“This is my country/These are my people,” Randy Newman sings on his new album. Since this is Randy Newman, the people in question are all glued to their TVs, proud booboisie, but the catch of pride in his voice, the swell of the music, is completely genuine. It’s the same tone Neil Diamond found on his last great hit, 1980’s “America”: “They’re coming to America/Today!” I’m not convinced Diamond was any less cynical than Newman, either. And yes, Newman’s “Sail Away,” an immigrant song that happens to be a slave trader’s sales pitch, is patriotic, too: you can have soggy feelings about the U.S.A. with clear eyes about its horrors—ever watch The Simpsons? Our Melting Pot needs the seasoning of a little sarcasm, some suspect intentions; e pluribus unum, amen. The only non-negotiable, the bonding agent, is a sentimentality the size of Texas.
Anyway, why shouldn’t the left sing America, wedging ourselves into the nation’s core? In the 1930s, that urge took form in the cultural preservationism of FDR’s WPA and in the Popular Front, a communism-Americanism fusion personified by “This Land Is Your Land.” Sing America, the new compilation, includes patriotic hymns from Guthrie’s and Diamond’s verses to Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and Leann Rimes’s “God Bless America.” It’s a rare, updated echo of the Pop Front days: a benefit for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Save America’s Treasures endowment, with a written introduction by Hillary Clinton, no less. And you better believe it includes “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” This is our country.
Popular Front culture is often castigated as unbearable kitsch, but damn it, we’re talking about our kitsch. Sing America taps a deep deep vein. Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” is instantly recognizable as the backing track to innumerable TV sports profiles, usually cued to a champion looking off into the distance on a grass field. Frank Sinatra’s “This House I Live In” offers a message of racial and religious tolerance that in 1945 anticipated Garth Brooks’s (unfortunately excluded) “We Shall Be Free.” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” the train they call the “City of New Orleans”: why resist the pageant? Sappiness in the defense of culturally inclusive, environmentally safe liberty is no vice.
On this album we sing to the influx of cultures we don’t really understand but feel like putting an arm around anyway. We sing to “Summertime”: George Gershwin crossing black while Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong cross white. We sing to upwardly striving gospel and John Fogerty’s inalienable right to play “Centerfield.” We sing to Cher, America Incorporated (Sonny’s widow in Congress, Gregg Allman and the boy toys in memory, plastic surgery in plain view), rendering the National Anthem at the Super Bowl—our national cheese melt beats their Leni Riefenstahl. Not to mention whatever is being played at those daily Belgrade rock-concert war rallies. The mongrel anthem is our specialty, dating way back to Stephen Foster’s “Oh, Susannah,” here performed (with the “darkie” lyrics suppressed) by James Taylor.
Speaking of whom, I do wish old hippies weren’t the only ones running this ship, though they’ve probably earned the chance. Was Elvis’s more appropriate “American Trilogy” shortchanged for “If I Can Dream” because a part of the trilogy, alongside a slave spiritual, was the politically suspect “Dixie”? Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.” has way more bite than Linda Ronstadt’s, and the paucity of black music is a disgrace: yes, Foster and Irving Berlin are national touchstones, but what about Ray Charles? Judy Collins’s “Amazing Grace” instead of Aretha Franklin’s? The Impressions’ “This Is My Country” was a shrewd choice, but why not P-Funk’s “One Nation Under a Groove,” too?
But fantasizing one’s own patriotic compilation is part of the kick. For hard rock, I’d ignore the obvious—Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner”—and propose Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” that other great American Dream. For punk, Hüsker Dü’s “In a Free Land.” Or, to allow for the opposition, the Clash’s “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.,” and splitting the difference, the Three Johns’ forgotten “Torches of Liberty.” The punkier side of rock has always found respite in Americana. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ “Road Runner” is the highway anthem, and X’s heart-tugging “4th of July” can’t be skipped.
Hip-hop is tough: Arrested Development’s “Tennessee,” where Speech climbs the tree his forefathers hung from? Lauryn Hill’s coming-of-age ode to New Jersey, “Every Ghetto, Every City”? Nah, this outer-borough boy says Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis,” Queens, where “Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens.” Or even better, 2 Live Crew’s “Banned in the USA,” which fills in the Boss gap, has a DJ cutting up the Gettysburg Address, throws in snippets of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “God Bless America,” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and ends with the following sermon from Luke (Luke Skyywalker before George Lucas patriotically sued him): “You, Chinese, black, green, purple, Jew. You have the right to listen to whatever you want to. Even the 2 Live Crew….So all you right-wingers, left-wingers, bigots, communists, there is a place for you in this world. Because this is the land of the free. The home of the brave. And 2 Live is what we are.”