rappers will also visit Nigeria to discuss using music as a means to address conflict. There are plans for music related events in 30 countries in the coming years.
Back to Blinken, who describes himself as an amateur guitarist, but plays the blues pretty Blinken good. Anthony J Blinken has played in a number of bands and has released three original songs on Spotify as ABlinken (say it slowly and you might get the reference to an assassinated 19th-century US President). His most recent band is Cash Bar Wedding. The band includes Eli Attie (former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and writer for The West Wing) and Jay Carney (spokesman for then Vice President Biden, current Airbnb head of policy and communications). The band has jammed with Alex Chilton of Big Star, the late Grant Hart of Hüsker Dü and Aimee Mann. That’s impressive!
Speaking of Blinken, who he calls Tony, Carney told the New York Times: “Tony is actually a fine guitarist and songwriter. We’re worried his State Department gig is a sign that he’s ditching us to launch a solo career.”
Blinken’s Hoochie Coochie Man has already been viewed 8M times on X as of 2 October 2023, according to the NYT. And for those of us who were taken by surprise by Blinken’s rock and blues skills, the most viewed tweet on X, also according to the NYT, is: “I had. NO. Idea” (said the X user) “who used an expletive to express her amazement”.