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'There Is A Soundtrack To Our Aspirations': How Music Has Shaped American History

"Songs Of America: Patriotism, Protest, And The Music That Made A Nation," by Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation," by Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
This article is more than 3 years old.

From the Colonial era to the civil rights movement to modern times, music has played a role in stirring Americans to both act and reflect.

Historian Jon Meacham and country music star Tim McGraw have traced the history of the U.S. through music in their new book, "Songs of America."

Meacham (@jmeacham) and McGraw (@TheTimMcGraw) — who also happen to be neighbors in Nashville — are on a book tour, with McGraw performing some of the songs they've written about. Meacham says for all the time he's spent in his career digging deep into American history, he hadn't put much thought into the way music is woven into that history. Then McGraw brought it up one day.

"Tim asked me a really good question, which was, given the years of history that I've written about, had I ever thought about the role music played in them? And honestly I hadn't," Meacham says. "And so that was the beginning of this particular journey."

Tim McGraw (left) and Jon Meacham co-wrote the new book "Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation." (Danny Clinch/Courtesy of Penguin Random House)
Tim McGraw (left) and Jon Meacham co-wrote the new book "Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation." (Danny Clinch/Courtesy of Penguin Random House)

One piece of music explored in the book is "Dixie," the controversial 19th-century song that came to be known as an anthem of the South. Its racist origins — it was originally written for white men to sing while in blackface, Meacham says — have forced Southerners like McGraw and Meacham to grapple with its role in Southern culture.

"I'm a Southern white kid who grew up in Louisiana, and I grew up in the middle of cotton fields. Cotton fields were the lifeblood of my community," McGraw says. "And as I got older and you hear more of what the history of the song is, then your head kicks in and your brain kicks in and you clearly realize what that song's about, so it changes your perspective on it for sure. We perform the song in the show, but we do it in a different way."

Meacham says working on the book taught him something new about American history.

"Music celebrates and critiques, and what you see in the music again and again — and I didn't appreciate this until we did this, to be very clear — is there is a soundtrack to our history," he says. "There is a soundtrack to our aspirations."

Interview Highlights

On the "Liberty Song," written in 1768, and how it compares with another from that period, "The Rebels"

Tim McGraw: " 'The Liberty Song' ... is probably one of the most fascinating songs to me, certainly because it goes back so far as written in 1768 by one of our Founding Fathers, John Dickinson. It was written eight years before the Declaration of Independence, and it had a real prescient view of what he thought our country could be and what it could become and what it could mean for future generations, which was incredible. There's a line in that song: 'Our children shall inherit the fruits of our pain.'

"And then 'The Rebels,' it's something that could really anger you, the way it was written and what it was talking about. It taunted the colonists. So the push and the pull and the rub, it gives you a real reflection on what was going on at the time and how that propelled things forward and how that propelled people to think and take action."

"Music celebrates and critiques, and what you see in the music again and again ... is there is a soundtrack to our history. There is a soundtrack to our aspirations."

Jon Meacham

On hearing these songs as a historian

Jon Meacham: "The raw materials of history are the letters of an era, the newspapers of an era. I just hadn't thought enough about, 'What was the music they were singing?' We talked about 'The Rebels' versus 'The Liberty Song,' 20, 25% or so of the country remained loyalist. So that was the division there. You go to the songs of the enslaved, you go to 'Dixie' versus 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' — there's no more vivid manifestation of what Lincoln called 'the fiery trial' than those two songs.

" 'Dixie' was written for blackface minstrel singers in New York City, and believe me, we're two white Southerners, and there are a lot of folks who do not know that history. If you understand that 'Dixie' was written for a white guy pretending to be a black man singing nostalgically for enslavement, that puts that song exactly where it should be, which is in a place where it was a manifestation of the worst part of American history — one of the original sins. The original sins of American history are Native American removal and African American slavery.

"And then, the 'Battle Hymn' is written by Julia Ward Howe in one night. The first time Lincoln heard it, he simply said, 'Sing it again.' And I think you hear the tension, you hear the struggle for liberty and you hear the Southern struggle to avoid and run away from modernity. You hear all of that in those songs in a way that I find incredibly affecting, not just as a Southerner but as a historian."

On the complexities of performing "Dixie" as part of the book tour

McGraw: "We wanted to attack it in a different way. Mickey Newbury put together a trilogy of 'Dixie,' 'Battle Hymn of the Republic' and 'All My Trials,' which is an old Bahamian lullaby. And 'All My Trials' at the end really provides a perfect resolution to both of those songs, and that's the way we approach it live."

On music's capacity to spark reflection and action

Meacham: "This agency question about to what extent does it reflect and to what extent does it shape somebody like [Democratic Congressman] John Lewis, we interviewed him for the book, and Congressman Lewis said he couldn't imagine the civil rights movement without its music, that it wasn't music that made Rosa Parks do what she did on the 1st of December 1955. But that music once it happened kept those unimaginably young and brave folks moving through the storms of trying to apply Jefferson's sentence that we are all created equal more fully. And according to Congressman Lewis, to me the most vivid moment where the powerless intersected with the powerful to move us forward came in March of 1965, when Lyndon Johnson, after the violence at Selma and Bloody Sunday, a week later goes to the Congress and says, 'And we shall overcome.' And Congressman Lewis described sitting with Dr. [Martin Luther] King in a living room in Selma, and both of them crying as the mantra of a movement became the mantra of a president."

