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.
Paul Simon released his thirteenth solo album on June 3rd, a few months shy of his 75th birthday. “Wristband” was the first track released from the album, and here is what may have been the first performance of the song. It took place on A Prairie Home Companion backed by Chris Thile, Chris’ Punch Brothers outfit, and PHC regulars. Listen to all the lyrics, and you’ll be reminded that Simon remains one of our great social observers and poets.
Chris Thile, by the way, will become the new host of A Prairie Home Companion this October. He’ll take over from Garrison Keillor who hosted his final episode this week after 42 years at the helm of the live radio variety show he originated. Keillor could not have chosen anyone to bring better music and musicianship to the future of the show than Thile, and Chris has also shown he can keep the comedy flowing.
Paul Simon’s performance of “Wristband” took place on February 6th, the day before Superbowl 50. Enjoy Thile’s homage to Peyton Manning on the eve of the quarterback’s final performance.
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks recently released their sixth album, “Wig Out at Jagbags” to critical acclaim. Malkmus is an indie music fixture from California, heading up the band Pavement in the 1990s and The Jicks ever since. The new album features a broad range of sounds, including the very mellow track “J Smoov”.
The Norwegian duo, Kings of Convenience, have been releasing albums together for over a decade – though they’ve been lying low since touring in the summer of 2013. Their acoustic sound has a heavy dose of bossa nova guitar. Here is “Misread” from their second studio album “Riot on and Empty Street”. If you like this song, you won’t be disappointed with their other material. Try “Peacetime Resistance” from their third album “Declaration of Dependence”.
Rounding out this week’s mellow set is an old, lesser-known tune from a lesser-known album by Paul Simon, “Train in the Distance” from the 1983’s “Hearts and Bones”. The album came out in between “Still Crazy After All These Years” and “Graceland”, both of which won Grammy awards for Album of the Year. Thanks to Jess at pH Balanced (see our list of favorite blogs) for continuing to unearth these gems.