In his first speech as the Democratic nominee for President in 1976, just days after the bicentennial of the United States, Jimmy Carter explained to the DNC that “[w]e have an America that, in Bob Dylan’s phrase, is ‘busy being born’, not ‘busy dying.’” Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, the 2020 documentary about the 39th President of the United States and his relationship with music, opens with this clip of President Carter borrowing a lyric from Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” This is followed by a shot of Carter in the present day spinning Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” on his record player. As Dylan’s hearty strumming and nasally sung cosmic poetry emanates through the speakers, a smile lights up the face of the nearly century-old former U.S. President, not unlike a child playing with a brand new toy. These moments, one powerful and one intimate, set the tone for the rest of the film. Throughout, we get a closer look at Carter’s passion for music, from gospel to folk-rock, which he wielded as a political tool, a means for communicating and crafting ideas, and most importantly, as a way to connect to other people.
As someone interested in the intersection of US politics and culture, I knew this film was a must-watch just when I saw the title this fall. And it did not let me down. While the first middle section of the title, “Rock & Roll,” was more of a draw for me than the rest, I was curious to learn about the only living President who was not in office during my life. All I had known about him was that he was a peanut farmer from Georgia, and although he is one of the few living Presidents, he is not one often remembered in popular culture. What I learned from the documentary and minimal outside research is that the Carter administration isn’t looked upon fondly, largely due to the fact that the US economy was in the gutter those four years. The movie fleshed out his lack of popularity beyond this. His thoughtfulness and commitment to pacifism came off as inaction, and probably made him, and the country, seem weak in the eyes of many Americans. My experience watching the film felt radically different. Thanks to the compelling musical lens of the film, I left (the couch, not the theater) feeling not only inspired by, but quite fond of Jimmy Carter.
Carter grew up working-class, but one in a generation of well-educated Southerners, which Rosanne Cash recalls being a facet of the “Camelot decade.” Carter grew up attending predominantly Black churches, the birthplace of gospel music. As a white man in a primarily Black space, Carter recognized music, and specifically gospel’s ability to break down racial barriers. Because of his unique upbringing, Carter and his family were staunchly anti-racist. When Carter took office as Georgia Governor in 1971, he replaced the viciously racist Lester Maddox and put portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Georgia capitol building and increased the number of Black state employees. It is through pieces of his story like these that Carter’s humanity shines through. But Carter didn’t make it to the White House alone.
The film is largely centered around the Allman Brothers Band, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan, and their impact on Carter’s presidency and legacy, as well as their personal relationships. The Allmans, although proudly Georgian, are a true American rock band with a melting pot sound that matches the musical diversity of Carter’s record collection and his vision of the country. The original and most classic lineup brought together the twin guitar playing of Duane Allman’s blistering and gospel-influenced slide together with Dickey Betts’ country and jazz infused picking and songwriting, Gregg’s soulful whiskey-soaked vocals and Hammond organ playing, as well as his role as lead songwriter, the jazzy and funky dual rhythms of Butch Trucks and Jaimoe on drums and percussion, all anchored by Berry Oakley’s groovy bass playing and soaring harmony vocals, featured on classic tracks like “Whipping Post” and “Midnight Rider.” While many of the rock groups Carter aligned himself with gained notoriety for their druggy, flashy, and party-centric lifestyles, Carter maintained his loyalty. This was certainly a risk for the President to take, but he was indebted to them, as artists like Jimmy Buffet and the Marshall Tucker Band performed at fundraisers that boosted his popularity and his campaign’s economic power so much so that he went from being a largely unknown candidate to being nominated to the White House.
Notably, Nile Rodgers, Garth Brooks, and Trisha Yearwood, as well as some of the aforementioned musicians and some others, feature in interviews for the film. The film is also rich with incredible footage of performances by the Allmans and other Southern rock groups, some all-star jazz concerts Carter hosted on the White House Lawn, as well as other various concert footage and pictures from throughout Carter’s term. The film places an emphasis on Carter’s appreciation of gospel music and his understanding of Black music as the backbone of American music. Carter recognized that jazz music was once denigrated due to racism, and just as Oberlin Conservatory added a jazz program, thanks to Wendell Logan, Carter played a role in helping to elevate the genre by hosting these jazz concerts at the White House. However, I was a little unimpressed with the lack of contemporary Black musicians featured in these performances. In fact, it’s a lot of southern white men playing styles of music that in part emerged from the Black experience.
