Tag Archives: American Tunes

American Tunes: “Immigrants (We Get The Job Done)”

[Editor’s Note: American Tunes is a series of posts dedicated to songs that address America’s social and political challenges. For more information on the series, click here.]

For the first few years of my writing this blog (from 2011 to 2014, to be exact), my 4th of July tradition involved posting a rework of the Night Before Christmas poem that talked about trying to find the perfect music to accompany Independence Day celebration, and why K’Naan’s “Wavin’ Flag” fit the bill so well. Here’s a snippet:

And then in the very last place I would look —
the perfectest verse with perfectest hook!
But this just can’t be — a song for the 4th
that’s sung by K’naan, our friend from the north?!?
That’s right — he’s Canadian! Somalian too,
his formative days spent in Mogadishu.
But being a foreigner shouldn’t detract
from the fact that his song “Wavin’ Flag” is jam packed
with the message we’re coming together to send:
That freedom and justice will win in the end.

The national atmosphere has changed dramatically since 2014, and I’m not sure I’d keep using the word “foreigner” in that context, given how bloated with vitriol the term has become, but I still believe that last bit, and believe it or not, K’Naan is still on my mind on the 4th, just for a different song.

The same friend who hosted the annual party described in that original edition of “‘Twis the Friday before the 4th of July” recently sent me “Immigrants (We Get The Job Done),” a track from The Hamilton Mixtape by K’naan featuring Residente, Riz MC & Snow Tha Product. It’s tone is dour in comparison to that of “Wavin’ Flag,” and it’s video has serious emotional stopping power. While I don’t think we should stop celebrating this country’s birth, it does feel like we could stand to mix in some additional reflection — on how we became a nation and how we treat each other now.

K’Naan — “Immigrants (We Get The Job Done)” [Spotify/iTunes]

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American Tunes: “Witness”

[Editor’s Note: American Tunes is a series of posts dedicated to songs that address America’s social and political challenges. For more information on the series, click here.]

Now’s a time for questioning assumptions, biases, and conventional wisdom, and I’m always drawn to songs that make me rethink language that I’ve taken for granted. The beautiful title track to Benjamin Booker’s new album does just that by shining a bright light on that word — witness — from every possible angle.

The electrified gospel tune features Mavis Staples, who repeatedly asks “Am I gonna be a witness?” between verses that describe oppression, injustice, and violence. (“Everybody that’s brown can get the fuck on the ground.”) The repetition of Staples’ question actually reads “Am I/Am I/Gonna be a witness/Gonna be a witness,” which echoes like rumination when you type it out, and it invites you to consider all the ways you can be a witness to something.

A quick list of relevant definitions:

  1. You see something illegal happening that has little or no impact on you.
  2. Something illegal happens, you’re impacted, and you’re able to give an account. (You don’t die.)
  3. You know something illegal is happening but don’t do anything to prevent the situation from continuing.
  4. You’re present during an exceptional time or event and can give an account.
  5. You can validate someone else’s experience.

5 connects beautifully to the gospel tradition the song draws on (“Can I get a witness?”), and I think we can agree we’re all experiencing 4. They all invite and warrant serious rumination. Which have you experienced? Why or why not? Which might you be experiencing without knowing? Now is a time for questioning.

Benjamin Booker — “Witness” [Spotify/iTunes]

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American Tunes: “Wild Indifference”

[Editor’s Note: American Tunes is a series of posts dedicated to songs that address America’s social and political challenges. For more information on the series, click here.]

This one goes out to anyone in Congress thinking about casting a yes vote today for this selfish dumpster fire of a health care plan:

In your wild indifference
It’s all centered around you
Ain’t it lonely?

Joan Shelley — “Wild Indifference” [Spotify/iTunes]

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American Tunes: “Black History”

resound

[Editor’s Note: American Tunes is a series of posts dedicated to songs that address America’s social and political challenges. For more information on the series, click here.]

Goosebumps. Waves of them.

The singing here is exceptional — the execution, the creativity, the transitions… it’s all stunning. But what made me want to include “Black History” in this series is the way it tells a comprehensive story. The medley weaves together gospel songs that reflect significant moments from throughout the African-American experience, providing a long view that’s at once confounding and inspiring. (Click here to read more about which songs are included and why.)

Never in my lifetime has there been a bigger gap between the need for Americans to understand history and their willingness to do so. The past’s mistakes are being repeated at a dizzying rate. Too many congressmen take advantage of short memories by shamelessly arguing opposite sides of an issue, depending on which is presently advantageous. Too many people who benefit from systematic discrimination refuse to acknowledge that those systems discriminate.

What we need is more of the long view. More history. More of the kind of deep and broad understanding Resound is voicing here.

