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Songs About America: This Land Is Your Land

I’ve decided to go back to weekly themes.  It seems I do my best writing when I have a specific topic.  So with July 4th around the corner, I thought I’d pick song about America.  Enjoy.

In grade school, I seemed to be in a pageant every month.  They were mostly historical and Biblical fluff (I went to a Christian school) aimed at entertaining parents and friends, rather proving any intellectual value.  Every once in a while we had a patriotic theme.  My fellow classmates dressed up as iconic American heroes such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  Naturally, Washington did not tell lies and Lincoln lived in a log cabin.

As for the songs, they were standard patriotic fare – “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful”  -to the applause of the audience.Interestingly, during one pageant we sang, “This Land is Your Land”.

Yes, Woody Guthrie’s anthem was performed by a group of school children.  “From California to the New York Island” seemed perfectly innocent, and evoked an image of The American Dream. As far as I can recall, we only sang the first verse and the chorus.   The verses where the narrator wanders through “heat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling” were left out.  We sang it with no sense of irony or contempt.  Our rendition of “This Land is Your Land” was as straight an arrow.

As a 5th grader, I didn’t know the song was written by Woody Guthrie and was written as a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”.  Even if I had known those facts, I’m sure the concept would have been lost on my feeble mind.  The song seemed just as cheesy as any of the others songs we were forced to sing, and not worth my time.

Years later while listening to The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues, I discovered the familiar chorus on the last track on the album.   Why the hell are they covering this piece of shit?  I wondered.  The Waterboys had sunk to a new low.  When I dubbed the album to a cassette, I purposely left it off.   The “proper” ending to the album was “The Stolen Child”, not the little ditty that came off as Celtic campfire song.

“You realize this is a Woody Guthrie song?” My older brother asked me once when the song came on.

“Who’s Woody Guthrie?” I asked.  “I thought it was a traditional song.”

He was shocked.  “No, no,” He replied, with a hint of disgust.  “He was a singer in the 1940s.  Big influence on Bob Dylan.”

“Oh ok,” I nodded, not really understanding what he meant.   I still hadn’t discovered Bob Dylan, so this connection was hardly revelatory.  Besides, any type of music made before rock and roll, had nothing to offer me.

It wasn’t until I went to protest the Iraq War that I discovered the true meaning of the song.  Thousands of people were gathered in the cold streets of Pittsburgh.  It was snowing lightly, but no one seemed to mind.  Their minds were elsewhere.  As local artists and activists shouted their position from a nearby stage, the crowds cheered loudly.  By the time the Pittsburgh punk band Anti-Flag took the stage, the crowd seemed ready for action.  Surely this band would get the momentum going.  Surprisingly, they came on stage with an acoustic guitar.  “This is a song that I’m sure all of you know,” leader singer Justin Sane announced, launching into “This Land is Your Land”.   Suddenly, its lyrics made sense.  It wasn’t quite the flag-waving anthem I had previously thought it to be.  It was an attack on a Capitalist society, and an out of touch government.  “This land is your land, this land is my land” was hardly an invitation.  It was a call to arms.  This land belongs us, and we will take it back if necessary.  As thousands of people sang Guthrie’s words, my attendance in the protest never felt more secure and right.  If we didn’t take control and voice our opposition, who would?

Though Guthrie’s song isn’t what most Americans consider to “be patriotic”, for me, it means more than “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America”.  It offers hope, and possibility.   It’s not idealistic and naïve, but rather a rallying cry for those who might not otherwise have a voice.  Guthrie is an American icon, because he was able to express his views in song form, even if it wasn’t popular.  And if that’s not American, I don’t know what is.

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Christmas/Holiday Theme Week – A Christmas Gift For You

Over a string-laden instrumental version of  “Silent Night”, Spector proclaims his vision of “something new and different for Christmas”.  In light of Spector’s murder charge, his statements come off as a bit creepy.  However, in November 1963 when A Chirstmas Gift For You was released, Spector wasn’t joking.  The album was so far ahead of its time in every way.  Christmas songs never sounded so sexy, and alive, thanks to powerful performances by The Ronettes, Darlene Love and the Crystals.  Elvis and Frank Sinatra may have recorded Christmas albums but those version were for sitting by the fire –  songs you could go to sleep to.  Spector’s versions went meant to be heard in bars and enjoyed by those who wander home with a random girl for Christmas-  just watch the Christmas scenes in “Goodfellas” for proof.

Unfortunately, Spector’s vision of Christmas as released at the wrong time. In November 1963, not many people were thinking about sexy girls singing about Santa Claus, and reindeer.   The album became a flop upon its initial release, and while it’s usually listed on a critic’s list of “the best holiday albums”, you’re more likely to find a Josh Grobin Christmas album or Mariah Carey one in the average person’s holiday collection.  U2 may have given a rebirth to the album’s sole original “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” in the late 80’s.   I certainly enjoy U2’s version (and it’s the version I was familiar with first).  But U2’s version traded in the power of the original for schmaltz.

With a few exceptions, most holiday songs or records have been slightly cheesy.  But Spector’s album was anything but.  Even the silly “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is given a slightly naughty reading.  If the joke of the song is that Santa Claus is really daddy, Ronnie Spector makes it seem as if mommy is really cheating on daddy with Saint Nic.  Of course it could be this is the only version of the song I’m familiar with, and up until a week ago, I assumed in the song’s context, Santa Claus was real.

After years of listening to Spector’s album, his version of the songs have become definitive for me.  I usually can’t stand “Frosty the Snowman” (it didn’t help I cried as a kid when he melted into water at the end of the holiday special), but Ronnie Spector’s commanding voice and Hal Blaine’s pounding drums might just bring any pile of snow to life.  Usually, the narrator in “White Christmas” seems to long for his or her childhood – caught up in the past longing for something that may or may not come.  Darlene Love may also dream of the same “White Christmas” as Irving Berlin intended, but dammit she wants it this year.

With A Christmas Gift For You, Spector proved that Christmas music didn’t have to be for kids and their grandparents with fond memories of their childhoods.  It could be exciting, fun, and even sexy.  Almost 50 years after its initial release, A Christmas Gift For You remains the essential holiday pop album, because it dared to be a rock and roll/pop first instead of a Christmas album sung by rock artists.

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