July 4, 2021
Puzzling out whether it should be 60 or 100 degrees on the eve of Independence Day seems about as fruitless a task as figuring out whether the country can make it five more years to celebrate its 250th birthday.
But I’m not letting myself give in to despair because, as always, I find some hope and the glimmer of salvation in “that crazy sound right from the USA.” American music, like the nation itself, is a sprawling mess that can frustrate or delight.
This year, as I thought about those polarities and the state of our land, I found myself thinking more and more about a band that practically invented the sprawling mess. Even as they married communitarianism and commerce, independence and iconography the Grateful Dead managed to teach an important lesson.
I’m hardly advocating arhythmic, Snoopy dancing, patchouli oil and the occasional hallucinogenic experience as a cure for what ails us. But whatever you think of the band, the band thought that American music embodied everything great about our imperfect, always busy being born nation.
It’s right there in the discography and the setlists. You could get a worse musical education than listening to the Dead and foregoing tape trading to follow the trails of the songs they played but didn’t write.
This year’s Spotify playlist offers a start. Every one of these songs is as American as apple pie and was played by the band at some point. With one exception, every performer and all the songwriters are American. You could look it up; I did.
Happy 245th birthday to us.
Dancing in the Streets, Martha and the Vandellas (1964)
I don’t know if Berry Gordy set out to create ‘The Sound of Young America’ or just make some money when he started Motown, but he managed to do both. My youth was punctuated with Motown songs emanating from a 5-inch dashboard speaker or a tinny transistor radio on the beach. And there is no better summertime travelogue to kick off the fun than Martha Reeves and her companions ode to urban rug cutting.
Big River, Johnny Cash (1958)
We live in a world of national markets but for a long time, and until not that long ago, music was in large part regional. So travelogue songs were a great way to garner airplay outside the home area. Here one of country music’s greats takes us on a boom-chicka trip down the Big Muddy.
Iko Iko, The Dixie Cups (1965)
Head down the river and you end up in New Orleans, maybe the most unique city in the USA. More great music has poured out of the Crescent City than probably any similar-sized town and it’s arguably the birthplace of America’s greatest homegrown form: Jazz. Here, a trio of locals tells you a Mardi Gras story. (The playlist contains the original single.)
Man Smart, Harry Belafonte (1956)
The Gulf of Mexico acts as a sort of back door to the Caribbean. So the music of the islands landed in ports all around the Gulf as well as in East Coast cities where it was bound to be discovered by adventurous locals. Case in point, the 1956 album of Calypso songs recorded by Harlem‘s Harry Belafonte. (The playlist contains the original single.)
Okie from Muskogee, Merle Haggard & The Strangers (1969)
You could, without much trying, find the roots of today’s culture wars in the 1960s. My personal belief is that the one-two punch of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War knocked an entire cohort on its heels. And this 1969 hit–a song which celebrates “living right and being free” as opposed to “smok[ing] marijuana” and “taking trips on LSD”–sums it all up, making its adoption by a band that genuinely loved Merle more than a little ironic. Here, another national treasure joins Merle in a more recent rendition. (The playlist contains the original single.)
American Music, The Blasters (1981)
The only song on this list never played by the Dead, I bet they’d be on board with the sentiments expressed. The Downey, California-based Blasters offered their own, harder-rocking stew of American music than their laid-back, upstate confreres, but the love was no less great and, with Lee Allen in the band, the acts was a bit more inclusive. This 1985 version, without Mr. Lee, is pretty standard.
VIDEO BONUS AND PLAYLIST
US Blues, Grateful Dead (1974)
You didn’t think I’d let you escape without the band that started this line of thought, did you? Here, from their 1974 movie, you can have the whole experience without the hassles in about five minutes.
Dancing in the Street, Martha and the Vandellas
The Sidewalks of New York, Duke Ellington
Zip a Dee Doo Dah, Louis Armstrong
Big River, Johnny Cash
New Orleans, Gary US Bonds
Iko Iko, The Dixie Cups
Alabama Bound, Leadbelly
Parchman Farm, Mose Allison
K.C. Moan, Dave Van Ronk
The Mighty Quinn, Manfred Mann
River Deep, Mountain High, Ike & Tina Turner
Man Smart–Harry Belafonte
Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu, Huey “Piano” Smith
Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Steve Goodman
Okie from Muskogee, Merle Haggard and the Strangers
The Race is On, George Jones
Promised Land, Chuck Berry
Will the Circle be Unbroken, The Staple Singers
You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man, Loretta Lynn
Beat it on Down the Line, Budd Kind
US Blues, Grateful Dead
American Music, The Blasters