If we can step back and not look at this time in our country’s history as our worst days of separation, we stand a better chance of dealing with the realities we face.
Historian Jon Meacham reminds us: “Debate, dissension and disagreement are far more often the rule than the exception. We are always arguing, always restless,” he writes. He and his Nashville neighbor, country music’s finest, Tim McGraw, decided to take a look at music as the mirror of our growing pains. Their bound history is titled, “Songs of America – Patriotism, Protest and the Music That Made a Nation.”
To prove their point of an ever-divided political citizenry, Meacham and McGraw shine light on musical contrasts in dueling separations: “Battle Hymn of the Republic” vs. “Dixie,” “The Ballad of the Green Berets” vs. “Fortunate Son” and “Born in the USA” versus “God Bless America.”
“Liberal thinkers may hear country music as “hopelessly ‘red,’ conservative in its lyrics,” Jon Meacham contends, but consider this. Elvis Presley once opened a concert in the 1970s by crooning a line or two from “Dixie,” adding a few bars from “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” tacking on a verse of “All My Trials” and ending with “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.”
The crowd was in tears and nobody in the audience fell prey to political bias, at least not on that night.
In verses unfamiliar to us, as early as 1795, a Philadelphia newspaper published stanzas of a song promoting women’s rights. Hard to believe, but to the tune of “God Save the King,” a few brave souls tied on their aprons and sang: “God save each female’s right, show to her ravished sight, Woman is free.”
We have proved fickle in our loyalties to gender and to melody. “Hail Columbia,” Jon Meacham writes, was considered our national anthem until a 1931 Congressional act named Francis Scott Key’s, “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our official sea to shining sea melody of pride in country.
As far back as the 1830s, the songs of slaves filled small wooden churches and cotton fields. Heard by others as “songs of sorrow,” words set to music had double meanings. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was not a cry for angels to lead the way to Paradise, but ‘code’ for an imagined ride to life in a safe city up north.
The deeper question historian Meacham asks is: “How could slavery and a fledgling American democracy co-exist?” Abraham Lincoln’s, Emancipation Proclamation, declared they could not.
Emancipation of slaves may have smoothed the road to equality, but women suffragists would beg to differ as they marched for the right to vote.
As a new century dawned, three young African American men wrote the words and music to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” which would become known as the Negro National Hymn.
One hundred years after the NAACP was founded, the last verse of the hymn was read as part of the closing prayer at the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009.
After he left office, former President Obama would share his view on music with a soul. For him, he told a journalist, Ray Charles’ version of “America, the Beautiful” best captured “the fullness of the American experience and the possibility of reconciliation.”
It fell to Georgia’s own John Lewis, congressman and civil rights activist, to bear witness to music as “a tool of justice” during the civil rights movement.
Choruses of “We Shall Overcome” filled jails as protesters were arrested. “Music,” one of the faithful allowed, “did what prayers and speeches could not do.”
Historian Jon Meacham reminds us when we can “feel and hear how the other guy feels and hears, we are closer to a more perfect union.”
On this Sunday, still in search of that more perfect union, we borrow words from a song written a century ago. It is also a prayer for this country: “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way, Thou who hast by thy might led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray.”
Happy Birthday, America!