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Born in the U. S. A.

Born in the U. S. A.: The Myths of America in Popular Music from Colonial Times to the Present

Timothy E. Scheurer
Copyright Date: 1991
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  • Book Info
    Born in the U. S. A.
    Book Description:

    This is the first study to explore fully the myth of America as reflected in the nation's popular music. Beginning with the songs of the Pilgrims and continuing through more than two centuries of history and music,Born in the U.S.A.shows the emerging American myth and gives a close reading of the compositions of songwriters as diverse as William Billings, Henry Clay Work, Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.

    So that the full and diverse narrative of this complex nation might be recorded, this insightful study is focused both upon the national myth and upon the songwriters and performers representing subcultures and alternative viewpoints that are the text of America's story. Through hymnlike paeans and through discordant lamentations protesting the realities of the contemporary workaday world, popular music is an astonishing mirror of American history.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-807-0
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-vii)
    (pp. viii-2)
  4. INTRODUCTION Culture, Myth, and Popular Song
    (pp. 3-15)

    The student of popular culture knows how important myths are in the life of a culture. They are, in a sense, its cement. They are the ideological narratives that inform and give significance to our rituals, icons, heroes, and, in general, all the products of our culture. Myths have played and continue to play vital roles in all cultures everywhere.

    Too often myths have been understood to be mere stories designed to explain phenomena beyond the reach of current knowledge. But myths are much more than that. Like Daisy Buchananʹs voice inThe Great Gatsbythey seem to be ʺdeathlessʺ...

  5. CHAPTER I ʺTo Thee Sing Psalm Wil Iʺ: The Roots of the Myth in Puritan Music
    (pp. 16-23)

    On December 28, 1705, Deacon Samuel Sewall (1652–1730) recorded in his diary that he ʺintended to set Windsor and fell into High-Dutch, and then essaying to set another Tune, went into a key too high.ʺ There is in the passage some interesting information about the role of music in the early days of the Puritan colonies. Chiefly, the early colonist was more concerned with setting (giving the pitch) and singing music already established than in freely inventing something more congenial with their new environment and way of life. For those who survived those devastating winters in Plymouth Plantation and...

  6. CHAPTER II ʺWe Led Fair FREEDOM Hitherʺ: The Revolutionary War Era
    (pp. 24-38)

    Had the colonies remained just that—colonies (with the emphasis on the plural), where each region and its people felt that they were totally free to work out their own private destinies, there might not have been any need to create a monomyth for the total national experience. But that, of course, was not to be the case. Those principles which guided the founding of Plymouth Plantation and Massachusetts Bay and which promised Godʹs protection, opportunity, and property needed to be recast in a new light for the citizens of eighteenth-century America. Theirs was a changing world. In America as...

  7. CHAPTER III ʺFrom Every Mountainsideʺ: From the Revolution to the Outbreak of the Civil War
    (pp. 39-64)

    With the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, the number of songs dealing with the myth of America decreased considerably. Times of crisis, as we shall see, occasion more reflection on the state of the country and its dominating ideologies. However, there were to be a few incidents that would send the broadside balladeer and the aspiring composer scampering for paper and pen to create a song that could be used in the cause—whatever that cause might be. Interestingly enough, these crises actually did more to give ʺfinalʺ shape to the myth and establish the parameters it would...

  8. CHAPTER IV ʺWho Shall Rule This American Nation?ʺ: The Civil War Era
    (pp. 65-85)

    And so wrote Henry Clay Work in 1866. The lyrics show plainly that this is a blast at the defeated South, but ironically the title might have been chosen by a rabid confederate as well. The South believed as firmly as the North that it should rule this American nation, that Southerners were as much heir to the spirit of manifest destiny as any Yankee. They had, after all, supported a number of ʺfilibusteringʺ expeditions into Cuba and Central America in the hopes of finding territory congenial to their peculiar institution: slavery. Their failed efforts forced them back on their...

