Though July is usually more well known for celebrating America, this year the list obligatory is taking its hat off to the best songs for President’s Day!
While you would probably assume that Independence Day would be the choice moment to discuss songs about America, in truth, February is about as good a time as any. We had Constitution Day to open the month and we’ll close it out with Flag Day. However, smack dab in the middle is every student’s favorite. Today is that wonderful three day weekend known as President’s Day. So, this year the list obligatory will be taking a look at songs about America specifically for President’s Day (and because it’s a great reason to avoid talking about Valentine’s Day).
Songs about America aren’t exactly a small niche, but finding the good ones can be a little difficult. I mean, does anyone really need to hear that Lee Greenwood song again? I personally with Toby Keith would just put that boot in his mouth. I decided early on that for this list I would be looking specifically at those songs that really went on a search for the American soul. Part of what is special about this country is its utterly undefinable personality. With enough geography and culture to fill most of the world’s continents, it is a vastly interesting topic and one that many musicians have spent careers mining. The real question is, where do I begin? I could focus be on uniquely American genres like jazz, rock, or hip-hop. There are also those ‘American Classic’ songwriters like Willie Nelson, Randy Newman, and Bruce Springsteen that have entire albums that would qualify. Just about anyone that has fallen from the Woody Guthrie influence tree has written at least one truly great song about what makes this land a nation. That’s the magic I’m looking to tap, whether it be a tale of traveling across the countryside or simply surviving the American urban landscape. Eh, enough philosophizing. Let’s get to the tunes.
Willie Nelson – “City of New Orleans”
John Mellencamp – “R.O.C.K. in the USA”
Eric B. & Rakim – “Eric B. is President”
Son Volt – “When the Wheels Don’t Move”
20/20 – “Life in the U.S.A.”
Against Me! – “Americans Abroad”
Iggy Pop – “Wild America”
Duke Ellington – “The Beautiful American”
Blur – “Look Inside America”
Jay-Z – “American Dreamin'”
Cat Power – “American Flag”
R.E.M. – “Little America”
Bill Callahan – “America!”
Ella Fitzgerald – “The Real American Folk Song”
Swamp Dogg – “God Bless America For What?”
The Clash – “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.”
Manic Street Preachers – “IfWhiteAmericaToldTheTruthForOneDayIt’sWorldWouldFallApart”
Morrissey – “America is Not the World”
Paul Simon – “American Tune”
Tom Petty – “American Girl”
David Bowie – “Young Americans”
Curtis Mayfield – “Hard Times”
Don McLean – “American Pie”
Loudon Wainwright III – “Bicentennial”
Ween – “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”
Wilco – “Ashes of American Flags”
Ani Difranco – “‘Tis of Thee”
a notable exclusion.
Well, in a first for the notable exclusion, I am including a song that I believe is unquestionably the number one selection for this topic. I am taking “This Land Is Your Land” out of the equation, because I believe it serves a better purpose here as a signpost of the conversation to come. When was the last time you actually listened to “This Land Is Your Land”? We all know the song by heart. For most Americans, it was one of the very first songs we were taught in grade school. It has been recorded more times than anyone can count. In 2002, this was even one of the first songs added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. “This Land Is Your Land” is an absolute American treasure, but how often have you actually sat back and thought about its meaning?
For instance, did you know that Woody Guthrie originally wrote this song in 1940 as a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” because Guthrie considered it unrealistic and complacent? Did you know “This Land Is Your Land” was the closing number Pete Seeger performed every night during the time that he was blacklisted by the federal government as a communist? Let’s take a quick look at those words that we’ve been singing all these years.
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.
I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me.
When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.
Even given our current political environment, this is some pretty incendiary stuff. We live in a day where the Muppets are accused of being communists. Guthrie was arguing against the very nature of private ownership; that we all own this land together and face its challenges as a people. At Barack Obama’s inauguration, Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger came together to lead a group of thousands in singing a longer version of “This Land Is Your Land”. This version included three verses written by Guthrie that aren’t typically used at the song’s end.
