Los Angeles Times

Singers turn to patriotic songs in wake of Sept. 11

Four months after the telethon "A Tribute to Heroes," Americans staggered by the Sept. 11 attacks are still seeking comfort in song.

Larry King now ends each nightly broadcast with music: Yolanda Adams sang "Never Give Up" in the CNN studio on Monday.

ABC’s "Monday Night Football" has put pop stars on the halftime show this season and set their performances to football-and-flag montages.

MTV accompanied Kid Rock, Ja Rule and Jennifer Lopez overseas in December as they played for U.S. troops.

Pop musicians, having re-established their value in uncertain times as assets to national recovery and resolve, are now taking the logical next step: speaking directly to the events of Sept. 11 by writing topical songs.

Neil Young’s "Let’s Roll," country star Alan Jackson’s "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," folk singer Tom Paxton’s "The Bravest" and hip-hop group Gorillaz’ "911" are new examples in a musical tradition that is, in the American experience, as old as handwritten scores: the desire to capture, even shape, the mood of a society shaken by crisis.

It remains to be seen whether musical reaction to Sept. 11 will rival past outpourings.

The Revolutionary War yielded dozens of songs along with dueling versions of "Yankee Doodle," sung pro-Yank or pro-Tory depending on who was rewriting the lyric.

From the Civil War era came a trove of ballads, odes, broadsides and protest numbers that exist today mainly in the archives of sheet-music collectors: "Emancipation; Honest Old Abe; The Assassin’s Vision."

World War I saw the country’s ambivalence play out in songs, from George M. Cohan’s patriotic cry, "Over There," to a less capable songwriter’s forgotten dissent, "Don’t Take My Darling Boy Away."

During World War II, a conflict that encountered little home-front opposition, music and morale went hand in hand. The U.S. government even launched a record label, V-Disc, that recorded stars of the era and distributed albums to far-flung troops starved for sounds of home. Topical novelties such as Spike Jones’ "Der Fuhrer’s Face" played side by side with ballads such as the Ink Spots’ "We’ll Meet Again."

"Music has been an important tool in recruiting and stirring up national spirit, both as a vehicle to promote wars and against wars," says Barry Melton, a member of the Woodstock-era band Country Joe & the Fish. That group’s rootsy, rollicking and often satirical music, much of it written and sung by Navy veteran Joe McDonald, helped define opposition to the Vietnam War, and not just among protesters back home.

Country Joe’s "I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag," with its droll, Dixieland-style refrain — "And it’s one, two, three/What are we fighting for?" — became a top seller at PX stores on U.S. military bases around the world.

"And of course [music] has been used in war," Melton said. "Bagpipes were supposed to be the scariest thing you ever heard on a battlefield. ‘The drums of war’ is not a metaphor. It’s true. Drummers went into combat."

People in times of upheaval have long recognized the power of songs to console, unite and recruit on all sides of a national struggle. Whatever the aim, popular music provides both accidental, adopted anthems — such as Ryan Adams’ "New York, New York" and, a decade ago during the Gulf War, Oleta Adams’ "Get Here" — and new tunes whereby pop music exploits its advantage in rapid response over film, television and literature.

Musicians find in great and terrible events a chance to write the histories of their times, and maybe have their songs become the defining expressions of historical moments. The War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain inspired Francis Scott Key to compose our national anthem — "The Star-Spangled Banner" — a song treated with renewed reverence after Sept. 11.

But popular culture is not content to just replay sturdy favorites. It wants to add to the canon.

"When an event as emotionally charged or politically charged as this one happens," says Nashville songwriter David Kent, "you almost can’t help but think, "Is there something I can say, through the way that I communicate, that will help take away the pain or spur feelings of some kind, or maybe even help just get rid of your own sadness?’"

But Kent calls Sept. 11 "too hot a subject matter to just go in and start pushing buttons."

"When there’s this much suffering," he says, "you have to be very, very careful to make sure what you do does not merely draw its success from the thin-skinned emotions prevalent everywhere and all the loss that’s out there. If that is used to produce a hit, and that’s all that is used, then you’re a pig."

But any form of artistic answer to catastrophe involves some presumption and ego, some opportunism as well as a genuine emotional response. Motive might enhance or taint the end product, but long after a writer’s motives are forgotten, the only question left will be whether the song is any good.