Resound — “Black History” [Spotify/YouTube]

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Friday News and Notes

nels-cline

  • First, a quick follow-up to yesterday’s American Tunes post — if you have any songs you’d recommend for the series, please let me know. Would love to get more people involved.
  • I’ve been on a serious Steve Gunn binge. After getting the split Record Store Day 12-inch he released with Angel Olsen, I’ve snagged used copies of two of his older albums, Time Off and Way Out Weather. Deep Groove had both, and after chatting with Chris at the counter about Steve Gunn for a bit (he said this era of Gunn’s career was when his John Fahey and Jimmy Page influences intersected), I decided to keep the pair together.
  • I’m very much digging the new Ryan Adams tune, and I got way too many chuckles out of the “interview” he did with Lil’ Bub. “Do You Still Love Me” has signifiers that date its influences pretty clearly (it’s hard to hear that first big hit without thinking of Survivor), but his use of space on the song is really interesting. It sounds so empty, and given the emotional place he was writing from, there’s a solid form-theme relationship happening there. Really neat, I think.
  • Noam Pikelny — the banjo player from Punch Brothers — has a new album coming out soon, and he’s shared a track called “Waveland” that’s simply amazing. If this is any indication, Universal Favorite could pick up on some of Punch Brothers’ more classical tendencies, which would be very exciting.
  • I was so excited to see Lucy Dacus on Bob Boilen’s top 10 list. She’ll certainly be on mine.
  • Heading to Gallery5 tonight for Nels Cline’s sold out show. Very psyched. I haven’t heard much of his non-Wilco work, and I haven’t done much research on the other two members of this trio, but all that was intentional. I know his jazzier stuff can get way out there, and I’m walking into Gallery5 tonight with no expectations. Blank slate. Let’s get weird. If you’re not headed there, I suggest Strange Matter, where Futurebirds, The Trillions, and Camp Howard will be playing. Great night for music.

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American Tunes

allen-toussaint

Since the election, I’ve been trying to think of ways to make this little corner of the Internet more… something. Productive isn’t the right word. Influential? Helpful? I just don’t want to keep feeling like there’s more I could and should be doing to make a difference, especially when it comes to the political realm.

A week or so ago, I decided to start a series of quick posts that each share a song that reflects what’s happening on the national stage. Protest songs. Thoughtful, incisive songs. Songs that help when you’re feeling like all is lost. Who knows what the next four years have in store, but I know this much: We’re going to need to stick together and motivate one another. The only thing stopping me from starting the series was a title. I was coming up pithy crap like “2020: Are We There Yet,” but I don’t want to count down the days until this crazy person is out of the White House. We need to make these days matter, and sarcasm doesn’t feel like the right the way to do that.

I was mulling this over on the way to lunch with a friend. We were going to Mission BBQ, a spot that has great brisket, pretty good mac and cheese, and more patriotism than any other restaurant I’ve been to. Tributes to various branches of the military and first responders line the walls and everything stops at noon each day so patrons and employees alike can stop, remove their hats, and salute the flag while the National Anthem is played over the PA system. There’s even a flag hanging down in the middle of the dining area that everyone faces. It reminds me so much of the start of NASCAR races at RIR (minus the flyover).

I started going to those races not long after I graduated college, when George W. Bush was president. That was a time when patriotism had been strategically claimed by the political right, and in some ways, being at those races and participating in gushing displays of patriotism felt transgressive. Like I was signing off on something I didn’t agree with. At the same time, it felt transgressive in a positive sense, like I was reclaiming something that should never have been taken from me in the first place. Being proud of where you’re from can certainly go off the rails and turn into an ugly form of nationalism, but patriotism isn’t inherently bad — and it’s certainly isn’t exclusively owned by the party that won the most recent election.

While I was driving to Mission, I caught myself dreading their noontime ritual. I wasn’t looking forward to standing there and wondering how many people in that restaurant voted for Donald Trump, but I thought back on those late 2000’s NASCAR races, and that’s when it hit me: American Tunes. That’s what I’ll be sharing. Some will be quiet, some will be loud. Some will be sad, some will be angry. Some won’t even be by Americans. But my hope is that each one will help on the rough road that lies ahead, because I’m not willing to let the right wrap themselves in the flag and claim this country as theirs. Let’s stay focused, stay inspired, and maintain our stake in a shared and crucial project that’s been going on for nearly 250 years.

Each post will include a song, maybe a few key lyrics, and a recommendation for when I think the song will be most useful. We’ll start with Allen Toussaint’s version of the Paul Simon classic that this series and Toussaint’s final album borrow their names from. I’ve been listening more closely to its lyrics, and they describe this perplexing and worrisome moment in America pretty aptly:

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
But I’m all right, I’m all right
I’m just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home

And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
But it’s all right, it’s all right
We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong

This one’s for when you need to be reminded that we’ve made it back from the point of despair before, and we can do it again.

Allen Toussaint — “American Tune” (Paul Simon cover) [Spotify/iTunes]

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