Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Tale Of Two Alternative Anthems

Part 1 Of A Series Of 6
Highway 101 Crossing The Border:

American Flag
Hello everyone. Our virtual wait in line to cross the border back into the USA continues, as we leave Tijuana Mexico and re-enter the USA. Last week we looked a little bit at our national anthem.We had a variety of interpretations to consider. Lets face it, though, the Star Spangled Banner is a difficult song to sing and many renditions end up sounding more like the Star Mangled Banner.  There are several songs that have been written since then that are more easily sung. These serve as sort of unofficial national anthems. A great example of this is "God Bless America".

America the Beautiful was written by Irving Berlin, composer of such other songs as Alexander's Ragtime Band, Easter Parade, White Christmas, and There's No Business Like Show Business. He originally composed the song in 1918 while serving the U.S. Army at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York. At the time he didn't find it suitable for use and he shelved it. In 1938, with the rise of Hitler and European fascism occurring, he went back to fine tune the "peace song" for an Armistice Day radio program to be sung by Kate Smith. It would become her signature number.

In 1943 the song was used with other of Berlin's patriotic songs in the film This Is The Army. In a gesture of patriotism, Berlin donated all proceeds from the song to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America. An easy to sing song, with a religious connection  that allowed it to be sung as church hymn has kept the song in the American songbook as a very popular alternative to the Star Spangled Banner.  I have a copy of the song from a CD collection called The Great Entertainers. It is the first track we are adding to the playlist today. The CD my version is from is not being sold any more but Kate Smiths Greatest Hits offers the download

  • God Bless America     The Great Entertainers     Kate Smith, and Jack Miller Orchestra     2:43

As fan of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey club the song has its own special attraction to me. When I hear it being played before a game I know the game will be huge. And my team will likely win. I'll let Wikipedia tell the story...
Philadelphia Flyers
Philadelphia Flyers Hockey

When the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team played Smith's rendition of "God Bless America" before their game on December 11, 1969, an unusual part of her career began. The team began to play the song before home games every once in a while; the perception was that the team was more successful on these occasions, so the tradition grew.
At the Flyers' home opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs on October 11, 1973, she made a surprise appearance to perform the song in person and received a tremendous reception. The Flyers won that game by a 2-0 score. She again performed the song at the Spectrum in front of a capacity crowd of 17,007 fans before Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals on May 19, 1974 against the Boston Bruins. Boston's forward, Phil Esposito, infamously tried to jinx the Flyers' "good luck charm" by presenting her with a bouquet of roses after her performance. The Flyers won their first of two back-to-back Stanley Cups, winning that playoff series against the Boston Bruins 4 games to 2, with Bernie Parent shutting the Bruins out 1-0 in that game.
Smith also performed live at Flyers home games on May 13, 1975, when the Flyers beat the New York Islanders 4-1 to win Game 7 of the Stanley Cup semi-finals., and on May 16, 1976, before Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals, when the Flyers lost to the Montreal Canadiens 5-3 and were swept in that series.
The Flyers' record when "God Bless America" is played or sung in person stands at a remarkable 94 wins, 26 losses, and 4 ties as of April 26, 2011.[4] Smith and her song remain a special part of Flyers' history. In 1987, the team erected a statue of Smith outside their arena at the time, the Spectrum, in her memory. The Flyers still show a video of her singing "God Bless America" in lieu of "The Star Spangled Banner" for good luck before important games. The video of her performance is now accompanied by Lauren Hart, daughter of the late Hockey Hall of Fame broadcaster, Gene Hart, longtime voice of the Flyers, and anthem singer for the Flyers. Before games whenever God Bless America is performed, Lou Nolan, the PA announcer for the Flyers at Wells Fargo Center would say: "Ladies and gentlemen, at this time, we ask that you please rise and remove your hats and salute to our flags and welcome the number 1 ranked anthemist in the NHL, Lauren Hart, as she sings (if the visiting team is from Canada, O Canada (or Canadian national anthem) followed by) God Bless America, accompanied by the great Kate Smith."[5]
This CBC footage from the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs is typical of how it is performed before big Flyer games. 

