Beyonce’s Inaugural Song Choice: An Expert Weighs In

Blues historian says 'At Last' will honor Obama family and Etta James.

Earlier Friday (January 16), Beyoncé announced that she would be performing the Etta James classic, “At Last” for Barack and Michelle Obama’s first dance on inauguration night.

“I am so honored that I will be performing for President Obama and the first lady,” she said in a statement to “Entertainment Tonight.” “To sing ‘At Last’ while they have their first dance is a dream come true. I could not be more honored and excited that they have asked me to be part of this moment in history.”

The song has its own storied history. After appearing on James’ album, At Last!, it was released through Chess Records — the record label the film ”
[movie id="379404"]Cadillac Records[/movie],” in which Beyoncé played James, is based on — and it became a smash hit.

It was written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the film “Orchestra Wives” in 1941. Since its release, the song has been covered by everyone from Nat King Cole to [artist id="509026"]Christina Aguilera[/artist], but James’ version is probably the most well-known of all the covers. When James’ version was released in 1961, it came in at #2 on the Billboard Black Singles Chart and at #47 on the Pop Singles Chart.

“Interestingly enough, the year Etta James made this song popular, 1961, is the year Barack Obama was born,” Greg Johnson, blues curator and associate professor at the University of Mississippi, told MTV News.

He added that he can’t be sure as to [artist id="1236911"]Beyoncé’s[/artist] reasons for picking the song, but he is willing to take a few guesses. “The title can imply, ‘At last the United States has elected a black president,’ ” he shared, adding, ” ‘At last the United States has overcome its past fears of people of mixed race, at last the United States has chosen positive vision over the status quo.’ ”

Johnson also mused that it could be a reflection of one presidency’s ending. “It could even mean, ‘At last the presidency of George Bush and Dick Cheney is ending.’ ”

But Johnson found a connection that has been evident throughout this entire election — that the youth vote has once again found a reason to be interested in politics. “Another spin is that, ‘At last youth may find a connection with politics and become more engaged,’ ” he said. “Whatever the reason, the song will honor not only the Obama family, but pay tribute to one of our finest blues, soul and gospel singers, Etta James.”

“Be the Change: Live From the Inaugural” will air live on MTV on Tuesday, January 20, at 10 p.m. ET/ 7 p.m. PT. MTV News will have wall-to-wall coverage of the event and of the scenes in Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Kenya in the days leading up to the event and in the days that follow.