Saturday, September 29, 2007

Music Review: Song of America

This week’s Voices to Hear is going to be a bit different than pervious ones. Instead of one voice to highlight in this week’s column we’re going to talk about an entire album’s worth of voices. The album is Song of America and it features 50 artists different artists. (What? You didn’t think an album would have a MySpace page? Everyone and everything has a MySpace page nowdays.)

If you’ve heard of this album at all it’s due to the identity of the executive producer of the record, Janet Reno. Yes, that Janet Reno, the former Attorney General of the United States. Most of the press has focused on that point, which at least gives it a chance to get out there and maybe be heard.

The genesis of the album started ten years ago when Ed Petterson, a singer-songwriter from Brooklyn New York wrote a song about the American cowboy. He brought the song to his Aunt to listen to. His Aunt just happened to be Janet Reno. She liked the song, but suggested that he should go farther than just one song about one point in America’s history. She suggested that he record a collection of songs that would reflect American’s history.

What they ended up envisioning was a collection of songs that would trace the events that shaped our nation’s history. The album became a collection that could be used as a tool to help teach the youth of our country about their history through song. The album was divided into five broad themes from America’s history:
United We Stand, Divided We Fall
War and Peace
Families at Home and on the Move
Faith and Ideals

The performers interpreted these songs in their own style for the listeners of today. In some ways it was the same idea that was behind Wilco and Billy Bragg’s updating of Woody Guthrie song’s from Mermaid Avenue. They took the words but made the music their own.

The performers came from all sorts of musical genres. The album opens with a Lakota Indian song and ends with a Woody Guthrie song. To list all the performers on this album would stretch this column out too long, but such performers as The Blind Boys of Alabama, John Wesley Harding, Freedy Johnston, Marah, Janis Ian, Elizabeth Cook, John Mellencamp, Old Crow Medicine Show and a host of others. In keeping with the theme of this column almost all of the performers were not well known. John Mellencamp is probably the biggest name on the album.

The album is divided into three cds: red, white and blue. The red disc starts with songs from the American Revolution and each disc moves the songs through the history of our country. Some of the songs on these two discs you’ve probably heard a million times and may not have thought of since you were in school. Harper Simon (Paul Simon’s son) does a version of Yankee Doodle, The Mavericks do Dixie, Joni Harms does Home On The Range. The blue disc brings us up to the modern era and has songs that most listeners will be more familiar with, at least from radio. This disc has Kim Richey doing the Rascals “Get Together,” Anthony David doing Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” Martha Wainwright doing Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman.” Only one artist is represented by two songs on the album, Bruce Springsteen: Matthew Ryan does “Youngstown” and Bettye LaVette does “Streets of Philadelphia.”

This is one of those albums that I was absolutely fascinated with, after listening to it it will make you proud to be an American. And it does it without resorting to the sort of jingo posturing you usually find in these type of projects.

As one final note, with the kind permission of Miss Heather, I’m going to include two songs with this column. There was so much great stuff to chose from it was a really tough decision, but I went with both ends of the timeline. The first song is Harper Simon’s “Yankee Doodle” and the second song is a heart breaking rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” by Bettye LaVette. But I could have easily picked any of the other forty eight songs to showcase, they’re all that good.

Harper Simon "Yankee Doodle"

Bettye LaVette "Streets of Philadelphia"


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With a foot in the door, the first years of work were the time to
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