As we step back from our usual flag-waving, fireworks-filled celebrations of America, this year’s subdued Fourth of July feels appropriate as we question the functioning of our nation and how its promise has gone unfulfilled for so many after twelve score and four years. The tension between America’s promise and reality has been explored in some great music.
Of his song “American Tune”, Paul Simon said, “I don’t write overtly political songs, although ‘American Tune’ comes pretty close.” Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on, I wonder what’s gone wrong. I can’t help but wonder, what’s gone wrong. Here’s a live performance recorded a couple of years after the song’s 1973 release.
An iconic song about the reality of America, in this case from the perspective of Vietnam veterans, is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”. The anthemic chorus contrasted with the story line reminds you of why Springsteen is for many of us, America’s true poet laureate.
Jimi Hendrix was the final performer at Woodstock on the morning of August 18, 1969. His set included a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” which drew controversy, as it wove sounds of sirens, explosions, wails of pain and a few bars of “Taps” into the national anthem. Performed during one of the most turbulent eras in America’ history, it’s hard to imagine an instrumental performance delivering more complex meaning.
A more recent take on America’s promise vs. reality is Rihanna’s 2015 “American Oxygen”. Written by an international collaboration of artists from the U.S., Great Britain, and South Africa, along with Barbadian Rihanna, it is regarded that she brought to the song a mix of hurt and hope from the perspective of a black woman come to America. Here she is performing it on Saturday Night Live.