Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation
(Random House, $30)
“Since the first marches to revolution, Americans have been putting new words to old tunes and blurring the lines between loyalty and liberty,” said Beth Waltemath in the Chattanooga, Tenn., Times Free Press. In Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw’s loose new survey of the music that has helped define America, the first surprise is that song lyrics urging rebellion were circulating years before the first shot of the Revolutionary War—as in “The Liberty Song,” a 1768 call to arms written to the tune of a British march. From there, the Pulitzer-winning author and Grammy-winning country star hopscotch through time to explore how we’ve debated our ideals through songs of patriotism and protest.
Though “fitfully compelling,” the friends’ handsomely packaged book doesn’t match its promise, said Ken Emerson in The Wall Street Journal. Meacham borrows from his past writings to supply the main narrative, while McGraw adds brief, boxed commentary about individual songs. But the song selection is idiosyncratic, the music of each song is rarely described, and even lyrics become scarce once the authors reach the copyright era. In the discussion of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” no lyrics are quoted at all. Fortunately, “ignoring the obvious can make room for interesting discoveries.” Did you know, for example, that FDR hoped to make “Anchors Aweigh” his 1932 campaign song before settling on “Happy Days Are Here Again?”
“Songs often serve as soldiers in a cultural proxy war,” and the authors don’t overlook such clashes, said Allison Stewart in The Washington Post. Meacham notes how Ronald Reagan misinterpreted Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” as a patriotic anthem, for example, and he devotes ample space to the moment when the Dixie Chicks derailed their career by speaking out against the U.S. war in Iraq. But Meacham is often too cautious, perhaps too optimistic. “To him, our American songbook, in all its sprawling messiness, unites more than it divides.” ■