Of course, there are some fans who don't like the old clips of the song and mocking deride it saying, "it ain't started' til the fat lady sings. Yes, we have some classy members in the "Philly Faithful" fan base. There is another person who did not like the song when it came out. That person was named Woody Guthrie.

Woody Guthrie is a legendary figure in American folk music. He was an admirable man in many ways, but he was flawed as well. Born in Okemeh, OK in 1912, his childhood started off in the prosperous boom of the early 20th century in Oklahoma, but things unraveled quickly. His sister was burned to death in coal fire in their home when he was 7. His father, who was also severely burned in another coal  fire, lost his wealth in failed land deals and his mother, who suffered from Huntington's Disease, was drifting into dementia. She would be institutionalized when Woody was 18. It is also speculated that she had a hand in the tragic fires that kept affecting the Guthrie family.
Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie

Woody was naturally gifted as a folk artist. He could draw and paint well enough to sell his work commercially. He had learned to play the guitar and harmonica, having an ability to play play by ear tunes that he had heard. Woody also had a gift for writing new words for the old folk tunes he would strum. He did some busking and side jobs painting signs in Pamas Texas where his father was trying to work out some land deals to get back on his feet. Woody married at 19, and was soon to join the stream of refugees from Oklahoma on Route 66, leaving his wife and daughter in Texas to fend for themselves until he could start sending them money from California. He made a habit the rest of his life of leaving situations to try other avenues that is admirable in its ambition, but irresponsible to those left behind.

In Los Angeles, he gained his initial fame working on the Lefty Lou radio program on progressive radio station KFVD in Southern California. It was during this time that many of his famous dust bowl ballads were written and fist performed such as "Oklahoma Hills", "Do-Re-Mi", "I Ain't Got No Home", and "Pretty Boy Floyd". It was also during this time that he became interested in the labor movement. The mistreatment of so many of the dust bowl refugees allowed international communist groups to gain traction with many of the refugees with its promise of fair treatment for the working man. Woody began to work writing articles for the Communist newspaper Peoples World.  His politics would make him loved as a sympathist to the lower class, and despised later in an era of rising anti-communism.

Woody was a controversial figure. I have a lot of respect for him. His neglect of his family at a moments notice to pursue adventure and opportunity I find fairly deplorable, but I honor his ambition and loyalty to the cause he embraced. Was he right about those causes? History has proven that communism, while a lovely utopian ideal, just doesn't work with the inherent flaws of human nature. So he was wrong about that. But it hadn't proved to be a failure at the time Woody was embracing the ideology, so I am forgiving of his communism.

Back to our story, when Irving Berlins' "God Bless America" came it out it immediately became popular and with the onset of World War II was all over the radio at the time. Woody that the the song was trite and sentimental and over simplified the problems facing the world, or ignored them altogether.  Woody's song took the Berlins style of listing out the varied features and geography that make up the US. Instead of calling for Gods blessing, Woody celebrates the blessing that we have. His original line "God blessed America for me" he would rewrite to become "This land was made for and me".

No Trespassing Sign
The Controversial Notion
Like the Berlin song had been put on shelf, Woody would shelve his song for four years before finally publishing it. Unlike "America The Beautiful" which had a sudden introduction and immediate success, "This Land Is Your Land" sort of simmered. Woody would play it live but at the time he was under increased criticism for his communist beliefs and he was performing generally at events and meetings in support of leftist causes. However, during the folk music revival of the early 1960's the song was discovered by the youthful folk scene and covered by many artists. In a lot of ways, "This Land Is Your Land" could be a great national anthem. However, like Woody himself, the song has its flaws. There were two verses that were included in the original writing of the song that Woody sometimes performed that are often left off of many renditions. In the 4th verse he criticizes private property, championing communist values.
     As I went walking I saw a sign there
    And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
    But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
    That side was made for you and me.
In the 6th verse he rebukes the US government, as well as the churches, ineffectiveness at providing a safety net against poverty.
    In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
    By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
    As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
    Is this land made for you and me? 
These controversial stances insure that "This Land Is Your Land" will likely never be the national anthem. I wish it would though. Really, what is worse, sympathy with idealism in communist propaganda or the militarism and celebration of war that is our current anthem?

