October 4, 2007

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Various artists, Song of America
Split Rock Records / 31 Tigers, Sept. 18
With 50 songs on three discs, Song of America, a project conceived by Janet Reno and carried out by contemporary musicians, takes us symbolically through U.S. history from Chris Columbus to the present.

Disc 1 covers pre-Civil War America, opening with “Lakota Dream Song” and working its way through “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and other traditional songs to close with “Dixie’s Land.”

Disc 2 ranges from “John Brown’s Body” all the way to “Rosie the Riveter.” And Disc 3 has the post-WWII period, from the “Little Boxes” of 1950s suburbia to the 9/11 lament “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning,” written by Alan Jackson.

The songs are not presented in their original recorded versions. Had producer Ed Pettersen simply slapped together a copy of Stephen Stills singing “Ohio” and Springsteen doing “Streets of Philadelphia” and Jackson himself singing “Where Were You…,” the result would have been a compilation of snippets you can get elsewhere, a collage of newspaper clippings from various eras.

Instead, much to the listeners’ benefit, Pettersen has created a brand new work of art. This is a painting freshly made with today’s brushes and paints by today’s artists working from pictures taken in 1676 and 1858 and 1942 and 2001. With Song of America, we stand at our own vantage point and survey the landscape from 1492 to the present.

So “Streets of Philadelphia,” penned in 1993 by Bruce Springsteen, is sung by soul artist Bettye LaVette. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” is sung by Atlanta singer-songwriter Anthony David. Neil Young’s “Ohio” is covered by Ben Taylor. Nothing here is sung by its original writer or singer. Granted, that wasn’t an option with the first half of the songs anyway. No one was playing electric guitar when Yankee Doodle was first written — but in Harper Simon’s hands it sounds good with one.

Of course it’s dangerous to let newbies cover iconic songs. Pettersen took a risk and pulled it off beautifully. OK, The Del McCoury Band doesn’t do “The Times They Are A Changin’” as well as Dylan, but most of the covers are great and the 50 songs blend seamlessly into a two-hour whole.

Listen, and ponder how we progressed from the simple vocals and fiddles of colonial days to the smooth swing of “Rosie the Riveter.” It makes you wonder what the guys over on Disc 1 — the original writers and singers, the true “folk” of these folk songs — would think if you could drag them over to Disc 2 and play them “Rosie the Riveter,” or the exceedingly funky “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Song of America is perhaps the antithesis of American Idol. The focus is on the songs and their stories, not on the singers. There’s a relieving lack of grandstanding.

It’s worth Googling a lot of these titles. “The Old Woman Taught Wisdom” sounds like a shanty about a woman and her daughter, but is actually a parable about the relationship between Great Britain and the colonies from 1767. The “Declaration of Sentiments” was put forth by women’s rights activists in 1858; it’s the Declaration of Independence as viewed from their perspective. Here it’s spoken over the music of “America the Beautiful,” and Minton Sparks throws in a genuine ‘y’all’ that likely wasn’t in the original.

“The Great Atomic Power,” sung by The Louvin Brothers in 1952, here performed by Elizabeth Cook and The Grascals, asks if you are ready for the bombs to fall: “There is one way to escape it / Be prepared to meet the lord … Will you rise and meet your savior in the air? Will you shout or will you cry when the fire rains from on high?” It’s a peppy little number with a beat.

On Song of America, there are only 46 degrees of separation between pre-colonial America’s “Lakota Dream Song” and Shortee Wop rapping “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash. That step-by-step journey is filled with opportunities for reflection and enjoyment: “Home on the Range” sounding less hokey than it ever has; a fantastic lively ukulele version of “Stars & Stripes Forever.” The rock really starts with “Happy Days Are Here Again” by pop-gospel band Danielson. Andrew Bird’s “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm,” from 1919, sounds like it could be on the next Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack.

In the liner notes Petterson says, “It took over nine years from start to finish … It almost collapsed twice…. But it was worth every second and every single ounce of blood, sweat and tears. Just like this country.” The album ends with John Mellencamp singing “This Land Is Your Land,” nearly channeling the voice of Woody Guthrie himself. If you listen to Song the whole way through, that song at that point could very well give you chills.

The Center for American Music at University of Pittsburgh helped bring this project together. Check out www.voicesacrossamerica.org. ALisa Parsons