Wednesday, July 13, 2005

And I'll Proudly Stand Up*

A friend of mine suggested an idea for a party wherein the guests would all bring muscial selections that supported a theme. One theme suggested was Patriotic. As in what songs make you feel patriotic, even if protesting is the only thing that makes you feel patriotic these days.

Well this is two things I love, music and getting to define what I think it means to be an American--or at least conceptualizing what America stands for.

My immediate first thought was Fortunate Son (CCR). And that's not a bad selection. It's just I don't think it captures the optimism I feel about America. The tension between our ideals and our reality. I finally settled on three

1. The Power and the Glory--Phil Ochs
The song is beautiful and gentle. It rolls through a littany of states and articulates the manifest beauty of the country.

Here's a land full of power and glory/
beauty that words cannot recall/
oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom/
glory shall rest on us all.

Then the final stanza Ochs tackles the distance between our hopes and reality:

Yet she's only as rich as the poorest of the poor
only as free as a padlocked prison door
only as strong as our love for this land
only as tall as we stand.

2.Thank you (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)--Sly and the Family

This song is less about the lyrics than Power and the Glory. The thing that gets me with this one, is it's a band full of crazed funk musicians some of whom are married and it's racially mixed. It's party music made for whites and blacks by whites and blacks. Given that a lot of American musical history has been attached to who should make music for whom and who should listen to what bands' music--Sly and the Family Stone is just about making fun music. Music for everyone. Everytime this song comes on the ipod, I begin to strut. I begin to sway and half-dance while walking, I cannot help it. It's an involuntary reaction. And the lyrics, do suggest something American---the idea of being allowed to be who and what you are. It's cheesy and Polly Annish, but I still cleave to that notion as descriptive of the US.

3. The Ghost of Tom Joad--Rage Against the Machine
I selected the Rage Against the Machine version of this Springsteen song on purpose. First I like it better, but second there is something powerful and I think suggestive of America in the idea of making and remaking. Sampling, stealing, reordering and reclaiming earlier truths for your life. The song is itself a reodering and copy of the great speech from Tom Joad in the Grapes of Wrath. It's a call to greater community involvement. An indictment of the role of authority in dealing with the suffering of the Great Depression. It's agrarian and transient, it's about the underdog, three pretty strong American ideals that are still symbolically relevant. The speech and the song talk of death. But it's not the end for Tom Joad, he's alive wherever someone is being hassled, hurt, or suffering. That America is often in the wrong is clear, that our great artists can freely critique our failings is pretty special. That our artists whether authors, NJ rockers or Hispanic rap-rockers can retell the stories of our failures without condemning the idea of America--that's pretty powerful stuff. It's because of the power of the ideals that harsh criticism is warranted. You don't berate a child's painting for falling short of the mark--it's not supposed to be great. But you can critique a great film maker's poor choices, they should know better, they should do better. And so should we. America deserves harsh critics because what it tries to be is so worthwhile, and when we fail it's so devastating.

*God help me if Lee Greenwood appears on anyone's list.

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