Saturday, 28 March 2009

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

by Timothy E. Scheurer

Reflecting back on the songs of the folk-protest movement of the 1950s, one may recall that images of the patriots were an important component in building their vision of the "real America" that Irwin Silber talked about. Such was not to be the fate of the patriots in the sixties. This, of course, only makes sense: If the vision is flawed, so must the visionaries and those who implemented the vision be flawed. Phil Ochs wryly notes in his "Where There's a Will, There's a Way" (1962) that when the original thirteen colonies picked Washington to lead them into battle, he said that if we won, someday we'd have "a World's Far at Seattle," implying that the logical conclusion to our vision of greatness is sponsorship of a commercial exhibition. He does, however, respectfully evoke the image of John Brown as he tackles the issue of civil rights.

One of the favorite techniques used by the folk-protesters in dealing with the patriots' mytheme is what I call the catalog. In the catalog the songwriter relies upon cumulative effect to debunk and demythologize most traditional beliefs. Tom Paxton in his song, "What Did You Learn in School Today" (1962), has his youthful narrator catalog a series of suspicious truisms that he learned in school such as Washington never lied, soldiers never die, everybody is free, justice never ends, the government is always right, and war is "not so bad." Similarly, Phil Ochs, in his "I Ain't Marchin' Any More" (1964)--a song similar in spirit to Dylan's "With God on Our Side"--catalogs the disastrous effects of wars throughout American history, showing in the process that all that heroism, all that we've "won with sabre and gun," was hardly worth it. And finally, in a rather oblique reference to our patriotic past, John Prine declared in the early seventies that "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You into Heaven Anymore." Once again, as with the notion of manifest destiny, the songwriter chooses to highlight the anomalous aspect of the mytheme, chooses to show that it is not grounded in reality and that to believe the myth is to believe in a falsehood. Nothing is holy now, including George Washington.

No comments: