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Pledges of Allegiance

Keeping an eye on the Ragged Old Flag: Johnny Cash is among a group of artists whose America-themed works have been resurrected by the 9/11-conscious record industry.

In the days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the nation's radio programmers attempted to rid their playlists of material they feared might offend the sensibilities of a jittery public -- a trend that temporarily left black marks on songs as disparate as System of a Down's "Chop Suey!" and Peter, Paul and Mary's "Leaving on a Jet Plane." But as ditties featuring casual mentions of aeronautics or fire disappeared from the dial, long-forgotten patriotic numbers returned with a vengeance, including Lee Greenwood's simplistic 1984 chest-thumper "God Bless the U.S.A." Prior to September 11, this faded country star was working the state-fair circuit. Afterward, he was back on national TV, and his signature hymn of praise was a smash all over again.

The 9/11 effect has touched plenty of other tunes, too, spawning releases or reissues that have attempted to walk the line between soothing folks and exploiting them. Objectively speaking, few of these offerings are very good, and many are laughable -- or they would be, if laughing about such subjects hadn't become so politically incorrect. But the success of so many of the songs is intriguing for what it tells us about the ways in which we're attempting to come to terms with new realities. Moreover, the reappearance of long-players that until recently could be dismissed as either unintentionally silly or overtly jingoistic suggests that many of us have only the vaguest notions about how to exhibit patriotism in a post-terrorist society.

Country cuts directly or indirectly touching upon our ugliest current events have been more explicitly boosterish than their pop counterparts, with the relative subtlety of Alan Jackson's sentimental but sincere "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" -- in which the singer emphasizes the love of the Christian God instead of the hatred of Islam -- proving to be a rarity. Aaron Tippin's "Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly," a two-year-old tune Tippin brushed off for the occasion, sports you-and-what-army couplets such as "I pledge my allegiance to this flag/And if that bothers you, well, that's too bad," whereas Brooks & Dunn's "Only in America" opens with a New York City school-bus driver imagining the mainly promising futures of the youngsters he's transporting. More likely, such a driver would be busy imagining what he'll scream at the next kid who throws something at him.

In contrast, neither Enrique Iglesias's "Hero" nor Five for Fighting's "Superman (It's Not Easy)," two notable pop entries, tackle the topic of patriotism specifically. The former is a drippy love song ("Would you tremble if I touch your lips?") that happened to have the right moniker at the right time, whereas the latter is approximately the trillionth musical dissection of the Superman myth, and possibly the most simpering ("Even heroes have the right to bleed"). But both were featured in widely seen telethons -- America: A Tribute to Heroes and The Concert for New York City, respectively -- that lent them an importance they otherwise would have lacked. The same is true of Enya's "Only Time," the aural equivalent of comfort food, which attained hit status largely because of its frequent use as background music for network-news montages of shell-shocked mourners.

So it's no surprise that music companies have been actively seeking ways to capitalize on what's seen as Americans' renewed devotion to their country. Manhattan Records recently put out "God Bless America," a single by Daniel Rodriguez (a New York City cop who sang at numerous memorials and last year's World Series), and is scheduled to follow up with a Rodriguez long-player next week. Meanwhile, Legacy, the reissue arm of Columbia Records, checked in last month with two Johnny Cash platters from the early '70s, America: A 200 Year Salute in Story and Song and Ragged Old Flag, and the independent imprint MPI unearthed 1973's America: Why I Love Her, a recitation by none other than movie cowboy John Wayne.

