10 Nov 2016

I hear America singing: 10 visions of America in song

From RNZ Music, 10:51 am on 10 November 2016

There isn’t a country on earth that has been namechecked in more songs than the United States of America.

USA from satellite

From ‘America The Beautiful’ to ‘American Idiot’, American songwriters have never been shy about marshalling their musical powers to express their vision of what their country is, could be, or should be. Like those of political candidates, the visions vary wildly, while all having in common the fervent belief that theirs encapsualtes the truth.

As we ponder the victory of Donald J. Trump, and the future of a divided nation, here are definitive versions of ten songs, each offering its own unique vision of America.

This Land Is Your Land – Bruce Springsteen

Perhaps the most inclusive vision of America ever expressed in song, and certainly more poetic than anything in Donald Trump’s victory speech. Woody Guthrie composed many different verses over the years. In one version the wandering troubadour finds himself face to face with an enormous wall, and a sign prohibiting entry. “But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,” wrote Guthrie. “That side was made for you and me.” Bruce Springsteen gave this intense rendition during his 1985 Born In The U.S.A. tour.


Made In America – Kanye West and Jay Z

With a vocal hook by Frank Ocean, superstar rappers Kanye and Jay Z pay tribute to the America that raised them: the America of the streets. “I pledge allegiance to my Grandma”  says Jay Z. 


Bored In The U.S.A. – Father John Misty

A play on Springsteen’s ‘Born In The U.S.A.’, Josh Tillman – a.k.a. Father John Misty – offers his contemporary ironic perspective of middle-class American life, in a voice almost paralyzed with apathy.


American Life – Madonna

Naturally, Madonna sits at the centre of her own vision of America, as she raps about yoga and pilates, her trainer, butler and bodyguard and how she’s ‘living out the American dream.’


The Truth Will Set You Free (Promises, Promises) – Bobby Charles

A view from the Louisiana bayous. ‘The road to the White House is paved with lies’ sings the author of ‘See You Later Alligator’.


The Star-Spangled Spanner – Jimi Hendrix

The oldest song in this list, the American national anthem began as a set of lyrics written after the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812, to the tune of a popular British song by John Stafford Smith. As America waged war in Vietnam, Jimi Hendrix often performed the tune – most memorably in this recording from the last day of the Woodstock Festival, where he recast the melody as a horrific battleground in which his guitar alternately resembled bombs, gunfire, sirens and  human cries.


It’s America Love It Or Leave It – Ernest Tubb

As the Vietnam war escalated, vereran country star Ernest Tubb had a hit with Jimmy Helms’ message to the hippies and draft-card burners. “If things don’t go their way, they could always move away,” he sang. “That’s what democracy means.”


American Idiot – Green Day

“Don’t want to be an American idiot” declared Billie Joe Armstrong at the time of the Iraq War, rejecting “the redneck agenda” and “one nation controlled by the media”.


Sail Away – Randy Newman

With a melody as stirring as a Sousa march, Randy Newman sings his bitter satire in the voice of a slave trader, promising a new land where you don’t have to worry about lions or tigers, “you just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day.”


America The Beautiful – Ray Charles

One of the most enduring patriotic songs, Katharine Lee Bates’s lyric depicts an America beautiful for its spacious skies, purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain -though oddly empty of people. Popular among country singers, the most heartfelt version might be this one.