  9. CHAPTER V ʺA Thoroughfare for Freedom Beatʺ: From the End of the Civil War to the End of the Great War
    (pp. 86-113)

    Many profound changes took place in the country in the decades from the end of the Civil War to the end of World War I. The threat from the inside—the dissolution of the Union—was now past, but America found itself dealing with different kinds of threats, mostly economic and social. The country was rocked by a series of recessions and depressions (one of the worst in 1893); there was widespread labor unrest, resulting in violent strikes among textile, steel, and coal workers in 1882, the Haymarket Massacre of 1886, the Homestead Strike of 1892, and the Pullman Strike...

  10. CHAPTER VI ʺOf Thee I Sing, Babyʺ: The Tin Pan Alley Years, 1920–1950
    (pp. 114-137)

    From 1919 until 1938, one is hard pressed to find songs that deal with the myth of America in serious fashion. It is not that there wasnʹt occasion to call upon the myth. Crises aplenty loomed, which could have precipitated serious examinations about the nature of the United States, the Great Depression being the most obvious. Society experienced changes, divisions, contradictions, and disparities, which deeply affected the American citizen. Why, then, was there so little serious mention of this made by mainstream composers?

    One of the dominant American themes of the 1920s was the ʺreturn to normalcy.ʺ When Harding declared...

  11. CHAPTER VII ʺThis Land Is Your Landʺ: The Folk-Protest Movement and Other Voices, 1920–1960
    (pp. 138-165)

    ʺThereʹs mean things happeninʹ in this landʺ the song went, and for a number of Americans in the period from 1920 to the late 1950s this pretty much summed up the American experience. While the songwriters on Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood chose wit and satire to deal with national issues, other voices, reflecting a different worldview and tone, addressed the same issues in a spirit of dead seriousness. African-Americans, laborers, disenfranchised farmers from the Midwest, communists, intellectuals, and to a lesser degree rural Southerners lifted their voices in a new musical spirit and sound to share with one...

  12. CHAPTER VIII ʺTheyʹve All Come to Look for Americaʺ: The Late 1950s and the 1960s
    (pp. 166-196)

    The era following World War II, and in particular the Eisenhower years, saw steady growth and, in spite of Cold War fears, a growing sense of sureness about Americaʹs place in the world. In fact, it looked more and more like this indeed was the American century. One would still find tunes such as Freddy Grantʹs ʺThey Call It America (But I Call It Home)ʺ (1952), written during the Korean conflict, which evoked the classic mythemes to reaffirm the myth that had animated our visions for so many years. There were some, however, who, in spite of Americaʹs exalted position...

  13. CHAPTER IX ʺYou Canʹt Be Forever Blessedʺ: The 1970s
    (pp. 197-218)

    Toward the end of Dennis HopperʹsEasy RiderWyatt (Captain America) and Billy are preparing to make the final leg of their journey to ʺretirementʺ in Florida. As they talk Wyatt remarks, ʺWe blew it.ʺ Billy is, of course, incredulous; he tries to remind Wyatt of what they were trying to achieve: ʺThatʹs what itʹs all about, man…. I mean, you go for the big money, man—and then youʹre free. You dig?ʺ Wyattʹs only response is, ʺWe blew it.ʺ Both men go to sleep oblivious to the holocaust that tomorrow will bring.

    Is it a metaphor for the sixties?...

  14. CHAPTER X ʺBorn in the U.S.A.ʺ: The 1980s
    (pp. 219-247)

    When Ronald Reagan took the oath of office in January of 1981, there were those who believed that we might be on the verge of a ʺrenaissance of wonderʺ or, at least, that our second American nightmare was over. With Reagan assuming the presidency, there was a feeling that the old values and verities would once again have currency. He did—actually, he said—much to encourage these beliefs. And so it is with Reagan as symbol that we begin this final look at the myth of America in popular song. We will look as well at the other side...

  15. CONCLUSION ʺA Deathless Songʺ
    (pp. 248-253)

    There are those in our culture who believe that the American Revolution is not yet completed, that the promises contained in the land itself and the charters we drafted to establish the republic have not been realized. In a sense, this survey of popular songs dealing with the myth of America has offered graphic evidence that the revolution is not complete.

    As we stand on the brink of a new decade and a new century, we seem to be looking back in search of some sort of meaningful core to our national identity. But where are the songs that might...

    (pp. 254-264)
    (pp. 265-270)
  18. Index
    (pp. 271-280)