The Songs of America by Jon Meacham

Reviewed by Hank Bitten

This book should be required reading for teachers of American history, interdisciplinary and humanities teachers, and music teachers! America has produced some of the world’s best song writers, musicians, and singers. America is a competitive democracy and the music of our history stirs our conscience and creates a harmony among dissident voices.

“History isn’t just something we read; it is also something we hear.  We hear the musketry on the green at Lexington and Concord and the hoofbeats of Paul Revere’s midnight ride. We hear the moans of the wounded and of the dying on the fields of Antietam and of Gettysburg, the quiet clump of the boots of Grant and Lee on the porch steps of Wilmer McLean’s house at Appomattox-and the crack of a pistol at Ford’s theatre.  We hear the cries of the enslaved, the pleas of suffragists, the surf at Omaha Beach.  We hear a sonorous president, his voice scratchy on the radio, reassuring us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself; and we hear another president, impossibly young and dashing, his breath white in the inaugural air, telling us to ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country.  And we hear the whoosh of helicopters in the distant jungles of Southeast Asia and the baritone of a minister, standing before the Lincoln Memorial, telling us about his dream.” (p.3)

The Look of Liberty

Perhaps the subtitle of the Songs of America: should be revised to “Patriotism, Protest, and the Music that Made America Great” rather than the music that made a nation.  Although the events in this book are familiar, many of the vivid photographs and illustrations were new to my eyes. The perspective of Tim McGraw is authentic as his words reveal an emotional context of passion for the lyrics and the challenges of singing familiar tunes. Tim McGraw writes about the closing verse in The Liberty Song, composed by John Dickinson (Pennsylvania) and Arthur Lee (Virginia) published on July 18, 1768:

What really speaks to me is the final verse. Dickinson clearly understands that this is a moment in time that will live forever (at least he’s hoping it will, and hope drives so much of art), and he used this idea to inspire real people to take real steps toward independence-and transformation:

‘All ages shall speak with amaze and applause,

Of the courage we’ll show in support of our laws;

To die we can bear-but to serve we disdain,

For shame is to freedom more dreadful than pain.’” (p.10)

The Liberty Song likely inspired Phyllis Wheatley who captured the hope and vision of all Americans in 1775 in her poem, “To His Excellency George Washington”

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,

Thy ev’ry action let the Goddess guide.

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,

With gold unfading, Washington! Be thine. (p.25)

The Scars of Slavery

Phyllis Wheatley understood the bold American experiment for freedom and equality.  Unfortunately, her voice could not be heard as America became divided between the competing visions of the Federalists led by Washington, Hamilton, and Adams and the Republicans (anti-Federalists) led by Jefferson and Madison.

Lo! Freedom comes. Th’ prescient Muse foretold.

All Eyes th’ accomplished Prophecy behold:

Her port describ’d, “She moves divinely fair,

Olive and Laurel bind her golden Hair.”

She, the bright Progeny of Heaven, descends,

And every Grace her sovereign Step attends;

For now kind Heaven, indulgent to our Prayer,

In smiling Peace resolves the Din of War. (p.27)

A few months before the 55th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence as a twenty-four year old student at Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, Reverend Samuel Francis Smith, was reading some patriotic German songs and wrote on a piece of scrap paper:

My country! ‘tis of thee,

Sweet land of liberty,

Of thee I sing:

Land where my fathers died,

Land of the pilgrims’ pride,

From every mountainside

Let freedom ring! (p.43)

LESSON IDEA: Cite evidence from the lyrics of The Liberty Song and America (My Country ‘tis of Thee) that America is a place of hope.

The vision of Daniel Webster inspired the verses of this hymn which united the majority of the American population when Andrew Jackson was president. Jon Meacham cites that the power of this hymn is in the first word, “My”.  Although the Congress adopted the gag rule to postpone debate on abolition, the passion for freedom was driven in the abolitionist versions of this popular song published under the pen name of “Theta”:

My native country! Thee-

Where all men are born free,

if white their skin:

I love thy hills and dales,

Thy mounts and pleasant vales;

But hate thy negro sales,

As foulest sin.  (p.45)

Harriet Tubman sang spirituals as signals for planning escapes on the network that became known as the Underground Railroad,

When that old chariot comes,

I’m going to leave you,

I’m bound for the promised land,

Friends, I’m going to leave you. (p.57)

In freedom, the freed slaves, perhaps as many as 100,000, sang a new song of thanksgiving:

Glory to God and Jesus, too,

One more soul got safe;

Oh, go and carry the news,

One more soul got safe….

Glory to God in the highest,

Glory to God and Jesus, too,

For all these souls now safe. (p.61)

Unfortunately, America as the land of the free where all races are treated equally was not realized for blacks, Native Americans, women, and immigrants.  President Lincoln’s Second Annual Message to Congress in 1862 testified to the harsh reality that combat, loss of life, the destruction of property, permanent injury, and risk of defeat.

“The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.  We say we are for the Union.  The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We – even we here – hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.  We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” (pp.67-68)

The Songs of America provides a litany of songs during these uncertain years: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Go Down, Moses,” “The First Gun is Fired,” “The Vacant Chair,” “John Brown’s Body,” “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Marching Through Georgia,” and “We are Coming, Father Abraham.”

