Pick Yourself Up

President Obama’s inauguration speech included a number of important historical and literary references or allusions, from the New Testament to Abraham Lincoln to George Washington to Dr. Martin Luther King. My personal favorite, though, was to Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. Obama’s line, “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America,” is a sly reference to the song”Pick Yourself Up” in Swing Time, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

I wonder if his mother sang that line to him (“pick yourself, dust yourself off, and start all over again”) every time he fell or got hurt or didn’t succeed at something or had some kind of setback, as my mother did to me. All these years later, I still find myself using these lines as a mantra to get through difficult times. There are many other lines my mother would sing to us, as if all of life’s instructions could be conveyed through the hooks of songs from musical theater.

That may be the real power in America’s Broadway shows–the didactic and instructive potential through memorable textual and melodic lines.


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