Let's stipulate that a song is words set to music. Or a poem that is sung.
That seems to be the assumption historian Jon Meacham and country singer Tim McGraw make with Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation (Random House, $30).
"Songs make history and history makes songs," Meacham quotes Irving Berlin as saying. "It needed a French Revolution to make a 'Marseillaise' and the bombardment of Fort McHenry to give voice to 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'"
And it took an Irving Berlin to write "God Bless America," which he originally wrote while he was serving as a sergeant in the U.S. Army in 1918. He wrote it for a comic revue designed as a fundraiser to build a community center on the grounds of Camp Upton in Yaphank, N.Y., but put it aside because it seemed too solemn compared to the other numbers, which included "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning."
Twenty years later, after the rise of Adolf Hitler, Berlin revised the song as a kind of prayer for peace; Kate Smith sang it for the first time on her radio show on Armistice Day in 1938, prefacing with an introduction that you rarely hear any more but which she always included: "While the storm clouds gather far across the sea/Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free/Let us all be grateful that we're far from there/As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer." (In subsequent performances, Smith changed the third line of the intro to "Let us all be grateful for a land so fair.")
Woody Guthrie was annoyed by Smith and wrote "This Land Is Your Land" -- originally titled "God Blessed America for Me" -- in response. Joe Klein, in his definitive biography Woody Guthrie: A Life, pinpointed the writing of the original lyrics to Feb. 22, 1940, in the Hanover House hotel on West 43rd Street in New York. Klein writes that Guthrie then "completely forgot about the song, and didn't do anything with it for another five years."
But Guthrie recorded the song in March 1944, which might shake our faith in Klein's certainty. And we probably should note that "This Land Is Your Land," like "The Star-Spangled Banner" and most Woody Guthrie songs, relies on a borrowed melody -- in this case, it's the Carter Family's "When the World's on Fire." But that's how songs work -- Berlin interpolated a six-note phrase from a 1906 Jewish dialect novelty song, "When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band," into "God Bless America."
American songs, like America's people, are often hybrids and retreads, re-invented and repurposed bits of pluck and humbug.
Meacham earnestly surveys American history through the prism of the country's vocal music. He's a cautious and warm writer, determinedly reassuring and fair-minded as he does the play-by-play. He touches on Billie Holiday's 1939 recording of "Strange Fruit" and Eleanor Roosevelt's resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution after the DAR refused to allow Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall. (She sang at the Lincoln Memorial instead.)
Here and there McGraw, a country singer of note and Meacham's neighbor and friend, acts as a color commentator, offering up sporadically illuminating sidebars on specific songs. (McGraw is especially good when he tackles the technical aspects of the song.) It all makes for an enjoyable if unchallenging read; one could imagine the book serving as a text for a fascinating course.
There's a obvious problem with writing about songs unfamiliar to most readers, such as the "earliest American soldier-song which became broadly popular," a version of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" allegedly sung by doomed Gen. James Wolfe and allegedly sung on the eve of 1759's Battle of the Plains of Abraham.
Poetry and pamphleteering may have been more important to colonials, so it's only right that Phillis Wheatley, the emancipated slave whose poetry led to a correspondence with George Washington, and Thomas Paine, is mentioned.
Song really enters the story with "Yankee Doodle," which Meacham notes the British sometimes played to taunt rebel forces. Then, in 1814, Francis Scott Key wrote the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner" (and set them to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven," the deliberately difficult to sing "constitutional" song of a British gentlemen's club made up of amateur musicians called the Anacreontic Society).
"The anthem isn't about martial glory or bombastic nationalism;" McGraw perceptively writes in his sidebar on the piece, "it's really a song informed by nervous longing."
Meacham and McGraw tiptoe through the minefields of 19th-century spirituals, wisely ceding the floor to W.E.B. Du Bois, who, in The Souls of Black Folk, wrote of the so-called "Sorrow Songs" sung by slaves in the 1830s:
"What are these songs, and what do they mean? I know little of music and can say nothing in technical phrase, but I know something of men, and knowing them, I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world ... They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.
"The songs are indeed the siftings of centuries; the music is far more ancient than the words ..."
It's on through "John Brown's Body," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the problematic "Dixie," a favorite of Abraham Lincoln's, written to be performed in blackface by whites pretending to be blacks longing for "the land of cotton."
"What a challenging song to dissect," McGraw writes. "... I have no doubt that it portrays a pro-slavery point of view and relegates African Americans to the most un-American of places: a place where human beings are considered inferior because of the color of their skin and the circumstances of their birth. That may have been who we were, but it can't be who we are."
From there the story moves briskly, making some points with an examination of Alfred Bryan's 1915 song "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier" ("Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder/To shoot some other mother's darling boy?") which anticipated the protest songs of the 1960s.
But is seems odd that there's no mention of seminal figures like "songster" Hudie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter or ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in a book about American song (the blues in general gets short shrift, as Meacham tends to focus on topical lyrical content over emotive power). And for that matter, can you do a book about American song that doesn't mention Walt Whitman?
While what's in the book is useful, and Meacham and McGraw obviously have the right to pick their targets, there's a lot of ground left unplowed here. They're right to go into how Ronald Reagan, via George Will, misconstrued the meaning of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." (which only sounds jingoistic if you don't attend to the lyrics) and to suggest that Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." would have been a more suitable campaign theme.
