After a year of Tennessee living, I continue to have mixed feelings about America as it is today. That statement isn’t directed at The Volunteer State in particular; it’s just that with defense spending out of control and with an ever-widening partisan divide, I cannot help but feel as if this nation of mine is falling woefully short of its potential for greatness.
Although I wasn’t alive at that time, it seems to me that America’s general fall from grace occurred during the late 1960’s, when we fought in the streets over the color of our skin while politicians escalated an overseas war that didn’t really concern them in the first place. And all of this not long after we lost a president, his brother, and a civil rights leader to assassins’ bullets.
In compiling a list of the ten best songs about “America,” I kept coming across several that were unflinching in their portraits of America coming apart at the seams. Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” comes to mind, as does “Let’s Get Together,” by the Youngbloods. Other, later songs echo the sentiment but update the anger to reflect the Iraq War and the big bank-orchestrated financial crash of 2008. I am thinking of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” by Bruce Springsteen, or of Neil Young’s damning “Let’s Impeach the President.” Even more songs pay tribute to our hardworking rail splitters and truck drivers. “Driving the Last Spike,” by Genesis, strikes a chord, as does “Cold Shoulder,” by Garth Brooks. Fortunately, there are fun songs about the American experience as well. These tunes, Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” and Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.,” to name just two, are not to be discounted.
So, with much to choose from, I’ve finally narrowed my list down to what I think are the top ten songs about America, warts and all (with YouTube links):
- “The Last Resort” by The Eagles: Not to be confused with the Papa Roach song of the same name, the Eagles-performed “The Last Resort” is perhaps the saddest, most honest song about the hollowing of the American dream. The piano-driven testimonial is about many things: westward expansion, the destruction of paradise, the forced submission of Native Americans, ugly suburban sprawl, and losing our souls along the way. Sad though the song may be, it is also a ballad of sublime beauty. A nine-minute ballad, at that. The superior version comes from their live album Hell Freezes Over, but alas, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, and Co. are insufferable cretins regarding the sharing of Eagles tunes on YouTube. They hold a special vindictiveness in their hearts over the posting of this song in particular. The link I’m posting surely won’t be up for long, so listen while you can. This sublime ballad is a work of art, and art should be free. Fuck you, Don Henley. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIfY39VX158
- “American Pie” by Don McLean: “American Pie” holds a special place in my heart. It was the most-played song at fraternity parties back the day – and I’m not talking about the forgettable Madonna version from the year 2000, nor am I referencing the radio-friendly 4:21 single. I’m referring to the original, 8:31 classic rock staple from 1971. At its most simplistic, the song is about the February 3rd, 1959 plane crash that took the lives of Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper. Their plane, as you probably know, was supposedly called the “American Pie.” But listening to lyrics about the jester on the sidelines, about books of Marx, and about playing dirges in the park, what is “American Pie” really about? Singer-songwriter Don McLean isn’t talking, but I believe it to be about a nation’s loss of innocence, with that plane crash paralleling race riots and the escalation of Vietnam. Goodbye, industrious 50’s and hello, turbulent 60’s. BTW, the YouTube video, in which McLean himself does not appear, ranks somewhere in between aged cheese and sheer brilliance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ih7N9_VUU4U
- “Driving the Last Spike” by Genesis: The American West wasn’t built on slave labor, but considering the horrifying conditions in which gold was mined and the rails were split – and when men literally worked until they dropped and cheap Chinese laborers out-worked us all – it sometimes felt as if though was. Prog rockers Genesis paid tribute to these workers with this 10:08 anthem, which appeared their 1991 album We Can’t Dance. I recently read that the song is actually a tribute to Britain’s rail splitters – and band members Tony Banks, Phil Collins, and Mike Rutherford all hail from England. Still, this song encompasses the experience of builders of the First Transcontinental Railroad, of laborers on Hoover Dam, of Empire State Building foremen…and it is as American as apple pie. “Driving the Last Spike” is an exhausting song, sung with passion; it’s no wonder that the band performed it live only once. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCbdmOdV–Y
