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Learning American history through songs

In February 2019, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation released the results of a nationwide poll of 41,000 Americans testing their knowledge of our country’s history. 

“The Foundation found that in the highest-performing state, only 53 percent of the people were able to earn a passing grade for U.S. history. People in every other state failed; in the lowest-performing state, only 27 percent were able to pass.” (Bold-print is from the Foundation.)

This month the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania released another study revealing that more than one out of five Americans couldn’t identify a single branch of the U.S. government. 

“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” may be true, but we might add, “Those who do not learn history will live in confusion and ignorance.”

Is there anything we can we do to boost our knowledge of history, particularly among our young people? How can we interest others in the American past, thereby giving them perspective on today’s culture and politics?

Help is here. 

In Songs Of America: Patriotism, Protest, And The Music That Made A Nation (Random House, 2019, 303 pages), Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw team up to give us not just a musical history of the United States, but an excellent guidebook to our past. Meacham, the Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer of men like Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and George Walker Bush, and McGraw, the Grammy Award-winning country music star, actor, and author, blend their talents and take readers on a grand tour through the music and history of our nation.

Here Meacham and McGraw shine a light on several hundred songs ranging from music of the American Revolution and the Civil War to Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Tupac Shakur, the Dixie Chicks, and Joan Baez. Some of these musicians and songwriters receive only a line or two, while others like George M. Cohan, Elvis Presley, and Aretha Franklin are examined at greater length. 

The authors frequently insert verses from various songs, especially in the chapters dealing with pre-twentieth century music. This is a great help to readers. Most of us will recognize some of these songs — “Go Down, Moses,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Dixie” — but many more are, I suspect, known only to experts of those earlier eras. 

As they tell us in “A Note To The Reader,” McGraw authored the many sidebars on individual songs and musicians in Songs of America while Professor Meacham wrote the narrative. As a result, we finish this book in possession of a great deal of American history. When he discusses Francis Scott Key and “The Star Spangled Banner,” for instance, Meacham gives readers the highpoints of the War of 1812, explains its causes, and describes the battle that gave birth to our national anthem. Meanwhile, McGraw’s sidebar addresses the emotions produced in him and others by this song while at the same time explaining why it is so difficult a piece to perform, especially in an outdoor stadium.

This history in is not exhaustive — Songs Of America is not intended as a textbook, though a teacher could certainly use it as such — but instead focuses on those periods of American history when music of inspiration and protest came to the fore. Here we find quite a number of songs associated with the civil rights movement, with various wars, and with political or cultural events. (One disappointing omission: I wish the authors had written more about the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley.)

Moreover, both men do their readers and their country a service by their balanced approach to different politicians and issues. They acknowledge the bitter divisions that today separate so many of our fellow citizens, with Meacham remarking, “Many, if not most, Americans say they think their country is on the wrong track, and their faith in the future is tenuous. A common theme — the common theme, really, of the public conversation about America at the moment — is succinct and sad; we are divided as rarely, if ever, before, and the ferocious partisanship of the age lies at the heart of our discontent.” 

Yet the authors themselves refuse to take sides in these ugly battles. “America,” as Meacham rightly points out, “is about debate, dissent, and dispute. We’re always arguing, always fighting, always restless — and our music is a mirror and a maker of that once and future truth.” 

And in the beginning of Songs of America, he reminds us that “A true patriot salutes the flag but always makes sure it’s flying over a nation that’s not only free but fair, not only strong but just.”

If you’re looking for a book to entice readers, young or old, to learn some history, Songs Of America is a wonderful resource. 

•••

Now let’s look at a completely different topic. 

Tired of all the clutter in your home or place of business? Feel as if you’re drowning in possessions? Frustrated that you spend precious minutes every day hunting for your glasses, your phone, or the keys to your car?

Consider reading Gretchen Rubin’s Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter & Organize To Make More Room For Happiness (Harmony Books, 2019, 216 pages). Rubin, the best-selling author of The Happiness Project, gives readers several hundred tips on pitching out “stuff,” organizing what is left behind, and creating beauty in our homes. Rubin is witty, and wise in her suggestions as to what we should keep or give away. 

Recently I read that the average American has 300,000 possessions (I’m assuming a single pencil is a possession). I don’t necessarily buy that figure — how would anyone determine that number? — but I also realize that I, like so many others, might be happier if I hauled off my unused possessions to the Goodwill store or to the saleroom of the public library. 

Outer Order, Inner Calm may just inspire me to do that. 

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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