SONG OF AMERICA by Various Artists, $24.98 (list price), www.srrecords.com/SongofAmerica; all ages.
It was a warm summer day last July when I first heard about a project called Song of America. I was picking my son up from camp when I heard Janet Reno on NPR discussing a new album she was producing. Huh? That Janet Reno? Our first and only female attorney general? For sure!
"Song of America" is a three CD set that features a wide array of musical artists singing songs that, as Ms. Reno states, "focus on key periods in American history, in order to tell our story to young people who might find joy in learning history through music." Being a parent who is always on the lookout for great music with an educational slant, I was immediately hooked.
But I would need a few months worth of Chicago Parent columns to even begin to cover all the great songs and musical artistry featured in "Song of America." So the best I can do is give you a few highlights with the hope that you will seek out this extraordinary recording.
First of all, go to the Web site, www.srrecords.com/SongofAmerica. This is a great starting point for more information about the recording with links to the music, album liner notes, the NPR interviews and more. There is also a MySpace page featuring some exclusive video footage from some of the recording sessions.
You can also go to iTunes (enter "Song of America" in the search box) to hear 30-second clips and see the artist list of all 50 songs. You may choose to buy a few songs here (99 cents each) or download the entire album for $19.90. But I really think it is worth it to buy the physical hard copy of the project. Even at the list price of $24.95, it is well worth it. The liner notes and accompanying booklet really add to the listening experience.
The first disc, RED (not numbered, but color coded), features songs from 1492-1860. The collection begins with the Native American "Lakota Dream Song" performed intimately by Earl Bullhead accompanied only by the sparse and almost hypnotic sound of the hand drum. This first disc reminds us how important faith, religion and liberty were to America during this time with songs such as "Let Us Break Bread Together" (The Blind Boys of Alabama), "Go Down Moses" (Fisk Jubilee Singers) and "Dixie’s Land" (The Mavericks). I also really enjoy John Wesley Harding’s version of "God Save the King" with its vivid and wonderful (though my wife calls it "too far out") musical arrangement. And there is a spirited version of "Yankee Doodle" by Harper Simon (Paul’s son) and a stunning a cappella version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Take 6.
Disc two, WHITE, covers the period from 1861-1945 and though all 17 represent an important time and place and each are superbly arranged and performed, naturally I have some favorites. One of the things I love best about this project is that I hear songs performed in their most original version, sometimes ones I’ve never heard. And this is an important element to share with children. Because throughout much of our history, before recording technology, songs and stories were passed on through the oral tradition and through this process songs and stories were adapted and changed over time. I let my students know that it is not an issue of right and wrong, it is just the nature of the art form. So when you hear Jan Ian singing "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye" you will recognize it as "When Johnny Comes Marching Home."
Again, lots of great songs on WHITE including "Over There" (Jen Chapin), "Rosie The Riveter" (Suzy Bogguss) and the too-peppy-for-words "Happy Days Are Here Again" performed with great zeal by Danielson.
Disc three, BLUE, spotlights songs from 1946 to the present with maybe the most diverse set of songs of all three discs. You will hear Devendra Banhart’s take on "Little Boxes" (the song featured on Showtime’s hit series "Weeds"), Ben Taylor’s interpretation of the CSN&Y classic "Ohio" and even The Wrights singing Alan Jackson’s "Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)." The project ends with John Mellencamp playing and singing all the original verses of Woody Guthrie’s "This Land Is Your Land," a perfect bookend to the "Lakota Dream Song" that began the project.
Again, words have a hard time painting musical pictures, but I hope I have provided enough of a peek at the depth and beauty of "Song of America" so that you will take the time to find it and, more importantly, share it with your children. As Janet Reno so aptly states in the liner notes, "History is made when people and circumstances converge to shape events that interrupt our normal routine and move us in new directions. It is important to know our history to understand the importance our own actions have in shaping our future."
Fred Koch lives in Lake Bluff with his wife and son and is an award-winning music educator, recording artist and producer. His Web site, BestChildrensMusic.com, helps parents, teachers and librarians select quality children’s music. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.