An instrument of social change
‘Songs of America’ a winning combo of music, history
At a rally in Hammonton, N.J., during his 1984 re-election campaign, in a moment that will live in stump speech infamy, Ronald Reagan offered words of praise for native son Bruce Springsteen. “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts,” Reagan said. “It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.”
Reagan had likely been alerted to Springsteen’s existence via conservative writer George F. Will, who had written in The Washington Post earlier in the week about a Springsteen concert he had recently attended. Will wasn’t sure where the then-circumspect Springsteen stood politically, but “he is no whiner,” Will wrote approvingly, before going on to praise the Springsteen song “Born in the U.S.A.” as a “grand, cheerful affirmation” of American values. (It was not.)
During a concert in Pittsburgh a few days later, Springsteen spoke up in protest, wondering which of his albums was Reagan’s favorite. “The White House later offered up ‘Born to Run,’ ” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham, clearly amused, in his new book, “Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation,” “but no one really believed it.”
Reagan’s real musical allegiance may have been to another 1984 hit, “God Bless the U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood, the Vegas lounge singer who became a country hitmaker. The song, now a conservative standby, was played at the Republican National Convention a few weeks earlier.
Though The Boss/ Reagan dust-up seems quaint now, Springsteen’s howl of post-Vietnam disaffection and rage and Greenwood’s floridly patriotic anthem both endure as lasting symbols of the early Reagan era. It’s a theme that plays out throughout Meacham’s book, written with country star Tim McGraw, his neighbor in
Nashville. Songs frame our national difficulties, show us ourselves and often serve as soldiers in a cultural proxy war.
Soldier Barry Sadler’s stirring pro-military “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” a hit in 1966, and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s furious, primal 1969 classic “Fortunate Son” held up a mirror to the fractious Vietnam War era. Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” and the “Hair” soundtrack song “Aquarius,” hits within months of each other, were shorthand for a neighboring conflict, the silent majority vs. restive hippies.
“Songs of America” is a history primer that emphasizes music’s role as both a reflection of social change and its instrument. “Songs make history,” writes Meacham, quoting Irving Berlin, “and history makes songs.” While some periods in American history, like the civil rights era, are brimming with inspiration, others were decidedly less musical, and “Songs of America” can go long stretches without mentioning songs at all. It appears there were precisely zero catchy tunes inspired by suffragists, for example, and the Great War was also slow going.
When recounting the music of the Revolutionary period, Meacham and McGraw mostly make do with repurposed hymns; poets, and pamphleteers like Thomas Paine, held far greater sway than did songwriters. It isn’t until the twin powerhouses of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” written by lawyer Francis Scott Key in 1814 after bearing firsthand witness to the battle for Fort McHenry, and “America” (popularly known as “My Country, ’Tis of Thee”) in 1831 that music became central to the American identity.
Meacham and McGraw move as gingerly through the spirituals of the Civil War years as two white men might be expected to. African American songs from this time period were often written in what amounted to code so as not to alarm whites, Meacham writes. “To sing of deliverance from sin, for instance, was also to sing of deliverance from slavery and from discrimination without provoking a white backlash.” The process, called “masking,” was evident in spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” written by former slave Wallace Willis, and in songs such as Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” written almost a century later.
White songwriters could write what they wanted. The 1859 Confederate anthem “I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land” was written for Northern minstrel performers, McGraw and Meacham note. Lincoln loved it. In one of the book’s strongest passages, McGraw, who contributes sidebars while Meacham handles the bulk of the narrative, grapples with the role of “Dixie” in his own Southern upbringing. “It’s not just any other song but a part of a past that’s troubling, tragic, and not even past,” he writes.
“Songs of America” otherwise moves briskly through history, lingering longest during the 1960s, and concluding with a post-Sept. 11 section that includes the Dixie Chicks’ Iraq War protest, to which Meacham devotes comparatively extensive space.
Meacham is a nonideological historian and McGraw is a country star, two professions that were built for caution, something McGraw occasionally takes to excess. Perhaps mindful of their ongoing cultural radioactivity, he avoids the Dixie Chicks entirely, though they might have seemed a natural subject for a country singer writing a book about American protest music.
McGraw is at his best when unraveling the technical aspects of a song — how difficult it is to sing, how its arrangement contributes to its emotional force. “Songs of America” does its best work when uncovering lesser-known figures: Phillis Wheatley was an emancipated slave whose masterful poems led to an unlikely correspondence with George Washington; Alfred Bryan’s 1915 song “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” (“Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder, / To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?”) prefigured the protest songs of the 1960s.
Meacham is an unshowy and empathetic writer who hails from the Doris Kearns Goodwin school of vaguely comforting, it’ll-be-OKwe’ve-been-here-before historical scholarship. To him, our American songbook, in all its sprawling messiness, unites more than it divides. If “we share music, we might just shout in anger a little less and sing in unity a bit more,” he writes. “Or so we can hope.”
Country music star Tim McGraw has written a book, “Songs of America,” together with historian Jon Meacham.
Historian Jon Meacham joined with country star Tim McGraw to write “Songs of America.”