- “America” by Simon and Garfunkel: With apologies to the Beatles, “America” may be the best song of the 1960’s. Simultaneously a love song, a protest song, and a song about lost souls wandering our lonely roads, its lyrics are simultaneously simple and enigmatic. The soprano sax in the background, so soft and subtle, is nonetheless as vital to the song’s endurance as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s harmonies. Although this beloved song often induces nostalgic smiles when heard on the radio, it is actually something of a bittersweet melody. The lyrics progress from “Let us be lovers/We’ll marry our fortunes together” in the first refrain to “I’m empty and aching/And I don’t know why” near the end. A bit of trivia: “Kathy” in the song is Kathy Chitty, Simon’s ex-girlfriend, who joined him on a five-day road trip across the Rust Belt of the U.S. following several months of cohabitation in the U.K. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W773ZPJhcVw
- “The Hands that Built America” by U2: I was outraged when U2’s haunting 2002 “The Hands that Built America,” featured in the closing credits of Martin Scorsese’s Irish immigrant drama Gangs of New York, lost the Oscar for Best Original Song to Eminem for “Lose Yourself.” Time has mellowed me – Eminem’s passionate rap song endures as a modern classic…but so does U2’s. Bono sings about how America has changed from a land of shepherds in stony fields to “hanging steel from the sky” to early fall (read: 9/11) and “innocence dragged across a yellow line.” What a long way we’ve come – for better and for worse. The link features an especially poignant rendition of the song, interspersed with clips from the film. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkajMup_Nqg
- “I’ve Been Everywhere” by Johnny Cash: This lively rockabilly ditty, one of the Man in Black’s biggest hits, is a simple but catchy tune about a seen-it-all hitchhiker who hops in the cab of his latest ride and regales the driver with alliterative tales of his travels across the Americas. The lyrics in the video link are not strictly necessary, but I like the evolving series of postcard shots. My favorite line: “Kalamazoo/Kansas City/Sioux City/Cedar City/Dodge City/what a pity.” Bonus: In much the same was as “We Didn’t Start the Fire” invigorated students with a love of history circa the late 1980’s, “I’ve Been Everywhere” could do the same for geography. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ov4epAJRPMw
- “Ghost of Tom Joad” by Bruce Springsteen: Soup and bread lines. Families sleeping in their cars. No, this isn’t the Great Depression or the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. As Springsteen warns in his introduction about “high times on Wall Street and hard times on Main Street,” and sings about the “new world order,” this is a scary time when men sleep in cardboard boxes or on pillows made of rock. The seminal version of this song was performed at the 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Concert, with Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine fame) joining The Boss for a truly unforgettable jam session. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-mq0uJ7rlM
- “Fortunate Son” by Credence Clearwater Revival: The shortest song on this list at just 2:21, CCR’s “Fortunate Son” is a vitriolic, accusatory calling out of phony patriots and hypocrites. The Southern rockers rage about how the haves want blood and war but insist that the have nots provide it. “I ain’t no Senator’s son, no,” lead singer John Fogerty complains. This song, added to the National Recording Registry in 2014 by the U.S. Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” has been featured in countless movies about Vietnam or about the 60’s in general. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40JmEj0_aVM
- “Dry County” by Bon Jovi: This could be the sister song to the aforementioned “Driving the Last Spike.” Bon Jovi’s 1992 album Keep the Faith spawned several hits, but this 9:46 epic downer was not one of them. No surprise, really. But unlike other songs on the album, “Dry County” endures. Jersey rocker Jon Bonjiovi sings about heartache and shattered dreams as he tries to earn a living in a drought-ridden Southwest desert town. “And no one’s gettin’ out of here aliveeeee,” he croons, which kicks off guitarist Richie Sambora’s incendiary solo. The solo starts at 4:40 but doesn’t kick into full gear until 6:00! Few artists write songs like this anymore. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jwa8OEW1smk
- “Sweet Home Chicago” by The Blues Brothers: With so many heavy songs on this list, I wanted to end on a lighter note, and with something regional or city-specific. There were many possibilities. “New York, New York” and “I Love L.A.” were both considered, but the former Illinoisan in me finally decided on “Sweet Home Chicago.” Not only is it a fun song, but it also has subtle hints of the blues, which Chicago is famous for. And dig those horns! That tenor sax! Of the countless renditions, I dig this rockin’ version by Jake and Elwood Blues the best. It’s 106 miles to Chicago. We’ve got a full tank of gas, half a packet of cigarettes, it’s drunk, and we’re wearing sunglasses. Hit it! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79vCiXg3njY
How did I do? What are you favorite songs about America? Let me and your fellow Loyal Readers know by leaving a comment below. Thanks!