From hip-hop to folk, entertainers seem willing to face the scrutiny.

"Whoever did this, we’re gonna get y’all," says a rapper on Gorillaz’ "911," a track that moves at an ominous crawl and contains elements of Middle Eastern music — echoes, as it were, of a culture that has confounded the West. The song features cameos by members of a hardcore Detroit rap group, D-12, who rail in rhyme at "derelict Arabic terrorists in the air."

But it also depicts life on the ground, the ordinary struggles that take place far outside the realms of terror and geopolitics. With its mixed messages, sampling of Middle Eastern music and an eerie coda — "We are one/and one is all" — it draws warring worlds together in what ultimately sounds like a call for understanding.

The only call on "Let’s Roll" is for action. Canadian rocker Young wrote and recorded the straight-ahead dirge after reading about Flight 93, the hijacked plane that terrorists might have been aiming at the U.S. Capitol or the White House. It crashed in rural Pennsylvania after an uprising by passengers and a struggle for control of the cockpit. "Let’s roll" were the last words heard from passenger Todd Beamer as he set down a cellphone and prepared to confront the hijackers. The song imagines what happened next: "One standing in the aisle way/two more at the door/We’ve got to get inside there/before they kill some more."

A race with death also drives Paxton’s "The Bravest," about firefighters killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Paxton’s ode is a spare acoustic story-song with the feel of a campfire ballad. Its narrator, a survivor of the attacks, is haunted by memories "of firemen pounding up the stairs/while we were running down."

" Prairie Home Companion" host Garrison Keillor sang a version of "The Bravest" on the Oct. 13 broadcast of his radio show. Folk singer Pete Seeger has been playing it live of late.

Jackson’s "Where Were You" doesn’t go inside captive planes or collapsing stairwells. The singer simply gauges how we reacted as events unfolded on television: "Did you open your eyes and hope it never happened?/ Close your eyes and not go to sleep?"

Charlie Daniels’ response to recent events is "This Ain’t No Rag It’s a Flag" — "and we don’t wear it on our heads." The Arab-baiting rant includes a vow to Sept. 11 co-conspirators to "hunt you down like a mad dog hound."

Daniels is not the first American entertainer to drub the enemy in racial terms. Bandleader Lucky Millinder had a wartime hit with "We’re Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap," around the same time Japanese-Americans were being herded by the thousands into detention camps.

Most patriotic music of World War II aimed higher, and arguably demonstrated an American advantage in the motivating power of pop culture. In the liner notes of the two-disc set, "Till Then: The Music That Helped the Allies Win the War" (Q Records), compilation producer Joel Dorn writes that neither the Nazis nor the Japanese "had the Andrews Sisters, the Mills Brothers, Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, the Dorseys, Artie Shaw or any of the rest of those musical geniuses that the melting pot produced."

"I don’t know if they really made the difference," Dorn said, "but I hate to think what the war for our side would have been like without them."

In an aside to his profile of Afghanistan, "Dangerous Places" author Robert Young Pelton notes, "Russia had its very own Vietnam [in Afghanistan], but without the cool antiwar songs and concerts back home."

"Back home" for Americans during Vietnam meant an upwelling of anti-war melodies, from the Youngbloods’ "Get Together" to Marvin Gaye’s "What’s Going On." On the side of the soldiers was Sgt. Barry Sadler, the U.S. Army Green Beret and singer-songwriter who had a 1966 hit with "Ballad of the Green Berets."

But it was the objectors who carried the cultural tide of the ’60s. Even the National Anthem was co-opted: Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock used his guitar and a distortion pedal to turn "The Star- Spangled Banner" into an audio Guernica.

Nothing ventured in the wake of Sept. 11 is that audacious or contrary. Pop music’s function in the war against terrorism is, for the most part, to uphold a consensus that is already in place. That isn’t to say social cohesion, the absence of cultural friction, discourages great music.

Jazz scholars rate V-Disc sessions by the Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey orchestras among the finest big-band recordings ever made. Pop veterans got some the best reviews of their careers with their heartfelt performances at "A Tribute to Heroes."

There is a line in the 1942 song "Remember Pearl Harbor" that goes, "History in every century/records an act that lives forevermore."

The question is whether new music will do a memorable job of recording what happened in September.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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