Sunday, January 27, 2008

Song of America

An interesting project of history writing through music appeared last September. It's a 3 CD compilation of American songs stretching from 1492 to present day. Added interest in the project may be offered by the fact that the executive producer of the compilation is former Attorney General, Janet Reno...

Reno has this to say about the rationale behind the project:

I think they [students] can learn more about their country, I think they can be inspired by what they hear, from some of these songs. They can remember when they are facing adversity that people were able to overcome terrible situations in their life and in the history of our country. When you think about it, the Depression, which this project talks about in clear detail, was such a dark cloud over this nation. I remember my mother's stories of the Depression. If my mother could carry a tune she would have composed one of these songs that talks about the Depression, because it was so much a part of her life. And then to come out of the Depression into World War II, into the greatest war we have ever had, and to face the challenge of the atomic bomb, ever present after that war, gives us a sense of the challenge we face. But it's also there to say, "Look, we did it, we can overcome, we can get past this time in our history."

Reno says a few things similar to this in a short Washington Post interview which also has a mildly humorous tone to it (comparing her selection to a hypothetical "John Ashcroft presents American history in song"-disc).... Mainly the interview shows her firm belief in the songs as a great new type of teaching material in a history or American studies class.

The set itself consists of three 'colour-coded' discs: Red, White and Blue - natch'... The Red disc starts with a First Nations perspective ("Lakota Dream Song", later leading to the "Trail of Tears") but quickly moves into Puritan territory with a number of hymns, and then into independence times and nation building celebrations. It covers the 1492 to 1860 period. The White disc (19861- 1945) starts with Civil War tensions, covers reconstruction times and the final westward expansion, moves into the 20th century with its end to isolationism and WWI participation - only to turn homeward and trace the Great Depression era and the US's slow spiral back onto the international scene during WWII. Finally, the Blue disc (1946 - present day) takes us through Cold War times, the Countercultural upheavals of the sixties, the gender wars of the seventies, the renewed focus on racial matters in both those decades and beyond, the repercussions of AIDS in the eighties, the ecological awakening, the chilly wake-up call of 9-11 (perhaps not best represented by Alan Jackson's simplistic song), and finally a return to the First Nations voices and tears (Scott Kempner's cover of Johnny Cash's "Apache Tears").

The voluminous 24 p. booklet (available here as a big PDF file), replete w. wonderful historical photographs has good cover notes which highlight the thematic complexes covered by the songs: Unity (division), War and Peace, Work, Family (home and away), Faith and Ideals...

The programmatic statement at the beginning of the folder could in fact be a quote from the call for papers for any major conference in American Studies (compare w. the theme of the upcoming EAAS 2008 gathering):

The United States has always been an extremely diverse nation, peopled by different nationalities and ethnicities. Some of the songs on this album explore the great American paradox E Pluribus Unum, the mosaic of one nation created from many different cultures. Music has allowed even the most disenfranchised to speak up and be heard– that peaceful dissension that is at the heart of the democratic process.

Not surprisingly, war and anti-war songs are featured prominently on the CDs. Some were originally stirring, recruiting, morale boosting efforts, some already from the onset questioned the wisdom of war as a conflict solving means in general. As the liner notes point out:

During wartime, songs become means of persuasion, of rallying public support, and of providing comfort. Songs document the patriotism, propaganda, and protest that have accompanied every one of America’s major military conflicts.

Virtually all the war related cuts on this set show a critical distance from the artists' side to the material, continuing a long tradition for oppositional thinking on the part of folk musicians and songwriters. It is not incidental that outspoken pacifists and anti-war agitators such as Woody Guthrie (writer of 3 tracks, including "Reuben James") and Bruce Springsteen (2 tracks, including "Youngstown") have a massive presence in this selection (fellow spirits such as Dylan and Neil Young have only one song each represented).

Similar tensions between celebration and opposition are detectable in the selection of songs depicting work, the changing conditions of labour and the organization of workers in unions. The human consequences of the change in the forms of work (due to industrialization, and later de-industrialization, for instance) or migration and immigration are traced in songs such as "Peg and Awl", "Seven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat" and "Deportee", whereas "Rosie the Riveter" puts a more positive spin on work (as a woman's patriotic chore). The recovery work of finding some of these tracks is impressive, but precedents can be found in the work of earlier musical archaeologists such as Ry Cooder.

The strengths of the liner notes (co-written by the excellent scholars of the Center for American Music at the U. of Pittsburgh) should be stressed, including their insistence on historical context, reclaiming the proper frames for songs that we otherwise might consider moribund and cliched chestnuts (such as "Home on the Range" or "Happy Days Are Here Again"). This, coupled with the contextualization the notes provide for innovative performances of 'problematic' songs such as the racially charged "Dixie's Land" (the fragile version by The Mavericks emphasizes loss and grief over bravado and parochial nostalgia and is as far from a rebel yell as one can imagine), works to greatly enrich the set, both for the casual listener and for the teacher/scholar who wants to use the set professionally.

