I giggled a little at Steve Martin’s parody, “Atheists Ain’t Got No Songs,” the premise being that while church folks have a lot to sing about–the Rock of Ages, Amazing Grace, and Jesus, lover of their soul–atheists don’t. That’s bullshit of course, though I would be in favour of expanding the repertoire slightly to include at least three songs other than Imagine and Both Sides Now. My opinion, however, is that all music that isn’t about God is secular and that’s good enough.
But this isn’t really about atheists. It’s about my annual bout of depression over the fact that Americans ain’t got no songs. They sort of make their way through the Star Sprangled or Strangled Banner at ball games, a more bellicose than which national hymn has never been created.
–Though not the ugliest or most trivial. The night we “got” bin Laden, crowds of drunken college students from the DC area congregated outside the White House and repeatedly sang “God Bless America,” the unofficial anthem of the Republican party. –Who knew that Irving Berlin stole it from a Yiddish review where the song was known as “When Mose with his Nose Leads the Band.”
That’s about it for American songs. I’m not crazy about the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I like America the Beautiful, but apparently it’s too green for the NASCAR and Second Amendment crowds, plus atheists choke on the “God shed his grace on thee”-part,” So it’s a non-starter–useful for high school graduations and various over-dramatized patriotic displays on the Washington Mall on 4th of July but not so good for community singalongs. Besides, you can’t imagine singing either of those songs at a football game or frolicky evening.
A few years back I was sitting half-drunk and exquisitely satisfied at Hofbräuhaus in Munich. Around 9.30, as the cycle of drinking and relieving onesself of the consequences was in full swing, the singing started spontaneously. It encompasssed everything from Schubert (lots of Schubert) to Haydn lieder to folk songs I’d never heard–to the Beatles. It went on for hours. Everyone went home hoarse and happy. I have repeated this dissolute and completely human event many times in British and Irish pubs and French cafes. And listen dear American patriots to Heinrich Hoffmann’s words to the second stanza of Germany’s anthem, Deutschland Ueber Alles, the first few strains of which over a radio were considered terrifying enough to send Illinois farmers running for their shotguns:
German women, German brotherhood,
German wine and German song
Shall retain in the world
Their old beautiful chime
And inspire us to noble deeds
During all of our life.
Terrifying, yes? Wine, women, song? I know, we fought against fascism, but we could have used a little more of the Gemütlichkeit.
What, I wondered, has happened to our nation? Is America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where Europeans came to lose their music? Or is music as a social bond something like a tax we have to pay to the tuneless, hymn-singing puritan drones who founded the nation by keeping it all specific, generational, ethnic, uncollimated?
I recall as a kid that in my Grandmother’s piano bench there was a raggedy book called Best Loved Songs of the American People. An updated version of it–for reasons I cannot fathom–still exists for a modest $29.99. On the cover Uncle Sam sits playing (what else?) a guitar.
The selections ranged from Civil War songs like “When Johnny Come Marching Home” to Irish heartthrobbers like “Danny Boy” (in its Ulster version, of course: “Would God I Were a Tender Apple Blossom,” to “Hail Columbia, Happy Land,” and a weird assortment of college novelty songs, rounds, and (just to show we’re not opposed to foreigners) “songs from other lands” and “Negro Spirituals.” Such diversity!
The contents seem to suggest that “the American people” liked songs from America and the British isles and simplistic ditties like “Bicycle Built for Two,” “Man on the Flying Trapeze,” “Buffalo Gals,” “Bird in a Guilded Cage,” “Shenandoah,” “On the Sidewalks of New York,” “In the Gloaming.” Not immortal, and today even a relatively smart fifteen year old probably can’t make her way through any of them. Nor could her parents. Best-loved is soon forgotten.
In fairness, we hadn’t yet produced our Schubert and when we did his music wasn’t for everybody–especially for God-fearers with hymnals. (Sexy music was for Jews and Catholic bootleggers, after all, and mainly played and sung by them.)
After a few rounds, “John Henry” or “Buffalo Gals” might not sound so awful. Except of course, in the America they came from, muscular, protestant and tea-total, most people weren’t doing rounds. They were meant to be sung on Saturday night around a piano with apple-bread and cider while your aunt Grace struggled with the chords. No wonder that music didn’t endear itself to multicultural America when it arrived, or more precisely when it was acknowledged to exist.
Speaking of your grandfather, if he was anything like mine, and not a Presbyterian, he knew a thousand songs, just like the guys at Hofbrauhaus. My father knew even more than his father. But (sad to say) put us all, along with my teenage daughter in a garden at a Miami beerfest (really?) and you’ll be lucky to get “Guantanamera” and “God Bless America” before it breaks down into intergenerational confusion.
It’s not exactly that we ain’t got no songs–America has been making music for two hundred years–it’s that we got no songs that reflect a common cultural patrimony, a single national memory. We got our soul, our rock, our country, our blues, our fusion, our sixties, our (yuck) seventies, our hip-hop, our jazz–oh, and your whatchacallit NPR stuff. But nothing that would keep us drinking with each other as we traversed our common life in song. And no, I do not regard Karaoke as the contradiction of what I am saying; I think it’s more like electronically assisted memory for the culturally impaired. A little like American Idol.
Why O Why America have you no voice to raise on high? Is it that you are too big, complicated, and diverse? Or is it that you’re too fat, dumb, and indifferent?
Ask yourself that question the next time a thousand nineteen years olds sitting on each other’s shoulders, waving American flags, break out into a rousing chorus of “God Bless America.”
Update 22 June: Some comments are too good to be comments and Jean Kazez’s is that kind of comment: “Jeez, I don’t feel that way [i.e. my way] at all. At all my drunken songfests, I have no trouble coming up with stuff to sing–This Land is Your Land; Bruce Springsteen songs like Born in the USA; Neil Young songs like Ohio; the wonderful Buffy St. Marie song Universal Soldier; Joni Mitchell songs like Blue; piles and piles of Bob Dylan. This is all music that takes you back, creates a feeling of solidarity, evokes stuff you love or hate about your country. On wait, you said “common cultural patrimony, a single national memory”… but do I really want to feel in synch with every American idiot? I think not (but please, don’t quote me on that).” Amos aka Sam Wallerstein adds, “As to music, I’m completely tone deaf, but from time to time, I find myself singing Bob Dylan songs to myself:The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Chimes of Freedom, Like a Rolling Stone, Desolation Row, Visions of Johanna……”
So maybe the problem is that America’s got too many songs, and songs, like our politics “is” local. And that explains why in periods of great national elation we find our music chest empty of anything that reflects our sameness–except, of course, The Star Strangled Banner and God Bless America. But don’t take my word for it: Listen to Christina Aguilera’s stunning attempt at getting it right.
The prize for cultural adaptation goes to the Brits however: what other country could take a schmaltzy American Rodgers and Hammerstein tune and turn into a football pep song?