‘Murikans ain’t got no songs…Sort of

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.)

George Gershwin

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.

It's ok to sing--in church--but no organ, and don't smile...

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?

Running from America


(originally published in New Oxonian 2009)

I was having dinner with friends before leaving the sweltering Lahore summer to return to Maine in June.  Discussion turned to politics, as it often does in foreign parts.  Having spent most of my professional life, by choice, outside the United States, I have learned to fine –tune my discourse, even to absorb comments that betray a woeful lack of information or historical perspective on America.

The one that requires the deftest response is what I have come to call the “German question.” Every expat has heard it in one form or another:  “How is it that America continues to be strong?”  A rough translation is, “Given your Coca-Cola view of the world, your cave-dwelling masses who can’t find Europe on the map,  a national legislature whose debates we run on our comedy channels, why hasn’t your country blown itself up?”

America, as we all know, is unavoidable.  I have spent my whole life running from it.  Probably because the various movements ranging from tepid socialism to anarchism to secular humanism that try to make a dent in its demeanor and overt sense of Exceptionalism are full of Americans, they quickly become homespun, dull and remind you of church.  To avoid this curse of serial movementeering  I  joined the motley band of those who take exception to exceptionalism in the far corners of the world.  Here we try to avoid each other by pretending we’re a lot more interesting than we really are.  The common denominator among expatriates is that each of us privately thinks the reasons he is living abroad are terribly important  and special whereas your countryman’s presence abroad marks him as a misfit or a political refugee.  In the case of missionaries, this is usually true.

But the word “misfit” will do, especially for Americans.  I have been a misfit in Australia, where my older daughter was born, in England, where my younger daughter was born, and with wife and them in tow developed graduate skills as a misfit in three African nations, in Beirut, in Wider Europe, in Pakistan.

I knew I was at an irredeemable point in my exile when, on her return to Oxford, a teacher asked my nine-year-old daughter if she had ever lived out of the country–in this case outside the UK—and when she began to rattle off for the benefit of a dazzled group of classmates the places she had lived the teacher said, “No dear, I didn’t ask where you have gone for holiday.”

Unfortunately, the condition of being a real misfit is probably an irreversible condition.  You know this when you realize that the only place you feel really Not at Home is back in the USA.  Odd, because I always considered myself a non-extremist politically.  I do not seek the overthrow of the United States government nor predict with French hauteur that America’s ascendancy in the twentieth century was a drole act of Fate, serving as further disproof of the existence of a just God.

I do not believe America is evil.  I do not think other countries, with the exception of Iceland, are “better,” or at least not much better.  And I regard the idea that America is the “greatest nation on earth” as the kind of Barnumesqe mildew that grows on the brains of gun lobbyists, NASCAR addicts and people from Alabama generally.  Like a pretty good novel, America has a pretty good story to tell.  But as the hearings for judge Sonja Sotomayor just demonstrated, it can sound ugly in the mouths of dumb southern lawyers who get elected to the United States Senate.

My  misfitedness has now reached a critical level.  This visit home coincided with two epic events, or rather the aftermath of them:  the election of Barack Obama and the  (consequent) possibility that other countries would begin to see an aspect of “America” that corresponds to what Americans think about themselves—the “liberty and justice for all” bit.

As a believer in omens and appreciator of the British knack for getting ceremony right—especially occasions of state—I was a bit thrown off by the Inauguration—a Chief Justice who botched the only solemn component of the day, the Oath of Office, ah! and that dreadful flatulent praying and that worse poem (etc.).  But I could defend these things by saying, “Hey: we’re a seriously democratic place that takes mediocrity seriously.  Why shouldn’t awful liturgy be the appropriate paradigm for what we’re all about?”

But six months on, my return passage is booked.  “Yes we can” has become, “Maybe not.”

Simple principles of justice, embedded in the reform of health care for this allegedly rich and powerful and compassionate nation, are turning into another fight about bogeymen—euthanizers, atheists with syringes visiting hospitals and hospices.

Arguments that would be risible in almost any other country on earth—the “birther” discussion, for example–are dealt with by “serious” newscasters as coming from a nutty fringe that they fertilize with every news story devoted to the nuts.

Billions of dollars are going to be spent not on giving people a break with their insurance plans but in advertising campaigns designed to convince old people that liberals are trying to send them to their grave. (“And crowned thy good with brotherhood.” )  Forgive my saying that a big, wide more interesting world that doesn’t give a camel’s fart about this idiocy beckons.

As the country eats more and learns less, its historical revolutionary spirit in politics has descended to the level of a football game where policy and real issues matter far less than popularity and the opportunity to change the team at half time.  America’s brain seems to have gone to its trans-fatty butt.

Flash: The President is in Trouble. Poll numbers down.

Flash:  Republicans are gaining ground, poised to take back the House in 2010.

Never mind that literally nothing has happened to cause these numbers to change.  The point is, a game is being played.  Half time is coming up.  The paradigm for politics has been set by Wal-Mart, where store wide Thanksgiving comes in August and Christmas on Labor Day.

Is the point to get to the Apocalypse sooner?  Just to vindicate the expectations of those southern Republicans?

Misfits of the expatriate variety have an acute awareness of what the citizens of other places hear when they listen to CNN International or the edgier-bordering-on cynical reports about America on the BBC and other international channels.

The average American sitting in his living room in Ropeadope, Iowa (if he listens to news at all) doesn’t give a flying fig about the giftie gie us.  I’m sure there was a time when I didn’t care either, because like all Americans I thought the world was in orbit around American power and interests.  It came as quite a shock when I discovered my cosmology was way off, that American mass and strength didn’t make America great except in the derogatory sense Freud meant when he said, “America–great, yes:  a great mistake.”

I am old enough alas to remember Viet Nam era bumper stickers that read, “America: Love it or Leave It.”  I was living in the American south in those days, and I tended to agree.  Why would you stay if you could leave.  It’s a free country.  The doors are open.  That’s how people including my ancestors got in.

But now I am a stranger in a strange land, where not the election but the assassination of JFK has become the seminal and defining element in a country that seems to have taken another giant step forward in advance of many bigger steps back.

I suppose America has always been an idea, more than a country.  That is why it is hated around the world.  It’s a theological dilemma isn’t it?  Just like the God who is meant to be sublimely good and compassionate and merciful and fair can be the opposite, America turns out to be nothing but a disappointment, the negation of the ideal.  You learn to doubt a God like that.  You learn to be a political atheist about a country like that.

With its gaming politics, its weird sense of what racism is or isn’t, its refusal to rise above sensationalism to its better instincts, and its stubborn refusal to put its best face forward in times of international stress, it has become (to borrow a phrase) Hollywood’s suburb, and easy to hate.

But I do not hate it.  I am merely a misfit, a prophet not at home in his own country.

So, I said to my friend in Lahore:  “You’re going back to Paris, but will you come back—from Paris?”  And she said, “Yes, I can only be French when I am out of France.”

And I said, “I know what you mean.”