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
At the end of his first draft of “This Land Is Your Land” Woody Guthrie roughly scribbled “All you can write is what you see.” I’m willing to bet Bill O’Reilly would call him a rube today. Nevertheless, Guthrie is cutting to the very heart of the topic I am interested in talking about. He is recognizing that there is something about America that is stronger than laws and landscapes; something beyond words like democracy and capitalism. “This Land Is Your Land” is Guthrie’s attempt to define the soul of America. That is a topic boundary I can work with.
10. Levon Helm – “Hurricane”
I make no bones about my belief that The Band’s Levon Helm is one of my absolute favorite rock singers of all time. His voice alone gave authenticity to Canadian Robbie Robertson’s songs about the old American South. Born in Elaine, Arkansas, Helm grew up in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, a hamlet west of Helena. His parents, Nell and Diamond Helm, were cotton farmers and also great lovers of music. They encouraged their children to play and sing almost from birth. Young Lavon (as he was christened) began playing the guitar at the age of eight and also played drums during his formative years. He saw Bill Monroe & his Blue Grass Boys at the age of six and decided then to become a musician.
Arkansas in the 1940s and 50s stood at the confluence of a variety of musical styles—blues, country and R&B—that later became known as rock and roll. Listening to all these styles on the Grand Ole Opry show on radio station WSM and R&B on radio station WLAC out of Nashville, Tennessee influenced Helm. He also saw traveling shows such as F.S. Walcott’s Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels that featured top African-American artists of the time (later made famous by the Band song “W.S. Walcott’s Medicine Show”). Helm also witnessed some of the earliest performances by Southern country music, blues and rockabilly artists such as Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Bo Diddley and a fellow Arkansan, Ronnie Hawkins. At age 17, Helm began playing in clubs and bars around Helena. It was then that Hawkins invited Helm up to Canada to join his backing band, The Hawks. This is the band that would be taken by Bob Dylan and rechristened The Band. The rest is sweet, sweet history.
After the dissolution of The Band, Helm struck out on his own. That is where American Son comes into play. Helm played the part of Loretta Lynn’s father in 1980 film Coal Miner’s Daughter, and was asked to record a version of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” for the film’s soundtrack. The session went well, and producer Fred Carter, Jr. decided to cut more tracks. Using a band of veteran Nashville session players, Carter & Helm recorded 20 tracks over 2 weeks, half of which ended up on American Son. The album was released in October 1980 on MCA Records, and was Helm’s third studio album. This album was generally considered Levon Helm’s best solo work until the release of Dirt Farmer in 2007.
Of the many great songs on American Son, “Hurricane” is my absolute favorite. Written by Keith Stegall, Stewart Harris, Thom Schuyler, “Hurricane” is about a man refusing to leave his New Orleans home in the face of a Gulf hurricane. There is something uniquely American about this point of view. This is my home and nothing will take it. It’s very Manifest Destiny, isn’t it? On top of that, it seems like there is no better place to find the definition of America than in New Orleans. America is about different influences coming together into a cultural stew. That is exactly what New Orleans is. The birthplace of jazz, zydeco, cajun cuisine, and a commerce system built exclusively on the trade of nudity, necklaces, and booze, New Orleans seems like a top candidate to find the American soul. On top of it all, you have a Levon Helm vocal. Levon’s voice is nothing if not exclusively American.
9. Billy Bragg & Wilco – “Christ for President”
What would President’s day be without a song about the best fantasy president ever? During the spring of 1992, Woody Guthrie’s Daughter Nora contacted infamous English protest bard Billy Bragg about writing music for a selection of completed Guthrie lyrics. Woody had left behind over a thousand sets of complete lyrics written between 1939 and 1967; as they had not been recorded by Guthrie, and he did not write music, none of these lyrics had any arrangements outside of the occasional vague stylistic notation. Bragg, excited by the project, jumped at the chance and invited fellow Guthrie enthusiasts Wilco to join him on the project. Wilco agreed, and in addition to recording with Bragg in Ireland, took on their own share of songs to finish.
