Book Review: Celebrating the songs of America
“Songs of America” (Random House), by Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw
From the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to the Gettysburg Address and landmark Supreme Court opinions, words inspire America and contribute to our understanding of its past.
Words set to music also play a part, providing a soundtrack to the past and adding texture to deeds celebrated in history books. In times of tragedy or triumph, songs evoke passion, ideals and dreams for the future; lyrics span a range of emotions, from sorrow and distress to joy and exhilaration.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham and Grammy-winning country singer Tim McGraw have teamed up to trace America’s history through songs that shaped and reflected the nation’s mood amid wars, social movements and other times of conflict.
The project began in Meacham’s yard in Nashville, Tennessee, at the suggestion of McGraw, his friend and neighbor. “Why not explore that national soul,” Tim asked, through music?”
The featured songs span nearly 250 years, from “The Liberty Song” written in 1768 by a Pennsylvania farmer angered by Britain’s taxes to Bruce Springsteen’s album “The Rising” that gave voice to America’s grief and determination after the 9/11 attacks.
Patriotism is a common theme, expressed in Francis Hopkinson’s 1798 ballad “Hail Columbia,” which until 1931 was regarded by many as the national anthem. Only then did Congress bestow that designation on Francis Scott Key’s verses about the British siege of Maryland’s Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 that became “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Protest also gave rise to song, from laments about the uprooting of American Indian tribes from ancestral lands to hymns borrowed by abolitionists to broadcast their anti-slavery message. More than a century later, the civil rights movement would adopt “We Shall Overcome,” with its decades-old roots in black churches and the labor movement, as its unofficial anthem.
Music took on great cultural significance during the Civil War as both sides used song to express their views about the conflict. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “John Brown’s Body” gave voice to the Union cause while “Dixie,” conceived and originally performed as part of a minstrel review, soon became the anthem of the Confederacy.
The suffering endured during the Depression is remembered through Bing Crosby’s plaintive rendition of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” in 1932 and the upbeat optimism when “Happy Days Are Here Again” was played at that year’s Democratic National Convention.
Singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie gave voice to a social consciousness that influenced the likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez through his songs of the Dust Bowl and “This Land Is Your Land.” And Marian Anderson made history in 1939 when she sang at the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution barred the black opera star from performing at Constitution Hall.
The cultural divide during the Vietnam War juxtaposed Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” against “Aquarius” from the musical “Hair.” The same split resurfaced more than a dozen years later between Lee Greenwood’s paean to patriotism “God Bless the U.S.A” and Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”
The book, replete with color and black-and-white illustrations, is an all-encompassing review of our heritage in song, assembled by two of the most accomplished people in their respective fields. Anyone who enjoys reading history or listening to music — or better yet, both — will find it irresistible.
Today, with America seemingly as divided as ever, the authors suggest that music may help to open hearts and minds to competing views. “Of course, it’s neither a narcotic nor a panacea, but music can recast the most charged and complicated of issues in ways that may lead to actual conversation rather than reflexive confrontation.”