That is really more than enough about my personal philosophical and political viewpoints. We are here for music and I have several versions of "This Land is your Land" to add to our playlist. The first version is from Woody Guthrie and it was found in my collection as a track on the Ultimate Grammy Box. That set is not available for download, but I have this version from  The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1-4. The video is a collection of shots from the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemeh, OK:
  • This Land Is Your Land     Ultimate Grammy Box     Woody Guthrie     2:18

One of Woody Guthrie's best friends and musical collaborators was Pete Seeger who partnered with Guthrie in the Almanac Singers and like Guthrie faced McCarthyist blacklisting. My copy was included as bonus track on the CD Pete Seeger's Greatest Hits. For some reason the track is not listed on
the mp3 version of the album, so I offer a download link from Pete Seeger Sings Woody Guthrie.
  • This Land Is Your Land     Pete Seeger's Greatest Hits     Pete Seeger     3:01

The next version of "This Land Is Your Land" is from Tennessee Ernie Ford. I got it as party of a 4th of July mix disc titled  Rudy presents... Let Freedom Ding. The disc is no longer being offered for download but I did find a version of Tennessee Ernie Ford doing the song that you can download.
  • This Land Is Your Land     Rudy presents... Let Freedom Ding     Tennessee Ernie Ford

In spite of the controversy I mentioned, the song has become a beloved patriotic anthem. Especially when the controversial verses are left out. Even the conservative Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform the song. My version is from a collection from Readers Digest called A Celebration Of Great American Favorites. Naturally the CD is not available for mp3 download but I have found you an alternate version. The video is a performance with The Air Force reserve Band.
  • This Land Is Your Land     A Celebration Of Great American Favorites    Mormon Tabernacle Choir     3:06

During the folk music revival, one of the acts that did the most popularize Woody's song was Peter, Paul and Mary. My version is from an later greatest hits kind of release called Around The Campfire. The video from their 25th Anniversary concert is from the same era.
  • This Land Is Your Land     Around The Campfire     Peter, Paul & Mary

The next version of "This Land Is Your Land" is from the concert A Tribute To Woody Guthrie. I love this album! Shortly after Woody's death a memorial concert was held that attracted a who's who of folk artists that offered their heartfelt tribute in performing his songs. The close to the album is our song being peformed by Odetta, Woody Guthrie's son, and folk hero in  his own right, Arlo Guthrie, with narration and participation from the ensemble of gathered artists. You can't get the song alone on mp3. You have to download the album. If you do, I suspect you will enjoy it.
  • This Land Is Your Land/Narration     A Tribute To Woody Guthrie     Odetta, Arlo Guthrie And Company    2:55

My next version of "This Land Is Your Land" is from a Smithsonian Folkways release by folk singer Oscar Brand. He performs the campaign song of every president in US history up until its release date in 1996. Interestingly, George H Bush used this song as his campaign song. Much like Reagan did not realize the lyrical implications of "Born In The USA", I suspect Bush must have somehow overlooked the communist associations  of the song, since he was such a famous Cold War figure.
  • This Land Is Your Land: George Bush     Presidential Campaign Songs  1789-1996  Oscar Brand 1:31
Neil Young brings us to nearly the present with his rendition from his 2012 album Americana with Crazy Horse.
  •  This Land Is Your Land     Americana     Neil Young & Crazy Horse     5:26

There is another version that I realized I need to upgrade in my collection. I have it on cassette and it is destined to be on the list. It is by Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper from their album "Root Hog or Die"
  •  This Land Is Your Land     Root Hog Or Die     Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper     5:46

Bobby Bare brings us full circle with his song "God Bless America Again". The video is a 9/11 Tribute backed by his song.
  •  God Bless America Again     The Essential Bobby Bare     Bobby Bare     2:49

Well, that allowed some to kill some time as we sit in virtual traffic on our virtual journey across the border from Tijuana, Mexico to the USA and old Highway 101. There is another alternative anthem worthy of mention as well and we will talk about that song next week. Don't forget to stop by on Saturday when we will continue to explore the music of the city of Chicago.Thanks for joining me and until we meet again, stay musical my friends.

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