The result was the first Mermaid Avenue collection, released on June 23, 1998. The album was met with nearly universal acclaim. American Songwriter Magazine claimed, “The Mermaid Avenue project is essential for showing that Woody Guthrie could Illuminate what was going on inside of him as well as he could detail the plight of his fellow man.” The album received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and went on to place fourth on the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1998. I absolutely agree that these recordings do a lot to not just modernize Woody Guthrie, but prove that he is one of the greatest American songwriters. That really isn’t what we’re here for though.
The song of interest to our discussion about election is fairly clear cut. “Christ for President” was the ninth track on Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 1 and was a song that my mind immediately drifted toward when this topic was chosen. In the song, Guthrie suggests that the only way for Americans to right the political ship was to elect Jesus Christ as president.
The only way
We could ever beat
These crooked politician men
is to cast the moneychangers
Out of the temple
Put the carpenter in
I’ve blathered on before about the timelessness of Woody Guthrie, but this song could have been an anthem of the Occupy movement. The times may have changed, but the political climate that created the Great Depression seems to be awfully similar to the one that we’re in now. I wonder what Guthrie would have had to say about corporations being people? Either way, I’m fairly sure that we could all agree that Jesus would make a damn good president…of course, I don’t think he had a birth certificate.
8. David Ackles – “American Gothic”
David Ackles began his recording career as a staff songwriter for Jac Holzman at Elektra Records. None of the songs he wrote were right for any of Elektra’s artists, and Holzman suggested that Ackles record his own work. His first album, the eponymous David Ackles (1968), did not achieve commercial success, even when reissued in 1971 as The Road to Cairo, but it was influential among singer-songwriters and featured future members of the group Rhinoceros. This and his follow-up 1969 release, Subway to the Country, contained songs that melded strong theatrical influences with piano-based rock. His songs reflected the views of their character-narrators, many of whom were societal outcasts. In this way he presaged many of the songs of Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle.
American Gothic, released in 1972, was produced by Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin. Taupin and Ackles became acquainted when Ackles was selected to be the opening act for Elton John’s 1970 American debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Taupin said of Ackles’s style, “There was nothing quite like it. It’s been said so many times, but his stuff was sort of [like] Brecht and Weill, and theatrical. It was very different than what the other singer-songwriters of the time were doing. There was also a darkness to it, which I really, really loved, because that was the kind of material that I was drawn to.”
Though the album was recorded and mixed in about two weeks, Ackles worked for two years on its conception and “immensely complex” orchestral arrangements. Of Ackles’s four albums, it was the only one recorded in England rather than in America. He used musicians from the London Symphony and a Salvation Army band chorus (“‘The only trouble is, it’s not the same as the American Salvation Army, so they were elongating all their a’s, and he kept saying, “No no no, you’ve got to get rid of that accent”‘”). Elektra gave Ackles his biggest budget to date to complete the project and advertised it pre-release as “The Album of the Year.” The album was highly acclaimed by music critics in the US and UK: Melody Maker called it a classic and the influential British music critic Derek Jewell of The Sunday Times UK version described it as “the Sgt. Pepper of folk.” But sales were again disappointing; it reached only number 167 on the US charts. The album did prove to be extremely influential however. It was included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and has since been specifically cited by artists like Elvis Costello and Elton John as being heavily influential. Costello has mentioned on several occasions that this record became the strongest influence on his own vocal style.
The title track to American Gothic, much like the painting, is a snapshot of the ‘real’, mundane American life. Being from suburban Illinois, this is something that Ackles knew a little bit about himself. As one of his defining works, Ackles portrays real American life as being hopeful in ideal, but a bit depressing in reality. In just this small story about Mrs. Molly Jenkins and the suffering of her everyday life, Ackles provides a better depiction of the true America than almost any sweeping American novella.
