Dear United States Of America,
I have only ever written one fan letter before. It was to Japanese funk-jazz pianist Keiko Matsui. She responded with a postcard that had bears on it inviting me to her upcoming show at Kimball’s East in Emeryville. She even sent me a poster and autographed it at the show.
So, this is my second ever fan letter. But I don’t want an autograph. I am writing this letter for all of us and to all of us in The United States. And so going forward I shall use mostly collective and inclusive pronouns. I declare that I think the United States’ greatest contribution to world culture has been music.
I am also here to say that the history of that contribution is complicated, complex, and requires the kind of nuanced discussions we have had and will continue to have around acculturation and appropriation, artists royalties, and other topics in venues better suited to those dialogues than an on-line think piece from one hardcore American music superfan and the comment section below it.
But make no mistake, what we did in the span of just over 100 years is nothing short of mind-blowing, beautiful, and bold. Without what we as a country laid down on record over the last century and the innovations fostered around the musical arts– modern music across the globe would not exist, period. And I feel as a fan that’s due time I, and we as a country, especially in these turbulent times, start properly celebrating that a little more.
These days, every subject seems to find itself on a battlefield and nobody wants to go inside and have a conversation and actually discuss anything or, hell, even go inside, have a beer, and drunkenly discuss anything. And I know not many people are feeling, “Rah! Rah! USA!” these days. But you know what, I am!
And not in some flag-waving stand up, salute, and sing the national anthem way. Though I do find it curious we chose a lesser cover of a British drinking song as our National Anthem. No I mean it in a crank that shit up and sing-a-long, pump your fist, get down, work it, head bang, bounce, salsa, swing, two-step kind of way.
That’s why right right now, right here, this is a fan letter celebrating the legacy of the USA at our most beautiful, awe-inspiring, and awesome. Music that makes me proud to live in a country that not only allows such freedom of expression but continually innovated and fostered the means to do so.
As an example, let me start with one of my favorite recordings of all time, Ray Charles’ version of, “Oh, What Beautiful Morning.” The opening number from the musical Oklahoma written by the Jewish Oscar Hammerstein. Scratch that … let’s not even deep cut here and just go with his version of “America The Beautiful” penned by feminist Katherine Lee Bates. When I listen to the way he sings those songs, I can feel it all, and yet it was only recently while listening to those recordings I thought to myself, Ray Charles renders all that emotion yet he was blind and never saw any of what he was singing about. He turned a straight up Main Street Broadway showtune about life on the great plains of the midwest into a blues spiritual. The same for, “America The Beautiful.” He knew what the songs meant beyond just the lyrics and how they spoke of the complex but beautiful American narrative.
We gave the world Ray Charles and we gave it Stevie Wonder, also blind, singing songs like, “Bird of Beauty”, “Ribbon In The Sky”, “As”, and “Livin’ For The City. These are just two musicians we laid upon the world stage. Another one of my favorite pieces of music is “Rhapsody In Blue,” one of America’s best loved forays into classical music. Gershwin nailed that one; the opening slinky clarinet line and then there is that waltz interlude towards the middle. It’s classical, but also straight up jazz. And we combined the two styles before anyone else!
I’ll tell you when I was growing up in the 90s, the conversation musically was all about the greatness of the British invasion act The Beatles. MAYBE, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and if you did drugs Pink Floyd. Basically England owned all the real estate and columns in the pantheon of musical deities from what I was hearing. One couldn’t even buy pioneers like Chuck Berry or Bessie Smith in most record stores even if one did want to explore our own musical legacy.
The music of the US, if it was given serious discussion, was Madonna or Michael Jackson. Yes there were MANY other acts people were listening too and talking about, Nirvana had just hit, for example. But the dialogue on the mainstream world stage seemed largely centered on whatever new skin Madonna was putting on or whatever wild spectacle Michael Jackson was putting on, such as sailing a version of himself down the Thames. Our musical icons have always been brash, bold, and crazy but nobody was talking about how the brash, bold, crazy multitudes that existed long before M & M and how without many of those brash, bold, crazy multitudes, The Beatles never happen.
