Of thee, America, we sing


September 30, 2001



Some emotions are so fundamentally profound that mere words cannot do them justice. For these, we must turn to music.

''The Star-Spangled Banner,'' ''God Bless America,'' and ''America the Beautiful'' have all become newly poignant in the wake of Sept. 11, ringing out from the steps of the Capitol and from the massive crowd of mourners at New York's Yankee Stadium, as well as in schools, churches, and at countless other public gathering places from coast to coast.

Many pundits have remarked that our two ''unofficial'' national anthems are both better songs than the tune that Congress honored with the official distinction in 1931. For one thing, they're more straightforward musically, and thus a heck of a lot easier for most of us to sing. (''The Star-Spangled Banner'' is notoriously unaccommodating to the tone-deaf.)

More significantly, ''America the Beautiful'' and ''God Bless America'' are songs of peace, while some contend that ''The Star-Spangled Banner'' is a celebration of war. Written by the lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key, it was set to the tune of the English song ''To Anacreon in Heaven'' while we were fighting that country during the War of 1812--a far more painful and damaging invasion of our homeland than the bombing of Pearl Harbor, though both may in time be overshadowed by the events of September 2001.

Katharine Lee Bates was a 34-year-old English teacher from Massachusetts when she wrote ''America the Beautiful'' during a cross-country trip in 1893. The view from atop Pike's Peak in Colorado inspired her to write a poem about some of the things that make this country great--from its ''spacious skies'' and ''purple mountain's majesties'' to its ''amber waves of grain''--and her words won widespread acclaim when they were eventually published by the Boston Evening Transcript in 1904.

Though it was never intended to be sung, the meter of Bates' poem fit a song that was already a popular hymn at the time, Samuel Augustus Ward's ''O Mother Dear, Jerusalem.'' As with ''The Star-Spangled Banner,'' the tune of another song was lifted wholesale and paired with Bates' poem--making both flagrant examples of ''sampling'' 100 years before the advent of digital technology.

Bates was quite clear about her intentions in honoring her country. England was a failed empire, she wrote, because, while it may have been ''great,'' it had not always treated others justly. ''Unless we are willing to crown our greatness with goodness, and our bounty with brotherhood, our beloved America may go the same way,'' she said.

A true American iconoclast and free spirit, Bates was ahead of her times in other ways, too. While heading the English Department at Wellesley College, she was involved in a 25-year marriage with another woman, Katharine Coman, the head of the Economic Department. God bless American diversity!

As for ''God Bless America,'' it was originally written in 1918 by a 30-year-old Irving Berlin for a Ziegfeld-style revue at a summer camp on Long Island, but its somber tone didn't quite fit that production, and so it was shelved. An immigrant who left his home in Siberia to move to this country at the age of five, Berlin called it ''a peace song.'' He dusted it off and updated it as the forces of fascism engulfed Europe and threatened the world, and Kate Smith first sang the version that this country came to know and love on Armistice Day, 1938.

As fitting as these songs may be on so many levels, they are by no means the only great tunes honoring the unique spirit of America. Though other countries have done their best to usurp it (especially those pesky Brits), rock 'n' roll remains an American invention. And despite a half-century worth of hypesters who've tried to turn it into a mere commodity, it continues to be popular culture's last great bastion of ''truth.''

With that in mind, I offer my Top 10 choices for the best rock songs ever about America. By no means are these all of them, and I'd be interested to hear which you might include on [ITAL] your [ITAL] list, along with the reasons for your choices. Email me at jimdero@aol.com, and Sunday Showcase will print the readers' contributions in an upcoming issue.

1. Neil Young, ''Rockin' in the Free World''--For me as for many rock fans, this country has never developed a more powerful or liberating sound than the combination of a fuzz-driven guitar and a hammerin' backbeat, and this song is a classic of the genre. Written with a view toward the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots at the end of the go-go '80s, Neil Young unleashed a savage fury at all those who would turn a blind eye toward this country's less fortunate citizens, building on the words of inclusion inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The repetitive singalong chorus urges us all to join together to celebrate freedom--and to fight for it, if necessary. And there is a verse that now seems frighteningly prescient: ''Don't feel like Satan/But I am to them/So I try to forget it/Any way I can--Keep on rockin' in the free world.''

2. Simon & Garfunkel, ''America''--At first blush, the harmonizing folkies' '60s epic may not seem like an especially appropriate choice; the recurring refrain of ''They've all gone to look for America'' indicates that something significant has been lost in our national identity. But we are a country of seekers and wanderers, and the simple but beautiful harmonies and spartan but touching story-telling (''Kathy, I'm lost,'' I said, though I knew she was sleeping'' may be the finest lyric Paul Simon ever wrote) position the song as the musical equivalent of [ITAL] On the Road [ITAL]. Like Jack Kerouac's timeless Beat novel, Simon and Garfunkel recognize that the ''real'' America is to be found in the simple kindnesses of its ordinary people.

On a personal note, as a native of Jersey City and Hoboken who grew up just across the Hudson River from the World Trade Center, the line about ''counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike'' has always made me a bit verklempt. Before, I couldn't quite say why--it's an ugly, traffic-bound highway--but now it's clear: There was no more beautiful view of the Statue of Liberty, the Twin Towers, and the vast expanse of lower Manhattan than from the turnpike extension to the Holland Tunnel. (''Exit 14,'' as we'd say back in Jersey.)

