An in­stru­ment of so­cial change

‘Songs of Amer­ica’ a win­ning combo of mu­sic, his­tory

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BOOKS - By Al­li­son Ste­wart

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.”

By Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw, Ran­dom House, 320 pages, $30

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