“Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation”
By Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw
Random House. 320 pp. $30.00
At a rally in Hammonton, New Jersey, during his 1984 reelection campaign, in a moment that will live in stump speech infamy, Ronald Reagan offered words of praise for native son Bruce Springsteen. “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts,” Reagan said. “It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.”
Reagan had likely been alerted to Springsteen’s existence via conservative writer George F. Will, who had written in The Washington Post earlier in the week about a Springsteen concert he had recently attended. Will wasn’t sure where the then-circumspect Springsteen stood politically, but “he is no whiner.
During a concert in Pittsburgh a few days later, Springsteen spoke up in protest, wondering which of his albums was Reagan’s favorite. “The White House later offered up ‘Born to Run,’” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham in his new book, “Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation,” “but no one really believed it.”
Reagan’s real musical allegiance may have been to another 1984 hit, “God Bless the U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood, the Vegas lounge singer who became a country hitmaker. The song, now a conservative standby, was played at the Republican National Convention a few weeks earlier.
Though The Boss/Reagan dust-up seems quaint now, Springsteen’s howl of post-Vietnam disaffection and rage and Greenwood’s floridly patriotic anthem both endure as lasting symbols of the early Reagan era. It’s a theme that plays out throughout Meacham’s book, written with country star Tim McGraw. Songs frame our national difficulties, show us ourselves and often serve as soldiers in a cultural proxy war.
“Songs of America” is a history primer that emphasizes music’s role as both a reflection of social change and its instrument. “Songs make history,” writes Meacham, quoting Irving Berlin, “and history makes songs.” While some periods in American history, like the civil rights era, are brimming with inspiration, others were decidedly less musical, and “Songs of America” can go long stretches without mentioning songs at all. It appears there we re precisely zero catchy tunes inspired by suffragists, for example, and the Great War was slow going.
McGraw is at his best when unraveling the technical aspects of a song — how difficult it is to sing, how its arrangement contributes to its emotional force. “Songs of America” does its best work when uncovering lesser-known figures.
Meacham is an unshowy and empathetic writer. To him, our American songbook, in all its sprawling messiness, unites more than it divides. If “we share music, we might just shout in anger a little less and sing in unity a bit more,” he writes. “Or so we can hope.”