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Song Of America
Anthology

Review By Steven Stone
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  Politics and music have been constant bedfellows since before the beginnings of written history. The first "political" use of music involved the drums and horns that drove Neolithic warriors forward in pre-bronze-age battles. On Song of America the roots and berries of American political music are exhumed, deconstructed, and reassembled by a quorum of contemporary musicians.

The original idea for Song of America came from former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. She suggested that producer Ed Pettersen (her niece's husband) record an album of songs focusing on key periods of American history, "in order to tell history to young people who might find joy in learning history through music." I wonder if she realized the historical ironies and contradictions such an album could bring to light. The tunes on Song of America are divided into three CD's. The first covers 1492 to 1860, the second from 1861 to 1954, and the third from 1946 to the present.

The performing artists on Song of America come from almost every segment of the current American music scene. Take 6, Shortee Wop, and Bettye La Vette represent Afro American artists, BR549, The Wilders, and the Mavericks wave the roots and country flag, and Kim Richey, Mathew Ryan, Janis Ian, Suzy Bogus, Tim O'Brien, and Beth Nielsen Chapman come from the singer-songwriter camp. Many other artists whose styles fall in between the cracks, including Andrew Bird, Jen Chapin, and Karen Parks also add their unique takes on traditional tunes. If you recognize every performer on Song of America you have even wider and more disparate musical tastes than I do.

Successful propaganda works because its subjects don't realize that they are being fed propaganda. That's why music is so often employed for this purpose. Even the earliest tunes on Song of America have some intentional political bias, whether royalist, as "God Save the King," or populist, like  "Sweet Betsy from Pike." Pick any song on this CD and you will find some political slant that gives "the truth" a push to one side of the political spectrum. Most songs work despite, not because of, their political message.  Two examples are "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye," and "How Ya Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm." Less successful songs show their age and strong polemic less gracefully. Often their musical content is weighted down by their histrionic lyrics. Two offenders are "I Am A Woman" and "Apache Tears."

I assume that the musicians on Song of America chose which song they would record. Some made better choices than others. At the top of my "great performances" list are instrumentalist Jake Shimabukuro's rendition of "Star and Stripes Forever," Devendra Banhart's atmospheric "Little Boxes," and John Mellencamp's simple reading of "This Land is Your Land." Mellencamp wisely decided to include ALL the song's verses. These rarely preformed lyrics add extra depth and emotional resonance to this classic tune. But even the worst song on this fifty-tune anthology is worth hearing, at least once (thank God for skip programming.)

Rarely does a project that began as an educational tool end up being as artistically or intellectually successful as Song of America. With far more superior performances than lackluster ones, I would be very surprised if this CD doesn't find its way to more than one Grammy nomination. Is it worth hearing? Definitely! And worth owning? Oh yes!

 

 

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