On the capacity for music's meaning to change and adapt over time

McGraw: "I think music throughout can also always be appropriated for different causes, and lyrically what it says in the content that the music has. And sometimes like I said, we don't know that till years later when someone discovers a song and uses it for a different reason."

Meacham: " 'Lift Every Voice and Sing,' one of great examples, became the anthem of the NAACP, becomes what was called 'the Negro National Anthem,' marvelous scholarship on this written by James Weldon Johnson. That has been lifted, not just to lift a heart in a moment, but to lift a country for an age. And that's what this great music does."

Book Excerpt: 'Songs Of America'

by Tim McGraw and Jon Meacham

In the beginning were the words—the stately rhythms of the Declaration of Independence, the passionate eloquence of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the steady notes of the constitution. All men, Thomas Jefferson asserted, were created equal, with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In building such a nation—a new thing under the sun, founded on an idea, not on brute strength—we, in Paine’s stirring prose, had it in our power to begin the world over again. And that enterprise, an endless odyssey, would, as the constitution’s preamble put it, have a central, consuming aim: a more perfect union.

History isn’t just something we read; it’s also something we hear. We hear the musketry on the green at Lexington and Concord and the hoofbeats of Paul Revere’s midnight ride. We hear the moans of the wounded and of the dying on the fields of Antietam and of Gettysburg, the quiet clump of the boots of Grant and Lee on the porch steps of Wilmer McLean’s house at Appomattox—and the crack of a pistol at Ford’s Theatre. We hear the cries of the enslaved, the pleas of suffragists, the surf at Omaha Beach. We hear a sonorous president, his voice scratchy on the radio, reassuring us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself; and we hear another president, impossibly young and dashing, his breath white in the inaugural air, telling us to ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country. And we hear the whoosh of helicopters in the distant jungles of Southeast Asia and the baritone of a minister, standing before the Lincoln Memorial, telling us about his dream.

Such are the sounds of our history, whispers from the American pageant. They are glimpses and glimmers from our common story, a story of promises made and broken, of reform and reaction—a story fundamentally shaped by the perennial struggle between what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” and our worst impulses. That’s the stuff of the story of the past, which, as William Faulkner observed, is never dead; it isn’t even past. Nor is history a fairy tale or a bedtime lullaby. There was never a once-upon-a-time and there will never be a happily-ever-after. There is, though, the wonderfully American drama of seeking to ensure that hope can overcome fear, that light can triumph over darkness, that we can open our arms rather than clench our fists.

And through it all, through all the years of strife, we’ve been shaped not only by our words and our deeds but by our music, by the lyrics and the instrumentals that have carried us through dark days and enabled us to celebrate bright ones.

The paramount role of music in life and in the lives of nations has the deepest of roots. Plato and Aristotle wrote of its centrality to the formation of noble human souls and of civilized society; Newton and Shakespeare saw the universe in terms of the harmony—or disharmony—of the spheres; and in the eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment, the Scottish writer and politician Andrew Fletcher brilliantly linked music and civic life, writing, “I knew a very wise man . . . [who] believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.” George Washington, for one, understood something of this. In his General Orders to the Continental Army for Wednesday, June 4, 1777—long years of war lay in front of him and of his men—he wrote, “Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music; every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it.”

From Lexington and Concord to Fort Sumter, from Seneca Falls to Selma, from Normandy to Vietnam to 9/11, the American story can seem straightforward. The truth, however, is vastly more complex, and one way to gain a fuller understanding of our confounding nation is to explore the music of patriotism, which is also, inevitably, the music of protest. To us, patriotism celebrates and commemorates; protest critiques and corrects. The two are inextricably intertwined and are as vital to each other as wings to a bird, for the nation cannot soar without both.

A true patriot salutes the flag but always makes sure it’s flying over a nation that’s not only free but fair, not only strong but just. History and reason summon us to embrace love and loyalty—to a citizenship that seeks a better world, calls on those better angels, and fights for better days. What, really, could be more patriotic than that? What, in the end, could be more American?

To Jefferson himself, the author of our Founding prose hymn, music offered a window into human nature. In his literary commonplace book, Jefferson transcribed these lines from a version of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:

The Man who has not Music in his Soul,
Or is not touch’d with Concord of sweet Sounds,
Is fit for Treasons, Stratagems, & Spoils,
The Motions of his Mind are dull as Night,
And his Affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such Man be trusted.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest.”

That’s our mission now: to hear the music that has lifted us from danger, kept us together amid tragedy, united us anew in triumph, and urged us on toward justice. From our earliest times to our latest, we hear not only the spoken but the sung word, and the music of the nation reminds us where we’ve been, who we are—and what we can become.

From SONGS OF AMERICA by Jon Meacham & Tim McGraw, published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Alex Ashlock produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna and Tinku Ray. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on June 13, 2019.

Lisa Mullins Twitter Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.



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