3. Naked Raygun, ''Home of the Brave''--The unforgettable guitar riff and unrelenting drums that propel this 1987 anthem by Chicago's punk legends epitomize American strength and pride even as Jeff Pezzati's lyrics move from an expression of personal freedom ('''I'm off to a place where life's right'/Jeanie walks out on the home of the brave'') to justifiable cynicism in the age of Reagan and a question about the depth of our commitment to freedom of speech (''Broken dreams and promises/These are the things that they have and hold/A country that even persecuted the Weavers/Ever heard the Weavers?''). Ah, but that famous ''whoa-oh'' singalong chorus! If American punk ever produced a finer statement of self-reliance and unity, I can't pin it down.

4. Woody Guthrie, ''This Land Is Your Land''--And speaking of the Weavers, it was that folk group that popularized what has become the wandering Okie folk singer's most famous song. Written by Guthrie as a sort of radical alternative/answer to ''God Bless America,'' the tune is less an ode to nationalism than a poetic affirmation that the land is a sacred trust whose purpose is the well-being of [ITAL] all [ITAL] of its inhabitants. This is made obvious in the final stanzas, but those are often deleted when the song is taught to school children. What Woody wrote: ''In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple/In the relief office, I seen my people/As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking/Is this land made for you and me? Nobody living can ever stop me/As I go walking that freedom highway/Nobody living can make me turn back/This land was made for you and me.''

5. The Grateful Dead, ''U.S. Blues''--Written in the mid-'70s as America was attempting to extricate itself from the war in Vietnam, this tune could be heard as a protest of hawkish, gung-ho nationalism. But dissent is a proud part of this country's tradition, and while there are some satirical swipes in Robert Hunter's lyrics (''Back to back/Chicken shack/Son of a gun/Better change your act''), it's hard to resist smiling at the thought of Jerry Garcia inhabiting the role of Uncle Sam the way Mick Jagger ''became'' Lucifer in ''Sympathy for the Devil'' (''I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/in a rock 'n' roll band''). The music draws from a uniquely homegrown idiom, the jug band, as the Dead celebrates a procession of unlikely American heroes, including P.T. Barnum and Charlie Chan. Right on!

Strong runners-up in a similar vein: John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival, ''Fortunate Son,'' and Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, ''Born In the U.S.A.''--though the irony in the latter's sad tale of the plight of Vietnam veterans is often completely misread as jingoism.

6. James Brown, ''Living in America''--James Brown's exuberance, joy, and lust for life epitomize the American attitude at its best, and the Godfather of Soul was still in rare form when he paid homage to this country in 1985 on the Grammy-winning theme song to ''Rocky IV.'' Thankfully, the tune has had a much longer shelf life than the film, and if the sentiments aren't especially profound (''Super highways, coast to coast/Easy to get anywhere/On the transcontinental overload''), Brown is freedom personified as he groans and grunts and wails over the churning groove. A fine runner-up, from earlier on in Brown's career with the Famous Flames: ''America Is My Home.''

7. Tom Petty, ''American Girl''--Another anthem of ambiguity. On one level, this is a song about a girl who has fled the country, convinced that ''there was a little more to life, somewhere else.'' But it broadens out into the realm of metaphor in the last two lines as Petty sings, ''God it's so painful when something that's so close/Is still so far out of reach,'' which could well refer to this nation's constant attempts to grasp a perhaps unattainable ideal. In the end, the words are almost superfluous--it's the passion behind those chiming guitars and the driving rhythm that make this a great, life-affirming, one-hundred-percent [ITAL] American [ITAL] song. Oh yeah. Alright.

8. Aretha Franklin, ''Think''--Not an obvious choice, perhaps--the Queen of Soul is pretty clearly reading the riot act to an errant lover in this, her signature tune. But as you may have already gathered from the rest of this list, I believe that there's a thin line between the personal and the political in rock 'n' roll, and Franklin's expression of strength is nothing if not the American spirit at its most righteously defiant. ''You better think (Think!)/Think about what you're trying to do to me,'' she warns, before bursting into the explosive refrain of ''Freedom!'' Delivered the way she belts it out, that one word sorta says it all. And ''Think!'' is the best advice anyone could offer our national leaders at this critical juncture in history.

9. Bob Dylan, ''Chimes of Freedom''--Similar sentiments to Franklin's, far more poetically expressed. In fact, the complex images in this song comprise some of the finest lyrics Dylan ever wrote (''As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight/Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight/An' for each and every underdog soldier in the night/We gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing''). Meanwhile the enduring strength of the melody is given ample testament by the many successful covers, including versions by the Byrds and Springsteen.

10. Chuck Berry, ''Back in the U.S.A.''--Finally, what would a list of great rock songs about America be without Chuck Berry? His ringing guitar sound stands as a musical paradigm, and few of the countless artists who've followed in his wake didn't learn [ITAL] something [ITAL] from the master. (The Beach Boys based all of their early tunes on this song's formula, including ''Surfin' U.S.A.,'' and the Beatles wrote ''Back in the U.S.S.R.'' as a distinct homage and answer song.) But while he's widely acknowledged as a musical innovator, Berry has rarely gotten his due as a subtle and playful lyricist. This overview of America's charms (from its greatest cities to ''hamburgers sizzlin' on a open grill''), written from his perch aboard a jet that's flying back home from Europe, ranks among his very best lyrics. Unfortunately, it, too, contains some lines that now seem eerily portentous: ''Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway? You can bet your life I did, 'til I got back to the U.S.A.''

Special mention must be made of the MC5's incendiary cover on the 1970 album of the same name. Musically, it's even stronger than Berry's version. But Chuck was the originator.