Looking for an excuse to offer one more extended lockdown edition of this series, I thought it might be fitting to compile a set with an American theme in honor of Independence Day. As always, the compilation reflects the limits of my taste and knowledge, but I hope some readers may take pleasure in discovering something new, in rediscovering something old in a new context, or in returning to a song you may have forgotten about.
Take, for example, James Taylor’s “On the 4th of July” — a love song artfully infused with the holiday theme.
I have to ask you to indulge me on the Grateful Dead’s “Jack Straw” (“Leaving Texas, fourth day of July”). This is a pop song in dialogue form “between two criminals on the run,” as Mike St. Thomas explained in a recent tribute to the Dead as the great American band. Jerry Garcia sings the part of one man on the run, Bob Weir the other. “The song starts with the hope of companionship, but one is moving too slow for the other, and the tension rises as they ride the rails across the country—Texas, Santa Fe, Cheyenne, Tulsa, Tucson,” he explained. The song builds to its climax, where we learn that “Jack Straw from Wichita cut his buddy down.”
Getting serious about the theme of the holiday, I ask you to attend to Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” as channeled by the Byrds.
Felix Caveliere and Eddie Brigati wrote “People Got To Be Free” for the Rascals in the annus horribilis of 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King. When I saw Felix perform it live last year at the Dakota, I thought the song sounded better than ever. Felix still has his heart in it.
Paul Simon has aspired to be a great American songwriter in the mold of the Gershwins. I think he hit the mark in “An American Tune.”
Stephen Stills wrote “Find the Cost of Freedom.” Freedom isn’t free. I thought this concise reminder came from an unusual source at the time.
Mickey Newbury created “An American Trilogy” for his Frisco Mabel Joy album in 1971. This is how it sounded before Elvis Presley got to it — pretty, pretty good.
The medley struck a deep chord with Elvis. This he believed. Peter Guralinick writes in the second volume of his incomparable Elvis bio that it “could almost have stood for an anthem of national reconciliation,” as it joined together “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and the old Negro spiritual “All My Trials.” That reconciliation is obviously what Elvis heard in the song. Elvis, Guralnick adds, performed the song “in a swelling orchestral setting that never failed to bring down the house.”
Ray Charles’s magnificent version of “America the Beautiful” is a perfect song for Independence Day. In order to overcome the familiarity that prevents us from hearing the words, Charles begins with the song’s third verse on martial sacrifice: “O beautiful for heroes proved/In liberating strife…” That gets our attention. After the chorus, Charles sings the song’s true first verse, but playfully prefaces it, “You know when I was in school we used to sing it something like this. . .” He sings the first half of the verse like a precocious choirboy and then gives us the second half with an adult lover’s passion. As he returns to the chorus he testifies in gospel style: “America! I love you America!” Thank you, Mr. Charles.