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Susan Brison Headshot

The Audacity of the Presidential Inauguration Committee: or This Land is Whose Land?

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I was looking forward to watching the Inaugural Concert with my son this afternoon. Really looking forward to it. I'd heard that it was being broadcast on HBO, but I'd also heard that it HBO would let non-subscribers watch it for free.

It wasn't obvious to me, though, how, as a non-HBO subscriber, I would be able to watch it, so I paid very close attention to the channels I do get -- CNN and MSNBC, among others -- in the hour leading up to the concert. The talking heads kept alluding to the upcoming concert, in ways that led me to expect they would be broadcasting it.

The first sign that something was amiss came when, during the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner, the talking heads just kept on talking, saying things like 'people are holding their hands over their hearts . . . they seem to be very moved . . . .' And then, at the conclusion of the National Anthem, the reporters abruptly cut away from the concert entirely, explaining that the Presidential Inauguration Committee had sold exclusive rights to broadcast this extraordinarily, historically, inclusive "We Are One" concert at Lincoln Memorial to HBO. So those of us who hadn't had the foresight -- or the financial wherewithal -- to subscribe to HBO (or to one of the cable or satellite dish companies that had worked out an agreement with HBO) would not be able to see or hear it.

I spent the next couple of hours on-line trying to figure out how to get access to the concert. The HBO website told me that, if I registered for HBO.com, I would be able to watch the concert on-line, so I took the time to register, giving them all manner of personal information, including my birthdate and the name of my first pet, only to be told that I could not have access to this particular HBO program -- not this afternoon, not when it was rebroadcast later this evening, not ever.

At the end of the program, and at the end of my rope, I discovered that one could hear the audio portion on NPR, so I went to npr.org only to find this message: "Now Over: NPR's coverage of the special inaugural celebration has finished. The concert will not be archived online. However, you can see photos from the event by clicking the link below."

I didn't want to see photos. I wanted to hear the concert. I'd happened to call a friend (who has HBO, but who lives almost half an hour away from me) near the end of the concert. She was moved to tears and couldn't talk, but she soon called me back. "It was incredible." she said, "Pete Seeger just sang "This Land Is Your Land. "

I, like so many of my generation, grew up with that song. When I was a kid, I heard Pete Seeger sing it in my hometown and it changed my life. In high school I spent a week on the Hudson River on the sloop Clearwater singing it with NYC schoolchildren. After 9/11, in reaction to my son telling me his kindergarten class had started a patriotic ritual of singing "God Bless America" and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, I brought my guitar to his school and taught the kids that song. I sang it with them every week for months.

Years later, I volunteered for Obama with my son, who's now in high school. We had a house party for Obama. We made phone calls. We canvassed door to door. We stood on the street with posters. On election night, we joined friends -- grandparents, grandkids, black, white, gay, straight -- and jumped and screamed and cried tears of joy as Obama's victory was announced.

Today, I was finally getting over the sting of Obama's inviting Rick Warren to give the Invocation at his inauguration on Tuesday. I was hoping that hearing Bishop Gene Robinson give the Invocation at today's Inaugural Concert would return to me the unalloyed joy I felt on election night, the thrill of knowing that, finally, we had a president who was committed to including everyone. But the Presidential Inauguration Committee decided to sell the property rights to the Inauguration Concert to HBO, depriving millions of citizens of the chance to see it.

I was, finally, able to find a YouTube video of Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen rehearsing the song for the concert. You might still be able to find it on the web, if the HBO copyright lawyers haven't taken it down. (Did HBO also buy the rights to the rehearsal footage?) But it's choppy, so, if you want to hear all the lyrics, go listen to Woody Guthrie's original recording, especially this verse:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;

Sign was painted, it said private property;

But on the back side it didn't say nothing;

That side was made for you and me.

The recording's in the Smithsonian, and, last time I checked, it still hadn't become anyone's private property. Someone should've told the Inauguration Committee that it, like this land, was made for you and me.