Thirteen American Tunes
A trip down memory lane
Yes, yes, I know we already did the 4th of July and everything, but seeing as how I’m still in a “my country is pretty awesome” mood, and further seeing as how I’m up against a crazy summer schedule, I’ve decided to be lazy and write something in which I literally do nothing but ramble about Stuff I Like: American Music Edition. Yes, gentle paid subscribers, this is the sort of thing you’re paying for. But seriously, thank you, and I very much hope it’s enjoyable to some of you, somewhere.
I thought of a few ways to organize this: Do I pick an American tune from each 20th-century decade? Do I include Important Tunes that I can talk about importantly even though I don’t have any special connection to them? Do I focus on tunes that are explicitly About America, tunes that generally capture what I think of as the American Spirit, or just tunes I like, by Americans? Do I try to balance genres, geographical regions? Do I go for hits or hidden gems?
In the end, I decided this would be most fun if I didn’t overthink things (too late, you say? hush, you) and simply limited my focus to miscellaneous pieces of American music that mean something to me, whether by contributing to my own musical formation or by telling a story that’s stuck with me. I will make no claim that this is a balanced list, nor that it’s a list of the greatest, most transformative, most etc., etc. American songs ever. I will also make no claim that you, dear reader, will love everything on this list, though I confess I can’t imagine how any true American could not like at least something on it. To quote Michelangelo in that Monty Python skit, I may not know much about art, but I know what I like. So, without further ado, here’s what I like, with fair warning that the only semblance of organization here will be that I list these things in more or less chronological order by decade of release or emergence.
Oh, don’t you want to go to that gospel feast?
That promised land where all is peace?
Deep river, my home is over Jordan
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground
Black spirituals shaped me profoundly from a very young age. Many examples could go here, but I’ve chosen one of the most deeply moving to me, and one that marks a high point of my own modest musicianship. The arrangement I put together in college for a small home project mostly followed in Marian Anderson’s train, though she’s a contralto, and I bring a much lighter quality to the piece as a mezzo-soprano. Unfortunately, back in those days I had a better instinct for making music than mixing it, and so the version that’s easiest to find and will live on in the digital ether through Spotify, etc., is, sadly, a pretty sore trial for the ears. Such are the perils of messing about in Mom and Dad’s basement without paying for a real studio with people who really know what they’re doing. Fortunately, I also did an alternative mix that was easier to listen to, amateurish as it still was, so that’s the version I embed above, for the generous and the curious.
If you’d really like to be knocked off your feet though, I direct you to the incomparable chorale version featured in Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time. I couldn’t stop listening to it when I first found it. I never wanted it to end. When I think about the kinds of beautiful things that by definition won’t exist in heaven, I think about songs like this. These are songs of waiting, longing for the not-yet. But when the not-yet becomes now, what becomes of these songs? Will we forget them? Will we remember them, but never sing them, because there is no more need to sing them? I wonder, sometimes.
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