REVIEW: Songs of America

Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music that Made a Nation
by Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw


A Review by Dwight A. Moody


Two neighbors in Nashville took a casual conversation and turned it into a spectacular book: Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music that Made a Nation. I just read it and want to tell you about it.


One is a historian, the other a singer, and while they both play their part in this interesting, informative, and inspirational book, it is the historian that leads the dance.


It took me a while to adjust to this preference for history in the book—long sections that simply describe a piece of the American journey with little reference to music. But Jon Meacham is a wonderful writer as well as a splendid historian, and by the end—his postscript entitled “Lift Every Voice”—I was converted to his vision for the book. That final word is about Duke Ellington and his performance in the White House in 1965 and an earlier speech on the poetry of Langston Hughes:


“There’s something about the transporting capacity of music,” Meacham writes, “something about its odd but undeniable ability to create a collective experience by firing our individual imaginations, that’s more likely to open our minds and our hearts to competing points of view…. The whole panoply of America can be traced, and more important, heard and felt—in the songs that echo through our public squares. And if we can hear and feel how the other guys hear and feel, we’re better equipped to press on toward a more perfect union.”


That’s where he ends, but where he starts is the American Revolution and the songs that were offered to the public to give voice to the aspirations and anger of that first, defining moment of America. Most of that music is forgotten, and the only piece he describes that I had ever heard was “Yankee Doodle.”


The War of 1812, though, gave us the “Star Spangled Banner.” And this chapter two, “Land Where Our Fathers Died,” illustrates two take-aways from the entire volume.


First, I was struck how often these long-lasting musical compositions were created in the inspiration of minutes or hours—the national anthem itself, and later the piece written by the ministerial student Samuel Francis Smith, “My Country! ‘tis of them, Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing,” and during the Civil War, the midnight composition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”


Second, I was disappointed how limited the historical narrative is to public, especially crisis events: war, danger, depression, division, and such—from the Revolution to Nine-Eleven, it is all about the big waves of trauma that overwhelmed the nation, for which we the people sought solace and significance through music.


Which means this: missing in this volume is the wide ocean of music that was not connected to specific public, transformational events: the music of dance halls and opera houses, of sanctuaries and tent revivals, of choirs and quartets, of chain gangs and soundtracks.  I mean: how can you write about music in America and never mention “Amazing Grace” and “Happy Birthday”, or Fanny Crosby and John Williams?


And you know what else is missing? Music!


Yes, music, by which I mean the tunes rather than the texts, the sounds rather than the substance, the emotion rather than the intellect.


Many of the songs, of course, I know, and could hum along as Mecham and McGraw wrote. But so many of the songs I did not know—the very old ones as well as the tsunami of songs that rolled ashore at the end of the 20th century—and there is not one single musical score in the book: hundreds of pictures, thousands of words, but not a single score that would allow the musically literate reader to piece together the tune.


And would it be too much to ask a beautifully bound, wonderfully illustrated, high-priced volume to come with a CD stuffed in the back cover? Or even a printed link to a website where all of this music is archived and available? After all, most of us who pick up this volume want to hear the music not just read the words!


But what is here is fabulous, especially in the post-war years of social protest that happen to correspond to my growing-up years: Elvis and Dylan, “We Shall Overcome” and “Precious Lord,” “The Age of Aquarius” and “The Ballad of the Green Berets”, all of which I remember as so formative in my own life.


And finally, the dueling versions of patriotism that reflect so well the divisions in our land today: Bruce Springsteen singing “Born in the U.S.A.” and Lee Greenwood singing “God Bless the U.S.A.” Both of these were trumped, so to speak, by the Brooks and Dunn piece that was used by both presidents Bush and Obama to capture their hopes and dreams for America: “Only in America.”


My one abiding impression, after reading and reviewing this book, is the overwhelming importance to our national life of the music of the African American tradition. Mecham and McGraw trace it all: from the plaintive songs of slaves, masking their meaning in double-entendre, to the “Star Spangled Banner” of Jimi Hendrix’s electric guitar on the last morning of Woodstock, from the Jubilee Singers of post-war Fisk University to the “incandescent poetry” of Tupac Shakur, from the “voice one hears once in a hundred years” of Marian Anderson to the “Black, Brown and Beige” of Duke Ellington, and finally, including the “Respect” we all had for Aretha Franklin and anything she sang and everything she was.


It is a wonderful book, yet it only skims the surface of the meaning music has had in the making and remaking of America. I’ve never seen or read another book like it. Thank you, Jon and Tim.


copyright 2019 Dwight A. Moody