Despite myself, I am terribly sentimental about the Fourth of July. Without disrespecting anyplace else, it’s a singular privilege to live in this grand, glorious mess of a nation which is still, as far as I know, the only one built on an idea.
There are two things that make at least this American proud. One is the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics when after watching nation after homogeneous nation march by the US contingent rolls in, a fabulous mosaic of all the types of people who are just like the rest of us (only faster or stronger or more coordinated, it is the Olympics after all). The other is in the music this country produces, written and performed by the children, grandchildren and descendants of immigrants.
The Founders had the foresight to bestow on us a national holiday close to the summer solstice. So as we enjoy a long summer day let’s enjoy some of those tunes. There are, as usual, videos. The Spotify playlist at the end offers an expanded selection.
‘Summertime’ Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
From Pops’ opening trumpet blast all the way through to the coda I don’t know another version of this great Gershwin tune that haunts and uplifts so. (Fitzgerald hailed from Newport News, Virginia, Armstrong from New Orleans, Louisiana. The Gershwins were New Yorkers.)
‘Living in America’ James Brown
This 1980s made-for-Hollywood bit of fluff is admittedly lesser JB. And yet I think it perfectly captures the triumphalism of the moment and certainly of the Rocky franchise. (JB, as he liked to let everyone know, was from Augusta, Georgia.)
‘America‘ Rita Moreno and the cast of West Side Story
This mid-20th century retelling of Romeo and Juliet, put ethnic tensions between new immigrants and the previous generation at the center of the plot. Featuring Leonard Bernstein‘s score and Stephen Sondheim‘s lyrics, this song captures an optimism that is an ever dimming memory from my youth. (Rita Moreno is from Puerto Rico. Lenny hailed from Lawrence, Mass. and Sondheim is another native of New York.)
To me, Chuck Berry’s double stops are the sound of rock ‘n’ roll. Here, at the 60th birthday party Keith Richards threw for him, he shares the stage with my teenage heartthrob, Linda Ronstadt. (Chuck is a native of St. Louis, Missouri while Linda Ronstadt is a native of Arizona. Despite his best efforts, Keef is not American. )
‘Surfin’ USA’–The Beach Boys
Take Chuck Berry west to California, mix in a teen craze that was brought back from Hawaii and what do yo get? America’s answer to The Beatles, of course. Here Brian Wilson and company take us on a tour of the best spots to hang 10 in the American west. (The Wilson clan hails from Orange County in Southern California.)
‘Fourth of July’–Dave Alvin
I never pass up the chance to share this song which was originally recorded when Alvin was a member of X, the seminal LA Punk band. A masterpiece that has stood up to numerous reworkings over the years, here’s an ACL version with the steel amped up. (Dave Alvin is from Downey, CA.)
It’s possible to go on all day. The play list starts with the 6 songs above and also includes these songs (appropriate credits and geography noted):
‘Adeus America‘–Susannah McCorkle (A native of Berkelely, CA, McCorkle translated the lyrics of this Brazilian ode to the US)
‘American Music’-Violent Femmes (The band’s hometown is Milwaukee, Wisconsin.)
‘American Patrol’–Glenn Miller Orchestra (Miller was a native of Iowa.)
‘America the Beautiful’–Herb Ellis (A masterful jazz guitarist, Ellis is from Dallas, Texas)
‘American Music’–The Blasters. (Before the solo career and X, there were The Blasters, led by Dave Alvin.)
‘American Tune‘–Wille Nelson (Willie is 100% a Texan but the song was written by Paul Simon of Forest Hills, NY.)