JENNINGS: Looking back on a rockin' presidential campaign

The recently released documentary, “Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President” is available to stream online for $9.99, with half of the proceeds going to a local independent movie theater of your choice.  

The pandemic has slowed the release of new music and films, but if you love presidential politics and rock and roll, you might enjoy the recently released documentary, “Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President.”

Carter was president from 1977-1981, and back then presidential politics were very different in many ways but one thing that remains the same is that candidates needed to raise large sums of money to win the presidency.

The film is available to stream online for $9.99, with half of the proceeds going to a local independent movie theater of your choice. I designated my purchase to benefit the North Park Theatre in Buffalo.

When Carter ran for president in 1976, he was a southern state governor virtually unknown in national politics. Most pundits didn’t expect Carter to win the Democratic Party’s nomination, and certainly didn’t envision Carter winning the presidential election.

In 1976, Rock & Roll music was not considered mainstream, and the film’s premise is that Jimmy Carter was the first presidential candidate to effectively use contemporary musicians for fundraising and to draw big crowds.

“One of the things that has held America together, when we have been together is the music that we share and love,” Carter noted in the film.

In simplest terms, Carter realized that music ascended over politics with many people. Carter also realized that concerts were a great way to bring people together, and to raise desperately needed funds to stay competitive in a crowded field for the Democratic nomination.

The Marshall Tucker Band, the Allman Brothers Band and the Charlie Daniels Band all performed benefits for Carter in the early months of his campaign. The southern rock bands were at the height of their popularity, and they enthusiastically supported a fellow southerner in his quest for the presidency.

Inspired by Carter’s use of contemporary musicians, California governor Jerry Brown, one of Carter’s opponents for the Democratic nomination, had his then-girlfriend Linda Ronstadt perform at Brown fundraising events. The Eagles, a group that included former members of Ronstadt’s backing band, also performed benefit shows for the Brown campaign, but it was too little too late for Brown to overtake Carter for the Democratic nomination.

The film does chronicle Carter’s years in the White House, but the primary focus is Carter’s love of all forms of music and how it influenced the Carter presidency. Carter often welcomed musicians to the White House, and he established close friendships with Willie Nelson, Gregg Allman and Bob Dylan.

Carter was so grateful to Gregg Allman for his band’s help during the campaign that Allman and Cher, who he was dating at the time, were one of Carter’s first official guests at a White House dinner.

There are many other appearances by notable musicians, including Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, Nile Rodgers, Trisha Yearwood, Bono, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Buffet, and Carter’s personal favorite, Bob Dylan. Carter even quoted Dylan’s lyrics on the campaign trail.

Rock music may not have the same power to influence the political landscape that it did in 1976, but Carter proved that music can be an effective tool in a political campaign, and Carter’s relationship with musicians proved to be an entertaining story.

Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for Night and Day.

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