Thankfully, as time has gone on, I’ve seen the conversation shift in the US as more and more acts from the US take their place as world icons or are revisited by younger generations in our country itself. Unfortunately though, within the last six or so years, it seems the dialogue around our nuanced music past has been broken and has shut down. Turning into shouting matches and hyperbolic absolutes of comment sections and click bait headlines. Many people adopting deal breakers that will no longer allow them to listen to certain acts for a whole host of reasons. Some of them misguided, some valid, all of them impassioned and none of them allowing for any real communication on the issues that need to be addressed. Public discourse has become a repeating skip on a record or a cassette tape caught in the car stereo and nobody has a #2 pencil to wind back in. And this is true not just with music but the entire scope of our history.
Part of me wants to just leave everybody there and mind my own business if that is how they think the battle is best waged right now. I want no part in that. But as a superfan of American music I just can’t do it. I love the music too much to just let it get chopped down, canceled, thrown out, or divided up by tribal ideologies. And I know my passion is infectious and will help others feel better. So indulge me and leave your complaints and biases at the door. I want to remind us all of one reason why The United States is so great.
Let me start by asking you to ponder this: Humans have been making music since the dawn of mankind. We know about Gregorian chants, troubadour ballads, Indian ragas, traditional Chinese yayue, tribal songs passed down by the Aborigines and First Nations. All of this and more existed before the 20th century. But how much of it do we really know firsthand or have on record? Not much from those first 200,000 years, that’s for sure.
Not much was preserved or written down due to the technology of the times in which it was performed. It may have been verbally passed down, but over the years like much of history, got lost or forgotten. Then along comes the young whipper-snapper that is the USA… and look what we did the span of just over 100 years! We’ve had 200,000 years on this planet but it wasn’t until the late 18th century when the USA dropped the technology to record sound onto the music scene that mainstream music as we know it exploded.
The traditional field songs and blues of the slaves with roots in Africa are often cited as the founding block for the music of the United States, but this is only partially true, for those musical idioms alone did not birth modern music. At some point, they ended up at a bar at a crossroads where they were drinking with other patrons. Many of these patrons were musical instruments of European origin and other patrons were inventions born purely of American ingenuity.
And it was this summit that allowed us to put on record Louis Armstrong, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Billie Holiday, The Carter Family, Robert Johnson, and others, who invented jazz, blues, country, bluegrass, R ‘n’ B and rock ‘n’ roll: the foundational genres that have lead to most mainstream music across the globe as we know it today.
I shall repeat that because it is important: The United States invented jazz, blues, country, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll and the ability to record them. We birthed the foundational genres that led to most mainstream music across the globe as we know it today!
So I think in this case it’s OK if we “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
Without our musical legacy, The Beatles do not exist, without our hip-hop there is no k-pop, without all the technological innovations we designed to record, produce and distribute this music you can kiss that German heavy metal and Canadian prog-rock adios. Some of the biggest names in musical instruments today were started by Americans; Gibson started by Orville Gibson, Leo Fender another big name in the guitar world invited the first guitar amp, for modern drum kits we have Friedrich Gretsch. And as a nation, we invented the microphone, the phonograph, recording tape, the mixing board, and the personal computer, just to name a few other items important to modern music.
The defining musical instrument of the anti-Vietnam War era was the Hammond organ, invented by Laurens Hammond from Illinois; The instrument that defined the 70s was the Moog synth invented by Robert Moog; the defining sound of traditional country music is the pedal steel invented by Hawaiian Joseph Kekuku in 1874. And if one of our countrymen didn’t invent a musical game changer then whoever did like Peter Carl Goldmark, inventor of the 33 1/3 record, often came to the US to do so. And many of these inventions started out in music but then moved onto be used in a host of other areas from space exploration to video gaming to radio and TV broadcasting. When it comes to modern music, America didn’t just blaze trails, we laid down most of the trails in the first place.
