Our American Song
By Frank F. Islam, July 2, 2019
America is a song.
It is a song that has been sung and one yet to be written. It is a song of harmony and one of discord. It is a song that reveals and one that conceals. It is a song of patriotism and one of protest.
More than anything, however, it is a song of passion. Of love for this nation with all its flaws and a desire to celebrate or to summon up our better angels.
The foregoing thoughts were evoked by Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw’s excellent new book, Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music that Made a Nation. In their Note to The Reader at the beginning of the book they state:
No effort has been made to be encyclopedic, readers will surely argue with us about why one song was included but another wasn’t — so be it. We welcome open — and open-hearted debate.
Meacham and McGraw proceed to make a request:
…it’s our hope that the Songs of America is the opening and not the closing act in a conversation about the nation’s diversity and complexity. For that’s among the reasons we undertook the project to inspire Americans to think more widely and more deeply about the country Abraham Lincoln called “the last best hope on earth.”
As lovers of America and American music in all its forms, we have been inspired to join the conversation but not to enter a debate. That’s because there is no need for a debate.
Rather, there is a need for dialogue and learning from others with different insights and information. There is a need for sharing and blending of perspectives to gain a more holistic and integrated understanding of what it means to live in America and be an American.
That is why we are pleased to provide our perspective on a select number of American songs (and their cousins) that have reflected the American experience, and shaped American thinking and actions over time. This perspective is neither comprehensive nor chronological.
It is a commentary written from our American memories about music we have heard or words that we have read that made a lasting impression upon us, which remain relevant, and may have gained even greater relevance, given where America stands today in this 21st century.
Our first selection is not a song, but a piece of prose that was as powerful in the founding of this country as any song. It is Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. This pamphlet was published in 1776 to encourage the common people to join the movement for independence from Great Britain. It is estimated that the pamphlet reached more than 500,000 people when the total population of the soon to be United States was a mere 2,500,000.
Meacham and McGraw cite the pivotal importance of Common Sense in stimulating support for the American Revolutionary War in their book. The pamphlet in its entirety is memorable and motivational and almost musical in its composition.
Two phrases stand out for us, however. They are:
The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
Those words rang true in 1776. They ring true in 2019.
So too do many of the words for our second selection which is also not a song. It is Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Whitman published this initial collection of his poems in 1855 and reworked and added to them almost continuously until his death in 1892
In 1859, in a notebook Whitman declared himself the Bard of Democracy. This might seem like an outrageous claim, but a review of his work and significant accomplishments during his lifetime, and continued recognition and acceptance in this 21st century, support that assertion.
As a groundbreaking poet, Whitman invented free verse. But his claim to fame as the American advocate of and for democracy was that the scope of that verse was unconstrained and far-reaching. Whitman knew no boundaries, either personally or professionally.
Consider that Leaves of Grass included diverse and eclectic works such as: I Hear America Singing (celebrating the working class); Song of Myself (celebrating life); I Sing the Body Electric (celebrating the physical body); Pioneers! O Pioneers! (recognizing the westward expansion in the United States); O Captain My Captain and When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed (both written after the end of the civil war and Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865).
Whitman wrote magnificently and there are memorable lines in all his poem/songs. Oh Captain My Captain begins this way:
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Those were the words penned for a nation in sorrow in 1865. As were the words to the song Abraham, Martin and John, written by Dick Holler a little more than 100 years later, in 1968, after the death of Bobby Kennedy. The first two verses of this song are structured similarly with lyrics about Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy.
The third verse is about Martin Luther King. That verse and the ending of the song follows:
Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed lotta people but it seems the good they die young
I just looked around and he’s gone
Didn’t you love the things that they stood for?
Didn’t they try to find some good for you and me?
And we’ll be free
Some day soon, it’s gonna be one day
Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill
With Abraham, Martin and John
Dion DiMucci recorded this song in 1968. It was a best seller for him, and facilitated his transition to a folk singer from a rock and roll artist as the lead singer for Dion and the Belmonts. His most famous song with that group, recorded in 1961, was Runaround Sue, which told the story of a girlfriend who cheated on her boyfriend.
Much American rock and roll of that decade dealt with relationship themes. One that blended this personal theme with the story of America was Only in America, recorded by Jay and the Americans in 1963. The opening lines of the version they recorded are well known to those who grew up in that decade. They go as follows:
Only in America
Can a guy from anywhere
Go to sleep a pauper and wake up a millionaire
Only in America
Can a kid without a cent
Get a break and maybe grow up to be President
Only in America
Land of opportunity, yeah
Would a classy girl like you fall for a poor boy like me
Not as well-known is the history of the song. It was originally written for the African American group The Drifters, who had recorded big hits such as Up on the Roof and On Broadway.
