James Leroy Wilson's blog

Friday, July 03, 2009

Shout out to the U.S.A. on Independence Day

In honor of my country, I'm presenting, for as long as they're not pulled from YouTube, ten songs about the American experience that seem to penetrate my blood and soul. In no particular order:

10. Jerry Orbach - "Try To Remember" from The Fantastiks


While a great song, this wouldn't be included here if not for September 11, 2001. My all-time favorite radio show, Chicago WFMT's Saturday Night folk show Midnight Special with Rich Warren played it as its first song after the infamous day. Hearing it in that context shook me to my bones. Though he's most famous for his role as Briscoe on Law & Order, I'll always associate Jerry Orbach with this Broadway song first.

9. Tennessee Ernie Ford: 16 Tons



8. Paul Robeson: Ol' Man River



I view the two songs above as two sides of the same coin. Most whites and an even greater proportion of African-Americans have been hard on their luck, even if from different causes. Subsequent folk, country, rock, and blues singers haven't really captured the experience the way Ford's and Robeson's voices can.

7. George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue



Not much I can say. You either listen to this and get it, or you don't. But just about anyone can tell it didn't come from a European composer.

6. Steve Goodman: City of New Orleans



Not kidding: every morning when I step outside and the sun is shining, my thought is, "Good morning America, how are you?" (I couldn't find Arlo Guthrie's studio version on Youtube, and am thankful I found a version from the original songwriter instead.)

5. Scott Joplin: The Entertainer - A Rag Time Two-Step



Music beyond religion, music beyond the concert and opera halls for the wealthy, music beyond the sentimental folks songs of hearth and home: music that makes you feel good just by listening to it. Should that even be legal?

4. Blood, Sweat, & Tears doing Laura Nyro's And When I Die



The harmonica, vocal, and brass evoke a sweeping portrait of the West and of the uneducated, down-home philosophies of the prospectors, cowboys, and other adventurers who conquered it.

3. Creedence Clearwater Revival: Down on the Corner



Could any British rocker have possibly composed and recorded this song? This is pure Americana.

2. 1776 Motion Picture: The Egg



If you're unfamiliar with the musical or movie 1776, order it immediately. You can't imagine what a close call the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence really were.

1. Carly Simon - Let The River Run



You may find the more majestic version by Carly Simon from the 1988 Working Girl soundtrack elsewhere. Having heard both, I appreciate both. I appreciate this song not because I believe that God has ordained America as the "New Jerusalem," but rather that the New Jerusalem is wherever human beings have been set free to build their silver cities.

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