Song of America

I’ve got “Song of America” on my iPod, which I am both really enjoying and kind of frustrated with.  On the one hand, I want to be introduced to songs I’m not familiar with when I listen to something like this.  On the other hand, there are songs I just would expect to hear, no matter how often covered, like “We Shall Overcome,” which is strangely absent.  Also, it seems like, if you were going to pick a Springsteen song to have on this album, you’d have “Born in the U.S.A.” and not “Streets of Philadelphia.”

I guess what’s unclear to me from listening to it is whether it’s a collection of songs about America, songs that tell a story about America, or just important American songs.  All three things are stlightly different.

I would recommend it.  As already noted, I’m madly in love with BR549’s “Sweet Betsy from Pike.”  And I love “That Great Atomic Power,” and I’m not just saying that because Sista Smiff is carrying on with one of the guys on that track.  I hadn’t ever heard the song “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” before (although looking at the number of folks who’ve covered the song of whom I’m a fan, I’m kind of shocked that it’s slipped by me until now) and, shoot, that will rip your heart out.

But there are some glaring omissions.  I’m not sure how you include “This Land is Your Land” without including “God Bless America.”

And so, it makes me think, if I were going to try a project like this, what songs would I want to be sure were on it?  But I can’t come up with a good answer, because I can’t decide what kind of album I’d want to result.  Is it just a collection of songs about America or is it a collection of songs that tell you something about America?  And what, exactly, would that something be?

And would that be different than a project that featured the songs that Americans regularly listened to?  Because that seems to me that it would be.  But I’d also be fascinated by that–a big box set that carried you through the songs that were important to Americans at different times in our history.


4 thoughts on “Song of America

  1. I want to write a response to this. I cannot write a short response. I do not have time to write a long response. I am stuck. Maybe later. But I will say that I love Marah’s version of “John Brown’s Body.” First, they sound as angry as if they had just heard yesterday about Harper’s Ferry. Second, it’s one of the few recordings that manages to capture the way they sound live. More later, I hope.

  2. I hope so, too. I’ve got a lot of thoughts about it, too, but I just can’t quite sort them all out for myself. I’m curious to know what others make of it.

  3. OK, maybe I can give you my reaction in pieces.

    Piece #1 is the first half of my reaction to the CDs that did get made. And that’s about who the intended audience seems to be, and how the audience is treated. So far as I can figure (and this is based on a couple of things, one of which is the general catalog of Thirty One Tigers [other than Elizabeth Cook]), the audience the producers had in mind is polite NPR-listeners. So there are few artists involved that that crowd won’t already be familiar with through Terri Gross’s little interviews, and few songs selected that they won’t recognize and feel positive about right off. There’s not much there that’s challenging in any way. To my ears, this is a detriment, but it will probably help the producers get another Grammy.

  4. Piece #2 is the second half of my criticisms of Song of America. I can see that I’ll have to do a third post (at least) about the things I like about the collection. Sorry that the negatives are coming first, but they’ve been bugging me ever since I heard it, so I have them the most ready to articulate.

    And that is that the producers chose songs that are “about” American history. Sometimes these are also the songs that were popular when that history was happening: “Yankee Doodle,” “Hail Columbia,” “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” “Dixie,” “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” etc. But, as you point out, B, that leaves out all the everyday songs about what was on people’s minds at the time. Where are the 19th century parlor music songs? Where is anything from Tin Pan Alley? In other words, why is their history a political history only; why haven’t they taken any social history into account? And the problem gets worse when the include songs that are, you know, pretty obscure from a popular standpoint: how, indeed do you leave out “God Bless America” but include “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos”? I felt a real fear of popular music emanating from the CDs.

    Also, evidently, the Wampanoags and Powhatans made no music, blacks disappeared for a hundred years after the Civil War, immigrants left Ireland and then had no troubles at all (I really would have liked a version of “No Irish Need Apply”), and no gay artists ever wrote about the impact of AIDS. This collection is so much “let me tell you about these people who …” and so little “let me tell you my story.” It’s hard to tell why.

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