On November 19, 1861, Julia Ward Howe, writer and social activist, attempted to boost the morale of soldiers four months after Bull Run by singing “John Brown’s Body.” Restless from her experience, she awoke at dawn at Willard’s Hotel on 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. and scribbled down new verses to “John Brown’s Body” that she later sent to The Atlantic Monthly for $5.00.

“He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;

He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:

Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!

Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,

With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:

As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,

While God is marching on.” (p.76)

As Tim McGraw reflects, “Fighting for the Union was a Christian responsibility, a mission from God that required action and came with God’s blessing.  It was the ultimate religious motivation: Christ saved you, now you must go save freedom. (p.78)

LESSON IDEA: Why did slavery impair the vision of America as a place of hope? Cite evidence from the lyrics in the songs above to support this argument.

The Words of War and Peace

One of the most dramatic and moving chapters in The Songs of America is the patriotic music during the time of World Wars 1 and 2. After reading the headlines in the paper on April 7, 1917 in his home at Great Neck, Long Island, George M. Cohan got a big tin pan and a broom and started marching around his house to the words of “Over There.” The lyrics give us a sense of American identity in making the world safe for democracy and freedom.

“Over there, over there,

Send the word, send the word over there

That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming

The drums rum-tumming everywhere.

So prepare, say a prayer,

Send the word, send the word to beware-We’ll be over, we’re coming over,

And we won’t come back till it’s over, over there.” (p.111)

As a result, 2 million enlisted and 2.8 million were drafted. But as General Sherman said,“War is Hell! You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.” 

Alfred Bryan wrote “A Mother’s Pleas for Peace, I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” and George Graff Jr. wrote “Let Us Have Peace.” These songs marked the beginning of protest songs, which became increasingly popular in the 1960s. As Tim McGraw insightfully writes, “While melodically I’m called to battle, lyrically I’m called to contemplate the price that’s to be paid for waging war.” (p.113)

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier,

I brought him up to be my pride and joy,

Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder;

To shoot some their mother’s darling boy?

Let nations arbitrate their future troubles,

It’s time to law the sword and gun away,

There’d be no war today,

If mothers all would say,

‘I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.’ (p.112)

It is likely difficult for students in your classes today to understand that many songs in our history are personal and sung as a result of a creative and resourceful music teacher or choir director in a church or school. “America the Beautiful” was composed by Katherine Lee Bates in 1895 on a trip to Pikes Peak in Colorado. The song inspired a generation of young girls and boys and was sung by American soldiers on Armistice Day in the bloody trenches of Verdun. The song inspires immigrants, the neglected, and the troubled because it speaks of the continuing work of what Americans seek.

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties,

Above the fruited plain!

America! America!

God shed His grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea! (p.114)

I learned something new from my reading of the Songs of America about the influence of religious music in the meeting of Churchill and FDR at the signing of the Atlantic Charter. FDR was an Episcopalian and Churchill and Anglican.  Together, they shared a common faith, commitment to good will, and an understanding that they were instruments of God to bring good into the world.  In his Second Inaugural Address (1937), FDR said:

“This new understanding undermines the old admiration of worldly success as such. We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life.

In this process evil things formerly accepted will not be so easily condoned. Hard-headedness will not so easily excuse hardheartedness. We are moving toward an era of good feeling. But we realize that there can be no era of good feeling save among men of good will.

For these reasons I am justified in believing that the greatest change we have witnessed has been the change in the moral climate of America.

Among men of good will, science and democracy together offer an ever-richer life and ever-larger satisfaction to the individual. With this change in our moral climate and our rediscovered ability to improve our economic order, we have set our feet upon the road of enduring progress.” http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5105/

One can only imagine what happened aboard the HMS Prince of Wales on Sunday, August 9, 1941 with a congregation of British sailors in a declared war, American sailors, and the two statesmen. It was the first of 12 meetings between the two leaders of the free world.

Together, everyone sang “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past, confessed their sins, shared a reading from Joshua 1:9, prayed the Lord’s Prayer followed by other petitions and sang:

Onward, Christian soldiers,

Marching as to war,

With the cross of Jesus

Going on before!

Christ, the Royal Master,

Leads against the foe;

Forward into battle,

See, his banners go… (p.136)

In just four months, the music changed as Irving Berlin, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, and Frank Loesser set the new tone following Pearl Harbor.  America needed songs of hope:

“God Bless America”

“We’ll Meet Again”

“You’ll Never Know”

“Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”

“The White Cliffs of Dover”

“Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”

“This Land is Your Land”

The Words for Civil and Human Rights

James Weldon Johnson, Bob Cole, and J. Rosamond Johnson, presented an assembly program in Jacksonville, Florida to 500 children at the Stanton School, where James Weldon Johnson was principal. The program was on February 12, 1900 (Lincoln’s birthday) and the school bears the name of Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, an advocate for human rights. The Stanton School is the second prep school founded for black children at a time when Americans witnessed an increase in racism and lynchings.  James W. Johnson decided to read a poem instead of delivering a speech and Bob Cole and    J. Rosamond Johnson put it to music.

