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.
On occasion a singer-songwriter becomes so identified with a song written by another singer-songwriter that the ownership of the song seems to transfer. This came to mind when John Prine passed away a couple of weeks ago. Early in her career, Bonnie Raitt made Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” her own. Enjoy this early performance by Bonnie and take a look at this poignant duet from just a few months ago.
Another classic example is Patti Smith’s version of “Because the Night”, written by Bruce Springsteen. You get the same feeling watching Patti and Bruce perform the song together that you do when watching Raitt and Prine – this is Patti’s song.
And then there’s Elvis Costello’s cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”. A Costello performance staple for decades, the history of the song is particularly interesting. Lowe originally released it with his band Brinsley Schwarz in 1974. Lowe became Costello’s producer a couple of years later, working on his first five albums, and Costello’s version of the song was first released as the B-side of a Nick Lowe 1978 single. When it became a hit, the track was added to the American release of Armed Forces. Lowe generally performs softer acoustic versions of the song these days, but when he gets on stage with Elvis, it’s the Costello version they’ll do (drop into this video at 3:00). Enjoy Costello’s comic intro below, or go straight to the song at about 1:00.
Last week we scoured a concert series poster from Stockholm and came up with a Stevie Ray Vaughn tribute singer/player covering Stevie Ray’s version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” – a song that Jimi Hendrix himself played in Stockholm in 1969. This week, more covers by acts on this poster trace back to Bruce Springsteen in 1979.
Abalone Dots is a trio of three Swedish women who play bluegrass and country tunes. Last year in a TV performance, the band covered Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” from his 1980 album of the same name. Abalone Dots delivered an abbreviated version, but they sang the lyrics straight up: getting Mary pregnant, working construction and all. Bravo ladies! The band has been a quartet at times, and if you’d like to hear them get their bluegrass on, check out “The Ballad of Lee McKay”.
Believe it or not, another artist on this same poster covered “The River” on a TV show last year too! Micke Rickfors is The Boss’ contemporary, born in December 1948. Though mostly a solo artist throughout his career, Rickfors was a member of The Hollies in the early ’70’s, replacing their original lead singer Allan Clarke. After you watch Micke perform another abbreviated version of “The River”, you can check out his work with The Hollies on “Magic Woman Touch”.
It’s not clear why the Swedes have such affection for “The River”, but while the song never charted as a single in the U.S. it was the biggest hit up to that time for Bruce in both Sweden and Norway. Here is Bruce playing the whole song at the “No Nukes” concert in 1979, a few months before the album was released. The Swedes leave out the break with perhaps the best line in the song, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse …”
“Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne” was released in April. The two disk set features a dazzling array of artists including the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett, Keb’ Mo’ and Bruce Springsteen. But honestly, doing Jackson Browne songs anywhere near as well as Jackson Browne is tough even for these titans. So, covers of lesser known songs are among the most enjoyable. Two tracks from Browne’s fourth album “The Pretender” get that treatment: Sara and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek covering “Your Bright Baby Blues”, and Springsteen accompanied by his wife, Patti Scialfa, covering “Linda Paloma”.
Just last week a 40th Anniversary Reissue of Browne’s third album “Late for the Sky” was released. We featured the title track from that album in an earlier post, so here’s “The Late Show” which provides the “early model Chevrolet” lyric that ties to the album’s cover art. The song has all the ingredients: deep lyrics, pure Jackson Browne voice, beautiful vocal harmonies and David Lindley steel guitar, found in so much of Browne’s work.