Did you know that before 1930, musical instruments such as the flute, trumpet, trombone, violin and others had no set production standard? Meaning, a flute made in Italy might sound and look slightly different than a flute made in Spain or the US. It was the USA that led the revolution in making musical instruments to a standard because we invented the recording industry! We were the first to put Opera singers and classical music on a round disc that could be played in any home across the world. And in order to get classical recordings of Mozart and Puccini to sound more or less the same from record to record and symphony to symphony instrument standards were put in place.
Side Note: One could argue that it was the USA and the classical recordings it helped foster that made Mozart, Beethoven, Puccini, Vivaldi and others household names and global superstars outside upper class circles and long after their deaths. For classical music was the realm of the wealthy who could afford to go to see a live symphony or afford to take lessons to learn how to play the stuff. Since records were cheaper, everyone could now hear the music of the upper classes at home. But it wasn’t just classical that helped push these standards. Big band jazz was also at the forefront of the standardization.
And because we invented the music recording industry, we invented the very notion of a “hit” as we know it today. Billboard followed with the idea of a music chart with rankings and defined genres, not to mention MTV.
Before blues records were making the rounds, you largely only heard music performed in your home, at local parties and festivals, or in a theater if you could afford it. And from one region to the next and from one economic class to the next, people had their own popular songs. The pageantry of Johann Strauss waltzes were likely not popular (if they were even known) within the Austrian farmer folk dance crowd. But when the blues started getting recorded in the early 1920s, that’s when the first hits began to “keep on coming”. And that is also when we saw the arrival of music’s first true superstar performers who sold out theaters cross the US and Europe; those by the names of Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, and Sippy Wallace. All from the US, all black, and all women.
Now that is fucking cool. Let’s celebrate that!
And among the reeds and weeds and murky swamps of my country’s fantastic yet nuanced and musical past, there is something else I’ve been marveling at off and on recently. Adolphe Sax was a Belgian who invented the Saxophone in the 1840s. He died in the 1890s. I have to imagine that NEVER in his wildest dreams did he envision coming out of the mouth of his instrument the sounds of Bix Biederbecke, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Art Pepper, Junior Walker, or Clarence Clemons. All of these people picked up his invention and said in their own way with their own voice, “Let’s see what this thing can do!”
COME ON! That’s is awesome and mind-blowing.
Likewise, Christian Friedrich Buschmann, German inventor of the harmonica who died in 1864, probably never had visions of Little Walter, Toots Theliemans, Big Mama Thronton, or Huey Lewis in his dreams. Louis Armstrong did the same for the trumpet, Glenn Miller did it with the trombone, and Gene Krupa took the drums practically into outer space. I was in a high school band playing clarinet pretty badly to pretty bland music. If somebody had shown me what Benny Goodman or Sidney Bechet did with the thing, I might still be playing. And that’s not even taking in account what New Orleans did with all these things coming together creating a musical region so singular that when we hear the city name, we hear the sound of the 2nd line.
Most people know the blues is old – REAL old, back to Africa old – and every country has some version of it. But it was the USA in the last century that took it to buffet tables and served up Chicago boogie-woogie, Kansas City jump, Texas shuffle, Mississippi delta, Piedmont, Memphis, gospel, slide, stride, bottleneck, cajun, zydeco, country … ALL before The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin ever laid a cut.
Classical music may have had it’s variants from sonatas to concertos. But the US invented subgenres upon subgenres: The Wall of Sound to the Bakersfield Sound. We invented something for everybody. The dominating force in music for the last 8-10 years worldwide in part winds its roots back to a suburb of New York known as Sugar Hill and a woman named Cynthia Robinson.
Joni Mitchell, wrote, “Don’t it always seem to go you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”. Yes, I am aware she is Canadian, but I don’t think we realize just how quickly our musical past is being lost and forgotten and sidelined as we tribalize and cannibalize, squabbling over cultural real estate just to be right or wield power in conversations where a right answer is not even possible let alone useful.