They rightly acknowledge the importance of the Animals' "We've Got to Get Out of This Place" and Curly Putnam's "Green Green Grass of Home" (sung by both Porter Wagoner and Tom Jones, as well as dozens of other artists) to American troops in Vietnam. Glen Campbell's "Galveston" is touched upon; so is Johnny Cash.
They had to leave most of it out. Kris Kristofferson is mentioned once in passing. Jackson Browne, arguably one of the most political artists of the past 50 years, doesn't rate a mention.
I wish they'd spent more time on Barry Sadler, the folk singer who, in 1966 -- the year of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'," the Rolling Stones' "Paint It, Black" -- scored the year's biggest single in terms of sales and airplay. His "The Ballad of the Green Berets" spent five weeks atop Billboard's Hot 100 charts and crossed over to be No. 1 on the magazine's Easy Listening and No. 2 on its Country charts. More than 9 millions singles were sold, more than 2 million albums.
Sadler was a staff sergeant -- a medic -- in the U.S. Army Special Forces. He'd been working on the song for years, even revising it during his five-month stint in Vietnam, a tour truncated when, in May 1965, while on patrol near the Central Highland city of Pleiku, he fell into a Viet Cong-set trap and impaled his knee on a punji stick smeared with feces. He dressed the wound himself and continued the patrol, but later developed an infection requiring he be airlifted to the Philippines. Doctors lanced the wound, dosed him with penicillin and sent him home to Fort Bragg, N.C.
There Sadler reconnected with Lt. Gerry Gitell, a 23-year-old Army public information officer, also recently returned from Vietnam. In 1964, before either of them had been deployed, Gitell had convinced his commanding officer, media-savvy Gen. William Yarborough, to sanction Sadler's "The Ballad of the Green Berets" as the official song of the Special Forces.
Gitell had scrounged up recording equipment and secured a room at the base to serve as a recording studio, made demos, and sent letters and tapes to various music publishers and record companies. (At some point the author Robin Moore, a Harvard classmate of Robert F. Kennedy's who was at Fort Bragg doing research for his novel The Green Berets, a best-selling book which was the basis for the 1968 John Wayne movie, helped Sadler refine the lyrics and earned a co-writer credit.)
"The ballad is a Folk Song... " Gitell wrote in his cover letter, which in light of "recent publicity about Special Forces and the popularity of Folk Songs, I feel ... might be a potential seller to the general public."
Gitell secured a publishing deal for Sadler in 1964. In December 1965, Sadler signed with RCA Records. The Army cut him a deal that allowed Sadler 15 months to promote his career.
"On Sunday, Jan. 30, 1966, Ed Sullivan went on the air with a typical program," Meacham writes. "Dinah Shore was there, singing 'Chim Chim Cher-ee,' 'Something Wonderful,' and a blues medley, as was Jose Feliciano, who did 'Flight of the Bumble Bee.'
"The Four Tops performed a medley of four hit songs: 'The Whole World Swings With You,' 'It's the Same Old Song,' 'Something About You,' and 'I Can't Help Myself' ('Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch').
"There were three comedy acts -- Dick Capri, Jackie Vernon and Topo Gigio, the Italian puppet. A wooden clog dance and precision archery rounded out the show.
"But the most resonant performance of the evening came when Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, a member of the Army's elite special forces, sang 'The Ballad of the Green Berets' ... Standing ramrod straight, in uniform, before an image of the Green Beret insignia bearing the Latin motto De oppresso liber (To free the oppressed), Sadler ... painted a portrait of valor and strength."
It resonated. Sadler looked the part. He was a war hero and the song -- a straightforward three-chord ballad in the key of C -- struck the right notes of duty and determination even as it veered close to mawkishness in the final verse, where a young wife mulls her Green Beret's "last request":
Put silver wings on
my son's chest
Make him one
of America's best
He'll be a man,
they'll test one day,
Have him win
the Green Beret
Meacham uses "The Ballad of the Green Berets" -- a one-hit wonder, a cultural curiosity soon to be swallowed up by the tsunami that was the curdling end of the '60s -- as a counterpoint to overtly anti-war songs like Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" and Pete Seeger's "Waist-Deep in the Big Muddy." Fair enough.
But there's more to the story. Sadler had a short and turbulent life. His parents divorced when he was 5 years old; his father died of cancer soon after. His mother hopped from job to job around the southwest, and Sadler grew up delinquent, dropping out of school in the 10th grade to enlist in the Air Force.
He meant to re-enlist in the Air Force in 1961, but when he got to the recruiting station he found it closed, so he walked next door to the Army recruiter.
At least that was his story. He was never a reliable narrator -- he told Soldier of Fortune magazine he'd written "The Ballad of the Green Berets" on the steps of a Mexican whorehouse.
He wasn't the straight arrow he presented as; his life pretty much fell apart after his chart-topping success. He lost his family and drank through his royalties. In 1978, he was charged with the murder of his lover's ex-boyfriend, a songwriter named Lee Emerson who'd managed George Jones and Marty Robbins. (He ended up pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter and serving less than a month in a county workhouse.)
He moved to Guatemala in 1984, and in 1988 he was shot in the head. Sadler's friends and family theorized he'd been targeted by an assassin or a robber; the police maintained he'd accidentally shot himself. He survived, but suffered massive brain damage and died a little over a year later.
It's not a pretty story, but it's an American one. Pick at the threads of any number of songs and they might unspool in a similar way. But Songs of America is a survey course, not a graduate seminar.
Style on 07/21/2019
Print Headline: An American tune