The Mall has served as a concert venue since 1800. Its location and size make it a spot for concerts of any size, especially since it is large enough to accommodate big crowds. With the Smithsonian Museums, the Mall can serve as a place for concerts from a range of cultures, or which reflect an educational purpose as well as a recreational one. The presence of the Capitol and White House not only inspire patriotic concerts marking national holidays, but also concerts which serve as a form of political protest.
Why is the Mall used as a concert space?
The United States Marine Band serves as the President's Own Band. They played the first concert on the Mall in 1800, and since then have played for White House events and every presidential Inauguration since 1801, as well as other political and cultural events in Washington. In 1883, they performed a special concert for the Smithsonian Institution at the unveiling of a statue of Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian. Marine Band director John Philip Sousa wrote this song, the Transit of Venus March, for the April 19 event, which was attended by more than 5,000 people.
By the mid-1930s, many large cities in the United States had free or inexpensive outdoor summer concert series featuring classical music. In 1935, Washington finally joined the trend with concerts held in one of the largest, most accessible spots in the city: the National Mall. This newspaper article describes the first season of these concerts. Musicians performed on a barge in the Potomac anchored near the Watergate steps, just south of the Lincoln Memorial. There was a ticket fee for the seats on the steps, but many people enjoyed the music from canoes and small boats anchored near the barge.
A concert on Easter Sunday 1939 helped bring attention to the issue of racial segregation in Washington and the nation. The Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Marian Anderson, an African-American opera singer, to perform in their concert hall because it was a white-only space. In response, the NAACP and other civil rights organizations worked with the Department of the Interior to arrange a concert at the Lincoln Memorial, drawing on the importance of Lincoln to African-American communities. In this audio clip from the radio broadcast of the concert, Anderson sings "America (My Country 'Tis of Thee)."
The Smithsonian has often made use of the part of the Mall between its museums for concerts and cultural events. In August 1996, it hosted a celebration in that space in honor of its 150th Birthday. Concerts held throughout the two day event demonstrated the breadth of American musical traditions, including blues, hula, African drumming, Celtic music, and much more. There was an evening concert in front of the Smithsonian Castle, followed by fireworks. This concert featured Aretha Franklin, Trisha Yearwood, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Mickey Hart with the Smithsonian Masterworks Jazz Orchestra.
The West Terrace of the Capitol Building, which faces the Mall, is also used regularly for concerts celebrating occasions of national importance. These include concerts held every year on Memorial Day, Labor Day, and on July 4. The Independence Day concert, A Capitol Fourth, is led by the National Symphony Orchestra, and while the main bandstand is on the Capitol grounds, the crowd usually stretches all the way to the Potomac River. With national memorials, museums, and monuments serving as a backdrop to the music and fireworks, the concert celebrates the United States.