Songwriters help us deal with tragedy through music
Ten years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans are honoring the innocent victims who lost their lives at the World Trade Center, The Pentagon and on four airline flights hijacked by terrorists with ceremonies in New York, Washington D.C., Shanksville Pennsylvania and at football stadiums across the country.
For songwriters, inspiration comes in many varying forms, but the American consciousness can be an especially powerful trigger. There is a lineage of American songwriters going back to the early 20th century who have used important events to convey their feelings to the masses in works that stand as reminders to future generations. Whether it's the assassinations of President William McKinley or President John F. Kennedy or deadly transportation accidents from the Wreck of the Old 97 to the sinking of the RMS Titanic to the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald.
Social events like a deadly school house fire, the horrors of war, the economic hardships of American Farmers during the Great Depression and the 1980s or the shootings of Kent State University student protesters. Various songwriters have captured the feeling of the moment in song thereby passing along the subsequent generations.
There are certain songs that convey an overarching message even though inspiration for the songwriter might stem from a singular event or feeling.
One only needs to read the lyrics of This Land Is Your Land, a song written for the common American citizen, to get the true sentiment of many patriotic Americans. On February 23, 1940, Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) wrote the lyrics to his most powerful song, "This Land Is Your Land," as a response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" (1938) as popularized by Kate Smith. Berlin had reworked his song, which he originally wrote while serving in the U.S. Army in 1918, as patriotic response to the looming crisis in Hitler led Germany. Guthrie, however, felt the song "unrealistic, nationalistic, exclusionary and complacent."¹ He felt Berlin's song with lyrics like "stand beside her, and guide her through the night with a light from above," smacked of jingoistic overtones thus leaving out the voice of the common man, a perspective that he knew personally growing up in rural Okemah, OK eeking out a living as a sign painter, singer and radio performer. The economic hardships of the Great Depression and the ensuing environmental effects of the Dust Bowl on the common American worker or farmer impacted the art of Guthrie, a
Guthrie said that he wrote this song because he was tired of hearing Kate Smith sing "God Bless America" on the radio. In fact, before Guthrie changed each verse's concluding line to "This land was made for you and me," he ended each verse with "God blessed America for you and me."²
In the wake of 9/11, Congressmen led by Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R) and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D) sung Berlin's famous song about America on the steps of the United States Capitol to show their solidarity with the American people and against the terrorists who so brutally attacked the symbols of our democracy hours earlier.
Six days later, I attended the St. Louis Cardinals game at Busch Stadium on September 17, 2001 in which Jack Buck welcomed us back to baseball and read his heartfelt poem to the crowd and the country. The tradition of singing "God Bless America" before the game or during the 7th inning stretch began in earnest.
In this post-9/11 world we now inhabit, every time I hear "God Bless America" sung at a sporting event or gathering I think about Guthrie and his response for the common man. Guthrie's message is one of inclusion. Many songs that resonate with people are inclusive in nature allowing the listener to grasp onto the message and feel like the songwriter is speaking directly to them.
The beauty of the song is that it also lends itself to other countries incorporating their own interchangeable lyrics. This is a song for the world not just the United States of America.
Below I have included other songs that describe tragic events or inspire the disaffected thereby bringing them into a group. We never want to forget the terrible events that lend the catalyst to the songwriter to sit down to write. However, we must remember to foster a sense of unity rather than create disparate fractional groups in our society. There is a fine line between nationalism and jingoism and ten years after 9/11 it's time to remember to lay down our prejudices and come together as Americans. Woody wanted it that way.
Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers - "White House Blues" about the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901.
Vernon Dalhart - "The Wreck of the Old 97" a ballad about the railroad accident in Danville, Virginia on September 27, 1903.
Jeff Calhoun (aka Vernon Dalhart) - "The Wreck of the Titanic" about the sinking of the RMS Titanic on the North Atlantic Ocean on April 12, 1912.
The Dixon Brothers - "The School House Fire" a ballad about the Cleveland school house fire at Camden, South Carolina on May 17, 1923.
Woody Guthrie - "This Land Is Your Land" written as a response to Kate Smith's version of the Irving Berlin composed "God Bless America"
Bob Dylan - "Chimes of Freedom"
Simon & Garfunkel - "The Sounds of Silence" with music originally written in late 1963 and lyrics finished on February 19, 1964 and partially a response to the Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963.
Neil Young - "Ohio" an angry critique about the shootings of Kent State University student protesters on May 4, 1970.
John Lennon - "Imagine" a utopian vision of peace in a world without countries or religions
Phil Ochs - "Power and the Glory" a patriotic song originally written in 1963 appearing on his 1964 album All The News That's Fit To Sing, Ochs re-recorded the song in 1974 and released it as a single
Gordon Lightfoot - "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" written about the wreck of the ore ship on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975
John Mellencamp - "Rain on the Scarecrow" written about the plight of American farmers of the 1980s
Bruce Springsteen - "The Rising" a reflection on the events of September 11, 2001
Steve Earle - "City of Immigrants", a positive message regarding the inclusive nature of American cities and the different cultures that make their home there.
1. Dave Sutor, "'This Land is Your Land' Still Endures and Inspires After 71 Years" - http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/7780120/this_land_is_your_land_still_endures.html?cat=33
2. Guy Logsdon, "Notes on the Songs," liner notes to Woody Guthrie, This Land Is Your Land: The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1 (Smithsonian Folkways, 1997).