Here is the chorus for that original version:
Only in America, land of opportunity, can they save a seat in the back of the bus just for me. Only in America, where they preach the Golden Rule, will they start to march when my kids go to school.
Atlantic Records felt uncomfortable with those lines and asked for the song to be rewritten. It was, and became a song of patriotism instead of a song of protest.
By the mid 60’s, as Bob Dylan began to emerge as an unparalleled critical observer and commentator on the American scene, and the Vietnam War was beginning to have its impact upon public opinion, protest songs became more acceptable and popular.
One of the most notable early songs of this genre was Eve of Destruction,written by P. F. Sloan and recorded by Barry McGuire in 1965. This song, which went to the top of the pop charts in that year, had scathing lyrics. The most scathing are probably these:
Yeah, my blood’s so mad, feels like coagulatin’,
I’m sittin’ here, just contemplatin’,
I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulation,
Handful of Senators don’t pass legislation,
And marches alone can’t bring integration,
When human respect is disintegratin’,
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction
Not all protest songs of that time frame were so radical in their statements. Two songs recorded in 1967 were much more nuanced.
San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair), written by John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, and recorded by Scott McKenzie, was a subtle invitation to leave the mainstream and Middle America to become part of the hippie and counter culture movement. It advised listeners that:
If you’re going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you’re going to San Francisco
You’re gonna meet some gentle people there
For those who come to San Francisco
Summertime will be a love-in there
In the streets of San Francisco
Gentle people with flowers in their hair
In contrast to this invitation to a love fest, Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth advised a cautious approach to participating in protests and questioning authority. The song begins this way:
There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look — what’s going down?
There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking’ their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
Through time, the songs of protest, patriotism, and passion for this country raise questions about what America is, and for what purpose and for whom does America exist?
During World War II, Frank Sinatra recorded a song titled The House I Live In (That’s America to Me). It begins with these lyrics:
What is America to me?
A name, a man, or a flag I see;
A certain word, democracy.
The house I live in,
A plot of earth, a street,
The grocer and the butcher
Or the people I meet;
The children in the playground,
The faces that I see,
All races and religions,
That’s America to me.
The house I live in,
My neighbors white and black
The people who just came here,
from generations back;
The town hall and the soap box,
A home for all God’s children;
That’s America to me.
Interestingly, The House I Live In was written and recorded to promote unity and tolerance within the American populous by presenting a patriotic and “idealized” version of America that was truly worth fighting for. That was because at the outset of World War II, there was unity to fight the enemy without — not so much to confront the enemy within.
In the mid 1980’s, country music star Waylon Jennings, even though he was considered an “outlaw” or contrarian as a country musician, recorded America, which provides another patriotic and unifying view of this country and its citizens. The song includes the following lyrics:
Well I come from, down around Tennessee
But the people in California
Are nice to me, Amer-ica
It don’t matter where I may roam
Tell you people that it’s home sweet home
And my brothers are all black and white, yellow too
And the red man is right, to expect a little from you
Promise and then follow through, America
Jennings reference to the “red man” or the American Indian and what is owed to them in his America song was unusual but not unique.
Singer song-writer Michael Martin Murphey attacked this issue straight on in Geronimo’s Cadillac. That song ends with these lyrics:
Warden, warden, don’t you know
Prisoners have no place to go
They took old Geronimo by storm
Ripped off the feathers from his uniform
Jesus tells me I believe it’s true
The red man is in the sunset too
Took all his land, now they won’t give it back
And they sent Geronimo a Cadillac
Johnny Cash tells an even more poignant story in The Ballad of Ira Hayes, a song, written by Peter LaFarge, about the Pima Indian who served in the Marines and was one of the six men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. Here are the opening lyrics from that song:
Gather round me people there’s a story I would tell
About a brave young Indian you should remember well
From the land of the Pima Indian
A proud and noble band
Who farmed the Phoenix valley in Arizona land
Down the ditches for a thousand years
The water grew Ira’s peoples’ crops
‘Till the white man stole the water rights
And the sparklin’ water stopped
Now Ira’s folks were hungry
And their land grew crops of weeds
When war came, Ira volunteered
And forgot the white man’s greed
Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin’ Indian
Nor the Marine that went to war
In 2019, Native Americans have a singular new voice speaking for them on the national stage. That is Joy Harjo, a member of the Mucogee Creek Nation, who in June was named the U.S. poet laureate by Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress.
Ms. Harjo has said, “My poems are about confronting the kind of society that would diminish Native people, disappear us from the story of this country.” She is recognized for speaking up and speaking out.
