Audio Version Of Letter Below:
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 our 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, artist royalties, and other topics, in venues better suited to those dialogues than an online 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 felt, as a fan, it was due time I—and we as country—especially in these turbulent times, start properly celebrating that a little more.
These days every subject seems to find itself on a battlefield. Nobody wants to go inside and have a conversation and actually discuss anything or, hell, even go inside to 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 that 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 here, right now, 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 A 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, from the opening slinky clarinet line to the 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, and 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, if one did want to explore our American 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, for example, Nirvana had just hit the airwaves.
But the dialogue on the mainstream world stage seemed largely centered on whatever new skin Madonna was putting on, or the latest wild spectacle from Michael Jackson, 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 existed long before M & M, and how without many those brash, bold, crazy multitudes, The Beatles never would have happened. 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 the our country itself.
Unfortunately though, within the last last 6 or so years it seems the dialogue around our nuanced musical past has been broken and has shut down, turning into shouting matches and hyperbolic absolutes of comment sections and clickbait headlines. Many people have adopted deal-breakers that will no longer allow them to listen to certain acts for a whole host of reasons. Some of them are misguided, some are valid. And all of them are impassioned with 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 it back in. This is true not just with music, but the entire scope of our history.
Part of me wants to just leave the 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 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 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, it was lost to that history. Then along comes the young whipper-snapper that is the USA…and look what we did in 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 the mainstream music world 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. Those musical idioms that traveled from Africa did not birth modern music alone. At some point, these field songs and spiritual rhythms went down to the crossroads where they met other musical travelers. Some were musical instruments of European birth, while others were inventions born purely of American ingenuity. And it was this acculturation at the crossroads of music 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, R ‘n’ B and rock ‘n’ roll, and the ability to record them. We birthed the foundational genres that have lead to most mainstream music across the globe as we know it today!
So I think in this case it’s OK if we chant USA! USA! USA! 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 adiós. Some of the biggest names in musical instruments today were started by Americans. Gibson was started by Orville Gibson; Leo Fender, another big name in the guitar world, invited the first guitar amp. For modern drum kits, we can thank Friedrich Gretsch. And, as a nation, we invented the microphone, the phonograph, recording tape, the mixing board, headphones, CDs, the Walkman, and the personal computer. Plus, the internet, the iPod, and synthesizer 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, it probably came from an immigrant to the US. For example, Peter Carl Goldmark came from Hungary to the US to work for CBS at age 20 and invented the vinyl record.
And if I may add one more, a personal favorite, the quintessential sound of science-fiction films, the Theremin, was patented in the US by Soviet inventor and immigrant Leon Theremin in 1928 and mastered by fellow Russian immigrant violin prodigy Clara Rockmore, who pushed the instrument beyond what Theremin had thought possible. The opens arm of the US helped send music into the final frontier, figuratively and literally, as when we launched Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” along with other 30 other recordings from around the world on two gold discs into outer space!
And many of these inventions started out in music, but then moved on to 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 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 of upper class circles, 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. Also, The United States turned some pieces of classical into iconic cultural touch stones, such as Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube Waltz” in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. And for many people, their first brush with classical music came when it was used and lampooned in the 30s and 40s at Warner Brothers in their Looney Tunes Shorts. It is said only Germans like Wager. Maybe so, but who doesn’t LOVE Bugs Bunny and “What’s Opera Doc?” or “Rabbit Of Seville”. And it wasn’t just classical music that helped push these standards; big band orchestras and their recordings also were important to this change.
Because we invented the music recording industry, we invented the very notion of a “hit” as we know it today. Billboard magazine introduced us to the idea of a music chart with rankings and defined genres. More recently, we have MTV launching music videos as a major form of musical expression, and music journalism with iconic Rolling Stone magazine.
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 II 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 across 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, 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 Americans 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 Thielemans, Big Mama Thornton, 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 high school band playing clarinet pretty badly to pretty bland music in my opinion. 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 name of the city 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 the buffet table 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 its variants from sonatas to concertos, but the US invented sub-genres upon sub-genres, from 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, can, in part, trace its roots back to a suburb of New York known as Sugar Hill and woman named Cynthia Robinson.
Joni Mitchell, wrote, “Don’t it always seem to go that 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. Focusing only on what is wrong is unhealthy, and it causes us to forget what has been done right, and why and how that might help us move forward as a country.
So, I think it would behoove us as a country to step back and look at our country’s vast collection of vinyl, CDs, mp3s, and mixtapes as a collective— a staggeringly awesome, colossal awe-inspiring, splendorous achievement, rather than as a sum of flawed parts & 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 her 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 gentleman is the The United States of America!
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, it is safe to say America is one door-busting, hell-raising, ass-kicking, nature loving, peace loving, angry, joyous, fabulous, complex badass musical beast worth celebrating in the best of times, and more importantly, I think, in the worst of times.
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 this shortlist of names: Prince, James Brown, MC Lyte, Dolly Parton, Etta James, Johnny Cash, Gene Krupa, Ramones, Alice Cooper, Alice Coltrane, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Ella, Billie, Sarah, Nina, Dinah, Carmen, Eartha, Jimi Hendrix, Tom Waits, Willie Nelson, TLC, Mary. J. Blige, Beyonce, Odetta, The Ventures, Bette Midler, Tori Amos, Bernard Hermann, 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, Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Maria Callas, Bruce Springsteen, Frankie Knuckles, Leontyne Price, Tony Bennett, B.B. King, The Velvet Underground, Carole King, Thelonius Monk, Lyle Lovett, Gil Evans, Dead Kennedys, The Funk Brothers, Bad Brains, Emmylou Harris, The Drifters, The Wrecking Crew, Iggy Pop, Hazel Dickens, Charley Pride, Les Baxter, TuPac, Wu-Tang Clan, Radiohead, Bonnie Raitt, Missy Elliot, Bob Dylan, The Mothers of Invention, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, Wanda Jackson, Muddy Waters, Blondie, Chic, Donna Summer, Sonic Youth, Harry Belafonte, 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 folk 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 a mere 250 songs over 5 mixes, that I think show off the USA at its best, doing one of the things it does best. A dream team of songs, if you will, that make me proud to be an American; from protest to pop sugar, Broadway to the big screen, and romantic to rebellious. And they are not living in a vacuum many of these songs are tied to other cultural touch stones that make me proud to be American. And I encourage everyone one 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 her 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?
Peace, Love, Happiness, American music, and Dancing,
PopOff! is an “anything goes” musical show hosted by me DJ Bear. Every episode is a unique sonic road trip through the multitudes of genres, eras, and musicians in recorded music. So if you have an open mind for musical exploration climb into the PopOff! Bubble and let’s get to it!!
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