There are much bigger battles to be fought and conversations to be had than the name of some band nobody cared much about last year. And frankly if you want to focus on and take to task everything that is wrong without being a total hypocrite, you will be left with very little to enjoy. So for the time being, let music be our one place of unification and solace, for if we focus only on what is wrong all the time, we forget what has been done right and why and how that might help move forward as a country.
So I think it would behoove us to step back and look at our country’s vast collection of vinyl, CDs, mp3s, and mixtapes as a collective, staggeringly awesome, colossal awe-inspiring, splendorous achievement whole, rather than a sum of flawed parts and people often products of their time. For the music of the US has become the music of the world for many cultures. I just read an interview with Tori Amos where she talked about how here music was passed around in the middle east by subjugated women.
“Years later, when I played Israel, I was in an airport bathroom when a Middle Eastern woman came up to me. She said, ‘Don’t think we’re not listening. We pass your music behind closed doors to each other and it’s something secret that we know, so don’t stop.’”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the USA!
Our music has helped to inspire, mobilize and revolutionize many countries and cultures across the globe. Our innovations in recording and production have allowed other cultures and people to record and preserve their own voices and songs and use these innovations to form a national identity, to protest, and become a voice for the people. Just imagine a world where Edith Piaf lived, but never recorded “La Vie En Rose,” allowing many singers from Louis Armstrong to Cyndi Lauper to reinterpret that global classic with their own voices. Yeah, when it comes to music, safe to say America is one door-busting, hell-raising, ass-kicking, nature loving, peace loving, angry, joyous, fabulous, complex badass beast.
Now… if you still aren’t feelin’ the love, if you are still feeling entrenched in the culture war of who did what first or stole from whom… just marvel at these names: Prince, James Brown, MC Lyte, Dolly Parton, Etta James, Johnny Cash, Gene Krupa, Ramones, Alice Cooper, Alice Coltrane, Duke Eillington, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Ella, Billie, Sarah, Nina, Dinah, Eartha, Jimi Hendrix, Tom Waits, Willie Nelson, TLC, Mary. J. Blige, Beyonce, Bette Midler, Tori Amos, Joanne Shenandoah, Public Enemy, Tito Puente, Selena, Santana, Gloria Estefan, Don Ho, IZ, The Monkees, Steven Sondheim, Aretha Franklin, Earl Scruggs, Slayer, The Meters, Metallica, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Maria Callas, Bruce Springsteen, Frankie Knuckles, Leontyne Price, Tony Bennett, B.B. King, Carole King, Thelonius Monk, Tom Waits, Lyle Lovett, Gil Evans, Dead Kennedys, The Funk Brothers, Emmylou Harris, The Drifters, The Wrecking Crew, Charley Pride, Les Baxter, TuPac. Bonnie Raitt, Missy Elliot, Bob Dylan, The Mothers of Invention, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, Wanda Jackson, Muddy Waters, Blondie, Chic, Donna Summer, The Isley Brothers, Devo, The B-52’s, and Weird Al.
From rock ‘n’ roll to r ‘n’ b, from big band swing to new jack swing, from salsa to slow jams, honky-tonk to house, freestyle to funk when America does something right. It does it RIGHT. And we damn sure got music right.
For me, I think the Violent Femmes sang it best.
“Do you like American music? We like American music.
I like American music… Baby.
Do you like American music? We like all kinds of music.
But I like American music best… baby.” – American Music, Violent Femmes
Below are 101 songs I think show off the USA at it’s best doing one of the things it does best. A dream team of songs that make me proud to be an American. It was supposed to be 200 songs, but I do have a life so part 2 will be next week. And I encourage everyone of you to make your own playlists that celebrate the artists and songs of the United States that have shaped you and helped move you through this country and this world with its highs and lows. Share them with people in your circle heck share them with me I wanna hear what voices moved you. And let our music be at least one example of how awesome this country is. Doesn’t that sound like a mighty good idea?