It's said you can tell a lot about a country by its music, and while that is true, you can tell just as much about a country's mood at any moment in time through its music. As an extreme example, I'm sure the music of Nazi Germany was far different from that of both before and after Hitler's rule. The history of America is of course not that coarsely divided, but there were still periods of trouble and unrest.
The great depression of the twenties and the thirties brought about the first wave of music with conscience, for lack of a better word, that talked about the plight of the poor and working class and strove to articulate a vision of how America's potential as a cradle of modern democracy could be fulfilled. World War Two saw an end to that with an upsurge in patriotic music; propaganda aimed at encouraging the war effort and inspiring nationalism.
The 1950s saw the beginnings of the successful marriage between white and black music with musicians Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly mixing country music with black gospel and blues rhythms. While the recording of the music was a statement – white people playing black influenced music marked an unprecedented crossing of the colour line – the music itself did not offer any real social commentary.
It wasn't until the 1960s that American musicians broke out of the chill imposed on creativity by McCarthy and his witch-hunt that forced writers and musicians to work under assumed names and risk blacklisting if their material was found inappropriate. It was the successors of writers who wrote during the depression who began singing about social change and offering an alternative view of how America could fulfill its potential.
Of course that's only a small slice of history for the landmass that has become known as the United States of America. There were people living there prior to the arrival of the European settlers who had their own musical traditions. It's a testimonial to the efforts of the people behind the new three disc set, Song Of America, to be released on September 18th 2007 that they have opened their extensive collection with a song from that pre-contact period, a Lakota "Dream Song".
Song Of America is an exhaustive effort featuring new interpretations of songs dating back to the earliest music through to the 2001. From pre-revolution America's National Anthem, "God Save The King" sung by the band John Wesley Harding up to Shortee Wop updating Grandmaster Flash's breakthrough rap single "The Message", the diverse voices of America are nearly all represented.
A troubling part is the omission of Hispanic and Franco American voices that were surely as much a part of the musical spectrum in the early going and in the present as the English/Scott's/Irish music that predominates the first two discs. Surely, it would have been more appropriate to include a Cajun or Hispanic influenced song than the sentimental, "Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?"
The three disc set is divided into three eras; disc one (Red) is for the period covering settlement and colonization up to 1860, disc two (White) is from the Civil War to the end of World War Two, and disc three (Blue) is the post war period until the 2001. (It says until the present, but the most recent song is an adaptation of Alan Jackson's post September 11th 2001 recording "Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?"– five or six years ago, which omits any of the music written about Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq)
Each disc contains songs that will be familiar to almost every American, and some that are slightly more obscure. But even the songs you thought you knew, like "Yankee Doodle Dandy" for instance, might be a surprise. The lyrics of that song are quite a bit more risque and filled with adult double entendres than I had ever heard before, and I doubt are the ones they sing around campfires at scout camps. "Yankee Doodle keep it up/ Yankee Doodle Dandy/ ride the music and the step/ and with the girls be handy" were not lyrics I was taught as a kid.
While the first disc contains songs like "Peg And Awl", "The Old Woman Taught Wisdom", and "Let Us Break Bread Together" that are not going to be known by a great deal of people, the same can't be said for discs two. The majority of the music is well known tunes like "John Brown's Body", "Battle Hymn Of The Republic", "Over There", and "Rosie The Riveter". While there has been some attempt to include songs that deal with the harsher realities of life; Woody Guthrie's "Deportee" and "Seven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat", the majority are patriotic songs from the two World Wars and earlier.
A huge body of music that represented the labour movement and the fight for the rights of miners and workers across America has been omitted, and songs dealing with the dustbowl and the other trials faced by people in the twenties and thirties are limited to two in total. There was also a good chunk of America that was singing the Blues during this time, and not including at least one song in this period from that genre is a serious failing. It would have been more representative to include a Robert Johnson song instead of something like "Happy Days are Here Again".
Disc three is far more representative of time and place, save for a lack of songs dealing with the Civil Rights movement. "Say It Loud (I'm Black And I'm Proud)" is less a civil rights song and more a statement of Black Power. It's great that it is included, but if you went by history according to this songbook there wasn't a Civil Rights movement.
But the inclusion of songs like "Ohio", "The Times They Are A Changin'", and "The Message" do provide more of a indication of the different peoples and the changes that occurred from the 1960s until the early 1980s. I do wonder about how it was decided to include songs like "Get Together" while not having anything representing Disco or Punk, both of which were significant parts of the musical landscape, but in this the producers are at least consistent in going for the safe pop music over more challenging fare.
While I may have disagreements with the some of the choices made in this collection, the interpretations offered by the contemporary performers are without exception quite extraordinary. Highlights for me included Harper Simon's rendition of "Yankee Doodle Dandy", "Go Down Moses" by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, "Deportee" by Old Crow Medicine Show, "Say It Loud (I'm Black And I'm Proud) by The Dynamites with Charles Walker, Ben Harper's version of Neil Young's "Ohio", and Shortee Wop's take on Grandmaster Flash's "The Message".
While each performer found some new way of approaching the song that made it their own, they also kept in mind they were still honouring someone else's material. Each song was done in a manner that was both inventive and respectful, a very difficult thing to accomplish. The performances provide sufficient reason to purchase this disc alone, in spite of what I've perceived as shortcomings in the selection of material.
The compilers of Song Of America were faced with the formidable challenge of selecting music from a span of five hundred years. While the music they have selected is wonderfully performed, it gives a very narrow view of American history and her people. The title might be Song Of America, but whose America are they referring to?