She has done this not only through her poems but her songs. She is a talented musician who plays the saxophone and sings and has released four albums. Her new collection of poems, to be released in August, is titled An American Sunrise. According to Concepion de Leon of the New York Times, she has indicated that in her role as poet laureate she wants to use poetry and music to address the current political and social divides of our country.
Ms. Harjo does not stand or sing alone. Protest songs or strong social commentary has not been solely the province of male singers. Women have been on the cutting edge for some time — especially when it comes to issues of racism and segregation.
In their book, Meacham and McGraw recognize Nina Simone, singer-songwriter, and her defiant song Mississippi Goddam, written in 1964, early in the civil rights movement, after the killing of Medgar Evers. Simone holds back no punches, declaring in the opening lines of the song:
The name of this tune is Mississippi goddam
And I mean every word of it
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam
In her song, Simone demonstrated courage in confronting an ugly reality. Before her, there was Billie Holiday, the jazz and blues singer known as Lady Day, who recorded Strange Fruit in 1939, the opening lines of which are:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Flash back to 1964 for a different form of protest song, There But for Fortune,written in that year by Phil Ochs, a prolific protest singer and song writer. Folk singer Joan Baez’s version of this song became a hit in 1965. The song begins this way:
Show me the prison
Show me the jail
Show me the prisoner whose life has gone stale
And I’ll show you, young man
With so many reasons why
There but for fortune go you or go I
Where Ochs’ song was a plea for understanding of those less fortunate, singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman’s Talkin’ Bout a Revolution, written in 1988, was a prediction that those less fortunate would take it to the streets. Here’s how she framed it:
While they’re standing in the welfare lines
Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation
Wasting time in the unemployment lines
Sitting around waiting for a promotion
Don’t you know
Talkin’ ‘bout a revolution
It sounds like a whisper
Poor people gonna rise up
And get their share
Poor people gonna rise up
And take what’s theirs
As these songs demonstrate, there is much that separates us. There is one thing, however, that a vast majority of Americans hold in common. That is — except for Native Americans — we are all immigrants. As John Kennedy put it in the title to his 1958 book, America is A Nation of Immigrants. America’s immigrant history has been both a cause for pride and a cause for protest in many songs.
In his 1988 song Immigrant Eyes, singer-songwriter Guy Clark remembers his grandfather’s immigration here to and through Ellis Island, and what it meant to him. The song closes with these lyrics:
Sometimes when I look in my grandfather’s immigrant eyes
I see that day reflected and I can’t hold my feelings inside
I see starting with nothing and working hard all of his life
“So don’t take it for granted,” say grandfather’s immigrant eyes
Now he rocks and stares out the window
But his eyes are still just as clear
As the day he sailed through the harbor
And come ashore on the island of tears
My grandfather’s days are numbered
But I won’t let his memory die
Because he gave me the gift of this country
And the look in his immigrant eyes
This positive and moving view is offset by a differing perspective driven in response to the words and actions of the Trump administration on immigration. On July 4, 2018 Guatemalan immigrant singer Gaby Moreno and Van Dyke Parks released their version of the song The Immigrants, written in 1998 by David Rudder, which includes these lines:
So much trouble in the home of the brave and the land of the free
Am I an immigrant or am I a new slave, made for all brutality?
I don’t think so
Is it that man has lost his reason?
You can’t even blame the heat
They’re moving like jackals in the hunting season
And the refugee’s soul is the meat
The immigrants are here to stay, to help build America
The immigrants ain’t going nowhere, they’re here for America
Fighting for a better life
Fighting through the grunge
America remember Ellis Island
We all came here to take the plunge
I hope you understand it
The “complexity and diversity” and the promise of America is portrayed in its songs. That is why we must and will continue to search for America.
Or, as Paul Simon put it his song America, released by Simon and Garfunkel in 1968, “to look for America.” That song, which was written to describe Simon’s journey with his then girlfriend, has become sort of a national anthem. Yes, we have “All come to look for America.”
In that looking, we all desire to find the America that we want. We might all agree, as poet Langston Hughes titled his notable poem, that we want to Let America be America Again.
If we do, we should realize that letting America be America again does not mean the same thing to all of us. Hughes’ poem was written in irony and with passion.
It begins with these lines:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(It was never America to me)
And near the end has these:
O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be — the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine — the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME —
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose —
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!
Hughes’ poem was a protest born out of patriotism. It is emblematic of the juncture between the dream and the reality that is America’s song. That is the American song.
A song of the potential for equality and opportunity for all. A song of being, believing, and becoming. A song of a quest for a more perfect union. A song of “the last best hope on earth.”
A song still being written and a song yet to be sung.
America is that song.