7. Funkadelic – “One Nation Under a Groove”
The P-Funk story began in 1956 in Plainfield, New Jersey, with a doo-wop group formed by fifteen-year-old George Clinton. This was the Parliaments, a name inspired by Parliament cigarettes. By the early 1960s, the group had solidified into the five-man lineup of Clinton, Ray “Stingray” Davis, Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins, Calvin Simon and Grady Thomas. Later, the group rehearsed in a barbershop partially owned by Clinton and entertained the customers. The Parliaments finally achieved a hit single in 1967 with “(I Wanna) Testify” while Clinton began commuting to Detroit as a songwriter and producer for Motown Records
By the late 1960s Clinton had assembled a touring band to back up the Parliaments, the first stable lineup of which included Billy Bass Nelson (bass), Eddie Hazel (lead guitarist), Tawl Ross (guitarist), Tiki Fulwood (drums), and Mickey Atkins (keyboards). After a contractual dispute in which Clinton temporarily lost the rights to the name “The Parliaments,” Clinton brought the backing musicians forward and christened them Funkadelic, a guitar-based raw funk band with heavy psychedelic rock influences. Clinton signed Funkadelic to Westbound Records, and the five Parliaments singers were credited as “guests” while the five musicians were listed as the main group members. The debut album Funkadelic was released in 1970. Meanwhile, Clinton regained the rights to the name “The Parliaments” and initiated another new entity, now known as Parliament, with the same five singers and five musicians but this time as a smoother R&B-based funk ensemble that Clinton positioned as a counterpoint to the more rock-oriented Funkadelic.
In the 1975-1979 period, both Parliament and Funkadelic achieved several high-charting albums and singles on both the R&B and Pop charts. Many members of the collective began to branch out into side bands and solo projects under George Clinton’s tutelage, including Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Parlet, and The Brides of Funkenstein, while longtime members like Eddie Hazel recorded solo albums with songwriting and studio help from the collective. The Parliament albums of this period had become concept albums with themes from science fiction and afro-futurism, elaborate political and sociological themes, and an evolving storyline with recurring fictional characters. Parliament-Funkadelic stage shows (particularly the P-Funk Earth Tour of 1976) were expanded to include imagery from science fiction and a stage prop known as the Mothership.
One Nation Under a Groove was Funkadelic’s tenth and most commercially successful album, and one of its most critically lauded. It is also regarded by many as the greatest funk album of all time and ranks at or near the top of many “best album” lists in disparate genres. The album was later featured on Vibe magazine’s 100 Essential Albums of the 20th Century list. In 2003, the album was ranked number 177 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The title track is perhaps the group’s most well-known song, eing a part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll and Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. It was also a top 40 hit. The song refers to dancing as a path to freedom: the “dancing” can be seen as metaphoric, though. The song’s title most likely refers to the line in the Pledge of Allegiance “One nation, under God”.
n May 1997, George Clinton and 15 other members of Parliament-Funkadelic were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the largest band yet inducted. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Parliament-Funkadelic number 56 on their list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.” In February 2002, Spin Magazine ranked Parliament-Funkadelic number 6 on their list of the “50 Greatest Bands of All Time”. In 2010, Parliament-Funkadelic was number 49 on VH1’s list of the greatest artists of all time. P-Funk’s effect on modern popular music is immense. Besides their innovation in the entire genre of funk music, George Clinton and P-Funk are still heard often today, especially in hip-hop sampling. The song “Atomic Dog” is one of the most sampled songs in the history of hip hop, especially in the sub-genre G-funk. In many ways, Funkadelic is the perfect American band. If the best definition of America is in our ability to fuse cultures together, Funkadelic is the flagship musical example. Clinton was taking funk, soul, jazz, psychedelic rock and disco and spitting out something completely new with Funkadelic. To me, that’s the American dream.
6. Gil Scott-Heron – “Winter in America”
Gil Scott-Heron was an American soul and jazz poet, musician, and author, known primarily for his work as a spoken word performer in the 1970s and ’80s. His collaborative efforts with musician Brian Jackson featured a musical fusion of jazz, blues, and soul, as well as lyrical content concerning social and political issues of the time, delivered in both rapping and melismatic vocal styles by Scott-Heron. His own term for himself was “bluesologist”, which he defined as “a scientist who is concerned with the origin of the blues.” His music, most notably on Pieces of a Man and Winter in America in the early 1970s, influenced and helped engender later African-American music genres such as hip-hop and neo-soul. Of course, Heron is most well remembered for his iconic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”.
