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Oneida leader attends White House event for Paul McCartney

WASHINGTON – Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation Representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises, was among a select group of guests invited to the White House in early June to pay tribute to former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney for his gift of music to the world.

McCartney was awarded the prestigious Gershwin Prize for Popular Song by President Barack Obama June 2.

“Getting this prize would just be good enough, but getting it from THIS president. …” McCartney said.

Halbritter was the only American Indian leader among the gathering of 200 renowned musicians and government officials invited to the White House reception and award presentation by the president and First Lady Michelle Obama.

The heart and soul of the evening was an almost two-hour concert in which McCartney and musicians Stevie Wonder, the Jonas Brothers, Faith Hill, Emmylou Harris, Lang Lang, Herbie Hancock, Elvis Costello, Corinne Bailey Rae, David Grohl, and Jack White performed McCartney songs.

McCartney is the third recipient of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, which celebrates the work of an artist whose career reflects lifetime achievement in promoting song as a vehicle of musical expression and cultural understanding. The first and second Gershwin Prize for Popular Song winners were Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder.

Halbritter said he was “delighted” to receive the invitation, which arrived in the mail, but the evening itself surpassed all expectation.

“My understanding is I was the only Native leader invited to the event so I was highly honored. It was an incredible evening. It was something I’ll never forget.” Halbritter was accompanied to the White House event by Kateri Walker.

Halbritter and Obama attended Harvard Law School, but “we didn’t know each other there. I had not met him previously, not that I recall, anyway. I found out later that our years there overlapped,” Halbritter said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Stevie Wonder were among the guests that Halbritter knows.

“Stevie Wonder had performed at our casino (Turning Stone Resort), so I got to talk to him a little bit,” Halbritter said.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld provided humorous commentary during the evening.

In his remarks during the evening, Obama acknowledged the “very difficult time” in the Gulf area because of the BP oil spill.

“Right now our prayers are with friends in another part of the country that’s very rich in its musical heritage,” Obama said. “Part of what gets us through tough times is music.”

Halbritter reflected on how the music of McCartney and the Beatles both defined and got a whole generation through the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s.

“I lived through that era. I knew that era. I think they evolved through the cultural cycles that we experienced. They experienced these things and lived these things, too, and their music certainly reflected that back to us. Revolution. Blackbird. Racial tension. The creation of their music was part of the cultural revolution and reflected that,” Halbritter said.

At one point in the evening, Wonder and McCartney sang a rendition of “Ebony and Ivory,” Halbritter said, an example of a Beatles song with a political message.

But the most important thing is the song itself, Halbritter said.

“Music is quite universal and quite political in ways, and I think it certainly reflects the era and the different moods of the nation. At the same time that we listen to music and we enjoy it in ways that are political and make statements that reflect the era, it’s got to be the song that works,” Halbritter said. “You can have a great singer singing a song that’s mediocre and it has little impact.” The Beatles had both – great songs and good performers, He said, and that’s why their music has endured for almost 50 years.

The White House concert took place in the East Room, a relatively small space with the stage very close to the audience.

McCartney remarked that it was probably the smallest crowd he had played to since his days in Liverpool, Halbritter said.

McCartney played his original Beatles guitar, recalling that he had paid “30 quid” (30 British pounds) for it. That prompted the president to joke that the guitar “must be worth a bit more than that now,” Halbritter said.

Perhaps the highest point of the evening was the final song: “Hey, Jude.” McCartney began singing at the piano, then got up and got everyone to sing along.

“First we were all singing it, then he led all the men, then all the women. I used to sing in a choir, but it wasn’t like singing in a choir. Imagine singing ‘Hey, Jude’ with Paul McCartney conducting. That was a special moment for me,” Halbritter said.

Asked to describe the evening in one word, Halbritter said, “It’s probably an over-used word, but it was spectacular. Actually, it was more than spectacular, it was almost majestic. You had this incredible music being played by some of the finest musicians of our time and you were at the White House with a very select group of people. How good is that? It was just a magical and majestic event.”

Editor’s note: Indian Country Today is a division of Four Directions Media, which is owned by Oneida Nation Enterprises, LLC.