A reader called me up this week and told me that she had saved a column I had written about the Fourth of July from way back in 1993. Could I please reprint it, in spirit of the upcoming holiday?
My first thought was, “Hey, wait a sec. I was 11 years old in 1993. She must be mistaken.”
Well, a second look at my math convinced me that she was indeed correct. So here, in honor of Independence Day, is that column, edited (mercifully) for length. Sheesh, I just can’t bloviate like I used to. And forgive the purple prose; it was all the rage back then … kind of like goatees:
There are, of course, many fine and meaningful ways to spend the Independence Day holiday. Spending time with the family is an admirable one, as is getting out of the house, and into the woods somewhere – after all, how can you love a country if you never get out into the country?
But one that resonates deep within me is music. Mount Rushmore is a pathetic monument indeed compared to the magnificently rich heritage of American music. Young (and not so young) people much too hip to ever profess love of their country are moved every day by musical expressions that in some deep way say something about who we are and where we came from.
So let us, this Fourth of July, declare a new brand of patriotism that has nothing to do with flags, marching bands and “bombs bursting in air”; that rejects cheap hooray-for-our-side boosterism.
What then exactly is this new love of country?
It’s the ancient sounds of Mississippi Delta blues. It’s the growl of Muddy Waters, the wail of Bessie Smith. It’s the primeval sound of Son House, the electric emotion of B.B. King. It’s Howlin’ Wolf and Big Bill Broonzy.
It’s the wandering loneliness of Leadbelly, the dusty minstrel voice of Pete Seeger, the mournful keening of the Appalachian fiddle. It’s Utah Phillips and Doc Watson.
It’s the lost spirit of Hank Williams, the damned soul of Jerry Lee Lewis, the soft menace of Johnny Cash.
It’s Nat King Cole and Hoagy Carmichael. It’s the rolling piano of Fats Waller, the Kansas City sass of Count Basie. It’s the doomed artistry of Monk, Mingus, Coltrane and Bird. It’s the brilliance of Miles Davis.
But it’s also the New Orleans gris-gris of Dr. John, the whiskey-tinged Texas sound of Waylon Jennings. It’s church-pew gospel and street corner doo wop. It’s Motown, it’s rockabilly. It’s Elvis and Buddy Holly.
It’s Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home,” Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side,” and Peter Rowan’s “Dust Bowl Children.”
It’s Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. It’s Aretha and it’s James Brown.
It’s Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.” It’s a Dead show at the Fillmore. It’s Hendrix at Monterey Pop.
It’s the rambling songs of Steve Goodman, the beautiful cynicism of Randy Newman. It’s Duane Allman riding down Highway 41, it’s Kate Wolf on a Sonoma County riverbank.
It’s norteño and tejana. It’s Hawaiian slack-key. It’s samba and salsa. It’s Navajo wood flute. It’s reggae and ska California-style.
It’s Lou Reed in New York, Carlos Santana in San Francisco, Emmylou Harris in Nashville. It’s visionary misfits like Neil Young, Frank Zappa and Brian Wilson.
It’s a white kid in a garage in suburbia with a new guitar, it’s a black kid on a laptop. It’s a boy with a horn, a girl on a piano. It’s world influences pouring into America from Europe, from Africa, from Asia.
It’s rap, metal, punk, grunge. It’s on the radio, it’s in the record stores, it’s on the streets.
America is a noisy place. Walt Whitman recognized that more than a hundred years ago when he wrote, “I hear America singing.” Yet, that singing wasn’t always the clipped, efficient unison of the military marching band doing “Stars and Stripes Forever.” It was a million-throated cacophony of voices.
There is nothing more quintessentially American than picking up a used guitar and singing Grateful Dead tunes on the street corner for quarters. There is no greater expression of the personal freedom embodied in this great nation’s mythology than dancing barefoot on the grass with an abandon of a child.
Free speech is revered as one of the greatest guarantors of our political freedom. But free speech doesn’t have to be speech at all. John Coltrane’s free speech was his sax, T-Bone Walker’s his guitar.
No rational person can look at America and not see its flaws, its ugly history, its arrogances and blindnesses. But, for most of us, it’s the only home we’ve ever known. And it’s worth cherishing.
So, if you’re like me, you’ll cherish America this Fourth of July by playing or listening to the music you love. If enough of us do that, maybe even old Walt Whitman will still be able to hear us.