Based on what I saw, I’m certain Carter would be quick to recognize that, but I do wonder why, although Nile Rogers featured prominently in the film, his band Chic, and other living legends like Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Bill Withers, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Nina Simone, BB King, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker did not receive an invitation to play at the White House. I understand if their styles of music were not his cup of tea or if some of them had not yet achieved the status they have today, but I was nonetheless surprised by the overall lack of representation of Black musicians considering Carter’s sensitivity towards issues of racism. I might add, not as a piece of criticism, but as a fact about this film, that it plays as a bit of endless, unfettered praise for Jimmy Carter. However, in doing so, the movie successfully reshapes Carter’s popular narrative while supplying an undercurrent of shade directed at former President Trump, by demonstrating Carter’s selfless patriotism.
Rather than playing to bipartisan politics (although he surely must have done some pandering in order to win such high offices like the presidency), Carter would do what he felt was morally right and just, and his definition of morality stemmed from honesty, a loyalty to human rights regardless of one’s nationality, race, religion, or other identifying factors, as well as his commitment to Christianity. In this way, I almost feel that Jimmy Carter possesses an intriguing sort of innocence. He did what he felt was right, even if it would not benefit his image or career. In his present day interviews, he shows he can laugh at himself and any potentially scandalous (for the day) or embarrassing moments from the past, like the campaign his fellow Democrats from Northern and Western regions launched in 1976 known as ABC — “Anybody But Carter.” Although nothing about him seems fabricated or calculated, he almost seemed intentionally ignorant to the fact, in pledging allegiance to his rock star friends, some of his would-be constituents were likely deterred from supporting him. His willingness to lead by example and stick by those, like Gregg Allman or his son, “Chip,” whose lives were threatened by drugs, for example, showcase his use of soft power, but more importantly, his guiding principle of basic humanity. Additionally, in some pictures and clips shown throughout the documentary, we see Carter tucking his knee up by his chest and resting his feet up on chairs and benches as he intently listens to musicians jamming. There’s also a great picture of him donning an Allman Brothers Band t-shirt under a jacket. Neither of these are particularly damning, but not exactly what we think of as presidential behavior.
Well, at least until five years ago. Which actually brings us to this major component of the film. While there are some specific, although subtle jabs, taken at President Trump (courtesy of Madeleine Albright), the whole film is naturally put into conversation with the behavior of the Trump administration that is still fresh in every viewer’s mind. One cannot help but compare Carter’s selfless, personal style of leadership to that of President Trump and President Biden’s, particularly with regards to Trump’s inability to empathize. Trump’s general lack of respect for humanity and culture is tacitly condemned throughout the film. Furthermore, it contextualizes Carter’s presidency, as just two years removed from Richard Nixon’s resignation as a result of the Watergate scandal, as well as an economic downturn that only worsened during predecessor Gerald Ford’s tenure. This rings similar to the new hope that Biden and VP Kamala Harris bring to the nation today following the vitriol and polarization of the Trump years. In fact, much of the language Carter uses regarding divisiveness echoes much of Biden’s rhetoric around the time of his election and inauguration. I also couldn’t help but see similarities to Obama’s presidency, what with the feel-good nature of it all and the emphasis on music that may have outshone any administrative shortcomings. I always like to see Obama’s playlists and I love watching the concerts he hosted at the White House, featuring artists from Paul McCartney to B.B. King. Notably, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, performed at Carter’s Inauguration Ball (don’t worry, the movie basically halts to show her entire a capella performance) as well as Obama’s Inauguration Ceremony in 2008. Contrast this with the past five years, where enough musicians have sued Trump for using their music at campaign rallies that there’s an entire Wikipedia article dedicated to it. It seems that music, at its best, is the ultimate arbiter of a president’s relationship to his people; a litmus test that knows a fraudulent, divisive populist when it sees one. In Rock and Roll President, we can see the glimpses of an individual who, amidst all the politics, remained devoted to the ordinary people—and their music—that he governed.