Heron most important LP, 1974’s Winter In America, is perhaps the best example of Heron’s melding of poetry and soul and his realistic portrayal of the American urban decay. The song, which was not featured on the original LP, was recorded after the album’s release at the suggestion of Peggy Harris, the artist who designed the Winter collage for the inner sleeve of the LP. Initially, Scott-Heron and Jackson meant for Winter in America to lack a title track, which contrasted their previous label’s trend of having their work include title tracks. The album title’s purpose meant only to describe the general theme of Winter in America’s songs. According to Scott-Heron, a title track “separates from the rest of the lyrics, better, or worse or different.” Nevertheless, the song works as a proper summation of the varied stories included on the LP, meant to portray the struggle for civil and economic equality in the 1970’s.
The studio version of “Winter in America” was released on his following album, The First Minute of a New Day (1975), while a live version, recorded in 1982 at Washington, D.C.’s Black Wax Club, was included on the 1998 CD reissue of Winter in America. The song features Scott-Heron’s poetic references and lyrics that portray America in a dystopian state where “democracy is rag-time on the corner”, “the forest is buried beneath the highway”, “robins are perched in barren treetops”, and, in conclusion, “no one is fighting because no one knows what to say.” To me, “Winter in America” is a sparring partner with Dylan’s “Desolation Row”. Where Dylan is painting a story about this surreal place where pride, hope, and poetry is found in the most dire of situations, “Winter in America” is about the real struggle of America. It may be less surreal, but is every bit as poetic and comes much closer to finding that truth of the American soul.
5. Randy Newman – “Political Science”
Well, this was a no-brainer. While I pushed most purely political tracks out of this list, I decided that Randy Newman’s “Political Science” absolutely had to be included. This song isn’t so much about politics, but how the American brand of upfront, even confrontational, pride effects our political decisions. In other words, Newman is at it again. Randy Newman is an interesting character in general. He’s the type of songwriter that either inspires lifelong loyalty or complete ignorance. In short, he’s either your favorite songwriter or that guy who wrote the song in that movie. I suppose I’m somewhere in the middle. I don’t think the man is an inarguable genius, but he has written some damn good songs.
“Political Science” is taken from what I consider to be the greatest Randy Newman record, 1972’s Sail Away. Brian Wilson has famously claimed that this record profoundly affected him at the time of its release, briefly keeping him from sliding further into depression and mental illness. In 2003, the album was ranked number 321 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. While the title track is most often cited as Newman’s signature work, I think you really don’t have to go any further than “Political Science” to figure out what this guy is about.
“Political Science” foresees America making the world a better place through the nuclear annihilation of almost everyone else. In going along with the theme of the rest of Sail Away, the song is a satire of a particular part of American culture, namely its foreign policies. It is sung from the point of view of an unnamed narrator who really loves his country. He admits the US is not perfect, but wonders why even “Our old friends put us down”, especially since “we give them money”. The narrator goes on to say that the US should “drop the big one” on the rest of the world, which he rationalizes with humorously simplistic reasons.
Asia’s crowded and Europe’s too old
Africa is far too hot
And Canada’s too cold
And South America stole our name
Let’s drop the big one; there’ll be no one left to blame us
Of course, Australia would be saved, We’ll build an all-American amusement park there; They’ve got surfing, too..
Now, for anyone paying attention, this has a good amount of relevance to our lives today. Do you remember that period of time when you were afraid your car didn’t have enough American flag stickers on it. On a more basic level, it points to a central fear of the American political system. Namely, that there is a very real conclusion to never admitting that your nation has done wrong. Behind the comedy, Newman is pointing to a plainly true fact of history. When Nationalism goes too far, people die. Our political environment is one that will never allow a politician to admit when the nation has done something wrong. The result of that environment is policy decisions that treat non-American lives as less valuable than not only American lives, but the price of gas in American cars. They call it dark comedy because it is funny, but the real possibility of it being true is depressing.
4. John Prine – “Sam Stone”
There are some lyrics that are such beautiful revelations they can move you to tears. When John Prine sings “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes. Jesus died for nothin’, I suppose,” I still have a hard time not falling out of my chair. Maybe it is because I know all too well the effect that addiction can have on a family, but Prine’s tale of the slow, painful death of an addicted Vietnam veteran is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. The song can be interpreted as a reference to the phenomenon of heroin or morphine addiction and subsequent heroin addiction among Vietnam war veterans. The song does not mention the Vietnam War, saying only that Sam returned from “serving in the conflict overseas.” There is a single explicit reference to morphine, but not to heroin, although he does use the term “habit,” slang commonly associated with heroin use, and sings “he popped his last balloon,” very likely referring to one of the ways in which street heroin is commonly packaged – in small rubber balloons.