My favourite of the three individual discs has to be the Blue one, also because it covers my own main research area, the 50s and 60s and their aftermath. Here the oppositional focus is at its strongest with must-includes as "Little Boxes" (a scathing if naive critique of suburban conformity - subversively performed by ex-homeless troubadour warbler Devendra Banhart) and "The Times They Are A Changing" (which still has a pointy message to a number of wanna-be presidential candidates: Come senators, congressmen/Please heed the call/Don't stand in the doorway/Don't block up the hall). The bluegrass version here by the Del McCoury Band is quite successful and somehow channels Pete Seeger more than it does Dylan. It's nice to also hear new versions of Neil Young's "Ohio" (indictment of the guilty in the Kent State Massacre) and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" (an early instance of eco-criticism in song). The talent on these two tracks, Ben Taylor (son of James Taylor and Carly Simon) and Anthony David, respectively, is considerable. The fellow-feeling which is the positive complement to the critique of the will-to-power and -empire is fairly represented by sing-along numbers such as "Get Together" and "This Land Is Your Land" (John Mellencamp's strongest effort in a good while - and he includes the politically divisive, radical verses of Woody's song too!).

Overall, the music is predominantly folk- and what is now known as 'Americana'-tinged, but almost all American genres are represented to some extent (with the rather surprising exception of jazz (unless one counts Andy Bey)): Blues, Gospel, bluegrass/Old Time, soul, funk, hip hop, brass band, classical/opera, musical, vaudeville, Latin, rock 'n' roll, Country (and Western! Yeeih-hah)... you name it - Reno's guys and gals got it. But it is the singer/songwriter who is in focus, and therefore guitar-driven performances, whether acoustic or electric, predominate. African-American performances are prominently featured on all 3 discs, and esp. Bettye LaVette shines in her powerhouse rendition of the AIDS-melodrama "Streets of Philadelphia", whereas the funk and hip hop efforts seem less relevant, perhaps because James Brown and Grandmaster Flash are hard to beat at their own game ("Say it Loud") - but then so are Dylan and Cash... The feminist strand in American culture, on the other hand, is showcased well by performers such as Martha Wainwright, Janis Ian, Suzy Bogguss (actually her "Rosie The Riveter" is quite jazzy) a.m.o. Latino culture is not numerously represented but of course touched upon in Guthrie's "Deportee" (and comes through strong in the Norteño arrangement of Old Crow Medicine Show) and weirdly mediated via a recording made in Slovenia of Alejandro Escovedo's "Wave", featuring independent singer/song-writers Gary Heffern and Chris Eckman (of The Walkabouts fame)...

Highlights of the first two discs include:

Blind Boys of Alabama whose rendition of communion hymn "Let Us Break Bread Together" is full of impeccable 4-part Gospel harmonics.

John Wesley Harding's hilarious arrangement and performance of "God Save The King" where the middle part has a brass band spiralling out of control into atonal and jarring disharmonies mirror the secession from the old empire perfectly.

Harper Simon's "Yankee Doodle" version features a wacky, syncopated march time signature interlaced with neo-folkie and alt-rock guitar sounds, reminding us of the satirical (British army) origins of the song which originally poked fun of Washington's rag-tag militia recruits...

Take 6 do a terrific barber shop version (allowing the last stanza to go mildly discordant) of "Star Spangled Banner", one of several more or less official 'national anthems' featured on the set (others include "Stars and Stripes Forever" and "This Land Is Your Land"...)

Minton Sparks' insistent Southern drawl in her reading of the Seneca Falls Conference "Declaration of Sentiments" - the feminist equivalent of the Declaration of Independence and the Communist Manifesto all rolled into one...

Marah's folk-punk rave-up version of "John Brown's Body" is exactly as irreverent as one needs to be with tainted material such as this... - in contrast to Joana Smith's sugary but sincere "Battle Hymn of the Republic".

Otis Gibbs' version of "The Farmer is the Man" is the closest thing to progressive redneck singing you'll ever want to hear...

Judith Edelman's whispered intensity in "Sleep, My Child/Schlof Mayn Kind" and its eerie accompaniment reminds us that not every Jewish child made it out of Europe to sleep easy on American shores.

Jim Lauderdale provides a workingman's bluegrass version of "Seven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat" that'll please even a purist.

There are several good resources providing background to the project:

NPR has a couple of good interviews - one with Reno and her niece's husband Ed Pettersen (who co-produced the set), another with just Reno talking about her personal connection with some of the songs... From this site you can also access 5 tracks form the set, including Harper Simon's (that's Paul Simon's son, btw) "Yankee Doodle Dandy" version...

If one prefers to befriend the set through MySpace this is also a possibility (how does one actually develop and maintain a friendship with a CD?). From the MySpace site one gets the superb contributions from Bettye LaVette ("Streets of Philadelphia"), Devendra Banhart ("Little Boxes"), John Mellencamp ("This Land Is Your Land") and Andrew Bird (whistler and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire) for free. There are also two 'the-recording-of' videos worth watching - esp. Jake Shimabukuro's ukulele rendition of "Stars and Stripes Forever"!!

The links above, and more are collated at the record company's site for the release.

The set is highly recommended and will no doubt be the topic of future conference papers at American Studies conferences... Go ahead and scoop me if you want - there is plenty for everyone here.

Bent Sørensen -
Aalborg University