“Lift every voice and sing

Till earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise

High as the listening skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of hope that the present has brought us.

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on till victory is won.”  (pp.103-104)

This powerful song inspired blacks and whites in the civil rights movement, united a nation when it was sung at Super Bowl 53, and continues to provide hope for us today as it captures the vision of the American Dream. The song was kept alive by the children at the Stanton School for 20 years before in gained a national audience.

The chapter on the songs of the civil rights movement is one of the most engaging in the book.  Perhaps it is because I remember these songs, perhaps it is the music, or perhaps it is our continuing historical challenge in addressing racism, equality, and freedom.  Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw provide perspective to the musical and historical narrative of how music influenced the last third of the 20th century. The death of Emmett Till in 1955 was a lesson that I taught many times and it was a lesson that my students never forgot!

In 1962, Bob Dylan knew about Emmett Till, segregation, Freedom Rides, and the Cuban Missile Crisis,. In Greenwich Village, they began singing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “The Times They are A-Changin,” “The Death of Emmett Till,” “With God on Our Side,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “This Little Light of Mine,” “The Dogs of Alabama,” “A Change is Gonna Come,” and “We Shall Overcome.” Joan Baez, Sam Cooke, Tom Paxton, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Stevie Wonder all contributed to the lyrics of truth and the melody of hope.

They did not die in vain.

They did not die in vain.

We shall overcome

Someday. (p.164)

LESSON IDEA: Did the Civil Rights movement and legislative reforms move America closer to becoming a place of hope for everyone by one small step or by one giant leap?

These were decades of division and confusion. It was the Age of Aquarius, Archie Bunker, Vietnam, Watergate, and equality for women. The future of the world could be shaped by the power of the music and the influence of the media on the message. In March 1974, less than six months before he would resign as President of the United States, Richard Nixon made a rare appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Speaking to a friendly audience, Nixon said:

“Country music, therefore, has those combinations which are so essential to America’s character at a time that America needs character, because today-one serious note-let me tell you, the peace of the world for generations, maybe centuries to come, will depend not just on America’s military might, which is the greatest in the world, or our wealth, which is the greatest in the world, but it is going to depend on our character, our belief in ourselves, our love of country, our willingness to not only wear the flag but to stand up for the flag.  And country music does that.” (p.175)

The choir singing the songs that defined America’s vision in a decade of division included Merle Haggard (“Okie from Muskogee”), Doug Bradley and Craig Werner (“We Gotta Get Out of This Place”), Creedence Clearwater Revival (“Fortunate Son”) , Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler(“The Ballad of the Green Berets”), Pete Seeger (“Bring Them Home” and “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”), Glen Campbell (“Galveston”), the Animals (“We Gotta Get Out of This Place”), Martha and the Vandellas (“Jimmy Mack”), James Brown (”Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”), Otis Redding (“R-E-S-P-E-C-T”), Steve Cropper (“Sitting on The Dock of the Bay”) , Johnny Cash (“Ragged Old Falg”), Simon and Garfunkel (”Bridge Over Troubled Waters”), Neil Young, (“Ohio”), Country Joe MacDonald (“One, Two Three What are we Fighting For?/ I Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die Rag”) and Aretha Franklin (“Chain of Fools”). 

This is a time when cultural history connects with our political history with engaging lessons with complex questions for 21st century students to debate.  Students enjoy the music but the powerful application of America’s vision and the character of the civic identity of each individual is the enduring legacy that is essential to a meaningful education. The impact of the influence of music on our culture, as opposed to a response to our culture, over the past 30 years is one that the perspectives of historians will debate and one that teachers cannot ignore. President Reagan said in a speech on September 19, 1984 in Hammonton, New Jersey, America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.  And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.” (p. 203)

These dreams and messages of hope for the frustrated, alienated, and discriminated are proclaimed in Brue Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” and “Born in the U.S.A,” Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out,”  Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window,” Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” and Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke.”

The closing pages of the book reflect a different tune following the Attack on America on September 11. Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw cite the music at the national memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral on Friday, September 14, 2001 which included “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” “The Lord’s Prayer,” and “God Bless America.”  It was the musicians who united America in a broadcast , “Tribute to Heroes,” ten days after the Attack on America which included consoling and inspiring lyrics from Bruce Springsteen (“My City in Ruins”), Stevie Wonder (“Love’s in Need of Love Today”),  (p.217)

It is important for students to understand perspectives in the context of how the response to horrific events takes place on the historical stage. As Bruce Springsteen’s songs in The Rising album expressed our grieving, hope, and unity, the Dixie Chicks protested against President Bush’s decision to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003. While their perspective was against the decision to go to war, it also raised questions about the implications of free speech and censorship and respect for the Office of the President of the United States.

Perhaps the question to ask and debate at both the beginning of a course in U.S. History and at the end of the course is how much of America’s history is one of debate, dissent, and dispute?  Should we always be restless, fighting, and disagreeing or should we always strive for harmony, peace, and agreement? Does our music reveal evidence of a convincing answer?

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