John Prine is an artist that is more well-known for other artists covering his material than his original records. The most famous of these songs is “Angel From Montgomery”, but “Sam Stone” is a close second. Parts of the melody of “Sam Stone” were used by Roger Waters in the opening of “The Post War Dream,” a song on Pink Floyd’s 1983 album The Final Cut. The song is indirectly referenced in “Cop Shoot Cop…”, which closes Spiritualized’s 1997 album, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. The song has been covered by Johnny Cash, Evan Dando, and Al Kooper. The best cover performance of “Sam Stone” however appears on legendary Soul man Swamp Dogg’s Cuffed, Collared, Tagged & Gassed from 1972. Dogg’s version of “Sam Stone” is a brilliant R&B workup of the country track.
I’m including “Sam Stone” in this discussion not just because it’s a beautiful song, but because it provides a unique slice of American life unlike almost anything else. Much like David Ackles’ “American Gothic”, Prine’s story is a purely American one about the dangers American society provides for veterans of war. Much has been discussed about the generally ambivalent attitude Americans had towards veterans after the Vietnam War. No one encapsulated the true danger of that ambivalence better than Prine on “Sam Stone”. As a result, we are left asking what the real America is. Who are we really and what do we truly value? It’s a thought that haunts me with each listen.
3. Steve Earle – “Copperhead Road”
Yeah, what would one of my lists be without an entry from Steve Earle? I hardly think you can blame me for this inclusion however. “Copperhead Road” is the title track from Earle’s 1988 crossover hit and remains today as his most commercially successful song. Often referred to as Earle’s first “rock record”, Earle himself calls Copperhead Road the world’s first blend of heavy metal and bluegrass, while in their January 26, 1989 review of the album Rolling Stone suggested the style be known as “power twang”. “Copperhead Road” tells of a Vietnam War veteran, scion of a rural moonshine bootlegging clan, who returns home to Johnson County, Tennessee but decides instead to enter the marijuana business which is shown by the line, “I’ll take the seed from Colombia and Mexico”. Copperhead Road was an actual road near Mountain City, Tennessee although it has since been renamed as Copperhead Hollow Rd. due to theft of road signs bearing the song’s name. The song also inspired a popular line dance timed to the beat of the song and has been used as the theme music for the Discovery Channel reality series Moonshiners. Airplay on rock radio stations drove the title track into Billboard Magazine’s Album Rock Top Ten chart, and that in turn helped Copperhead Road on Billboard’s Album Chart, where it peaked at number 56 and gave Earle his highest charting album to date.
Earle is one of the very best songwriters living today. His snapshots of American life seem to always hit home and almost unintentionally bring us closer to understanding what defines the culture of this nation. “Copperhead Road” is particularly special for a variety of reasons. To begin, this is the first country song that I can ever remember being right at home on rock radio. In a way, the song itself doesn’t give a damn what you think it is and provides its own rules for the game. Second, Earle draws a sort of historiography of this one family as it engages with and survives the challenges of living in America across three generations. The more important item however is how they survived. The most iconic figure in American history (at least to people living in the rest of the world) is the cowboy; the outlaw. Earle revives that mythos of the modern outlaw as they pass the torch from one generation to the next. Earle is describing the real life of that American great American archetype. The anti-hero that thumbs a nose at the system just because they can. Now THAT is America.
2. Simon & Garfunkel – “America”
Every topic I discuss invariably brings at least one song immediately to mind. This week, it was Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”. In truth, I had a hard time not including several Paul Simon songs in this list. Revealing the true nature of American life has proven fertile ground over the decades with songs like “Kodachrome”, “American Tune”, and “Duncan”. Yet, all of those great songs still answer to “America” as their true master. Released on Simon & Garfunkel’s fantastic fourth album Bookends, “America” is often overshadowed by other tracks from the album like “The Sounds of Silence” and “Mrs. Robinson”. Nevertheless, this is the song that will always stick with me as the duo’s greatest work together. It was also released in 1971 as the B-side to “Keep The Customer Satisfied” (a United Sates promo-only release), then again as a single in 1972 to coincide with the album Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, reaching #97 on the Billboard Hot 100, the flip side of the single, “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her”, reaching #53.
“America” is notably one of the few rock records with a blank verse lyric. The only rhyme in the song is an internal one; “Michigan seems like a dream to me now”. The lyrics describe a trip east through the United States, two lovers hitch-hiking from Saginaw, Michigan to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and then catching a Greyhound bus through the New Jersey Turnpike to New York City, “looking for America”, their initial hopefulness turning to angst and sadness. The lyric names Kathy Chitty, with whom Simon had had a real-life relationship while living in England in 1965. One of the touchstone elements of ‘the great American song’ is travel. It is a uniquely American experience because the country is so large and diverse that to grasp an understanding of what creates the nation’s identity one must hit the road. Even further however, thanks to the great travel songs of people like Woody Guthrie, the act of travel itself has become part of the American identity. You get the sense that Simon engages on this trip to find the American identity, but, in doing so, finally makes himself part of that identity. He may feel as if the idea of understanding it is hopeless, but that hopelessness gains its own sort of heroic national pride. In other words, it’s not the destination that matters, but the act of trying to get there. Maybe that is the true American identity.
1. Ray Charles – “America the Beautiful”
“America the Beautiful” is an American patriotic song. The lyrics were written by Katharine Lee Bates, and the music was composed by church organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward. Bates originally wrote the words as a poem, Pikes Peak, first published in the Fourth of July edition of the church periodical The Congregationalist in 1895. At that time, the poem was titled America for publication. Ward had originally written the music, Materna, for the hymn O Mother dear, Jerusalem in 1882, though it was not first published until 1892. Ward’s music combined with the Bates poem was first published in 1910 and titled “America the Beautiful”. Popularity of the song increased greatly following the September 11, 2001 attacks; at some sporting events it was sung in addition to the traditional singing of the national anthem. During the first taping of the Late Show with David Letterman following the attacks, CBS newsman Dan Rather cried briefly as he quoted the fourth verse.
Ray Charles is credited with the song’s most well known rendition in current times (although Elvis Presley had success with it in the 1970s). Released originally Charles’ 1972 album, Message from the People, Ray’s gospel-influenced performance is absolutely what lands the song at number one. The song would later be released by ABC records as a standalone single in 1976, reaching number 98 on the Billboard Charts. Charles’ recording is very commonly played at major sporting and entertainment events, such as the Super Bowl, and WrestleMania; Charles gave a live performance of the song prior to Super Bowl XXXV, the last Super Bowl played before the September 11 terrorist attacks, as well as during Game 2 of the 2001 World Series after the attacks. He places the third verse first, after which he sings the usual first verse. In the third verse, the author scolds the materialistic and self-serving robber barons of her day, and urges America to live up to its noble ideals and to honor, with both word and deed, the memory of those who died for their country. He also performed the song on Red Sox opening day at Fenway Park in 2003, though the game was eventually rained out. A version with Alicia Keys was included in Charles’ 2005 duets album Genius & Friends.
I almost try to shy away from making safe choices on the list and picking an ultimately uber-patriotic song like “America the Beautiful” is certainly against type. Nevertheless, I could not possibly bring myself to not select this performance at number one. Here we have a black man who experience such abject southern poverty in his childhood that it cost him his sight who then becomes one of the most famous musicians in America during the height of the civil rights struggle singing about his love for the nation that allowed it to happen. Ray Charles isn’t just a musician, he is a touchstone of American history and the embodiment of the American dream. What’s better, you can hear all of it in this gut-wrenching performance. There is sadness in this song that no one had fully broached before him. This man performing this song at the time he did is the absolute embodiment of the American soul in song. If you don’t get it after Ray gives it to you, you never will.
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No synthesizers whatsoever were used during the writing of this column.
Read previous ‘a list obligatory’ columns here.