The Rodriguez single, whose profits have been earmarked for the Twin Towers Fund, would never have been released under more peaceable circumstances. Executives would have known that even people wowed at the ballpark by Rodriguez's earnest but untutored Mario Lanza impression probably wouldn't plunk down several bucks at the CD store for a copy to spin at home. As it stands, the package is primarily a curio, with Rudolph Giuliani's melodramatic monologue ("As the storm clouds gather/Far across the sea/Let us swear allegiance/To a land that's free") as an introduction to a rendition of Irving Berlin's chestnut that could have been cut in 1941. Not nearly as sturdy is the next song, "We Will Go On," which pulls out every stop by means of lapel-yanking lyrics (it begins with "For those we lost, we must be strong") and lachrymose production (mournful piano, supportive background vocalists) that leave Rodriguez mired in a puddle of sonic goo. He must be a very brave man.

 

Cash's salvos make more of an impact, even though neither comes close to the quality of his best work. America, from 1972, links together songs about historical incidents, such as the Johnny Horton favorite "The Battle of New Orleans" and Ramblin' Jack Elliott's "Mister Garfield" (about President James Garfield's assassination), with narration by Cash that tracks the country's growth. Not all of the individual parts are especially impressive, but "Paul Revere" is jaunty fun, and Cash deserves kudos for giving Abraham Lincoln songwriting credit on "The Gettysburg Address." You rock, Abe.

Ragged Old Flag, which first hit stores in 1974, was the first LP for which Cash wrote all the songs. But despite appearances, it's not an America-like concept album; only the title cut, recorded live before attendees of a CBS Records convention, addresses love for our home, sweet home. In it, Cash milks the tale of a banner that's survived battles at the Alamo, Chancellorsville and Flanders Field for all it's worth, rumbling like John Brown over a choir that swells to a mighty crescendo as he intones, "On second thought, I do like to brag/'Cause I'm mighty proud of that ragged old flag."

Stirring words, sure, but it's important to consider the preceding images that motivate them. Prior to the song's conclusion, Cash notes that the flag "hung limp and low" after being sent to Korea and Vietnam, "and now they've about quit waving her back here at home/In her own good land, she's been abused/She's been burned, dishonored, denied and refused/And the government for which she stands/Is scandalized throughout the land."

"Ragged Old Flag," then, isn't just a paean to the red, white and blue, but a right-wing response to anti-war protesters and critics of the Nixon administration in the wake of Watergate. This sort of reactionary traditionalism produced its own musical genre during that period, even cracking the Billboard top five via 1974's "Americans," a commentary from the pen of Canada's Gordon Sinclair that Canuck DJ Byron MacGregor uttered over a hoary rendition of "America the Beautiful."

Wayne's "Why I Love Her" -- which, astoundingly enough, was nominated for a Grammy in 1974 -- is built upon an even more ideologically conservative foundation. The CD gathers together ten monologues mainly written or co-written by actor John Mitchum, brother of screen icon Robert Mitchum, and the first, "Why I Love Her," is a rather benign catalogue of America's natural beauty. But things get contentious mighty quick during the next declaration, "The Hyphen." After defining a hyphen as a mark that divides words, Wayne notes, "It seems to me that when a man calls himself an Afro-American, a Mexican-American, an Italian-American, Irish-American, a Jewish-American, what he's saying is, 'I'm a divided American'" -- or, by implication, an American whose loyalty is questionable. Wayne then compounds this outrageous claim by saying that neither the German swastika nor the Russian hammer and sickle "could ever fan the flames of hatred faster than a hyphen." Next time you domestic Holocaust survivors dare to identify yourselves as Jewish-Americans, think about that, why don't you?

The rest of the album is more campy than offensive. "The People," about great Americans ranging from Sandy Koufax to Mahalia Jackson, finds the Duke chanting rhythmically about "people/Her people/Who've done their own thing," while "Face the Flag" boasts that Old Glory continues to fly high even in "the Age of Aquarius." It's hard to believe that anyone shattered by the memory of crumbling skyscrapers could find succor in these words, unless they're in their eighties and still harbor ill will toward anyone in a paisley shirt.

For those who don't fit this description, the God Bless America compilation, which also benefits the Twin Towers Fund, will likely hold more appeal. The platter has moved over half a million units and continues to linger on the charts months after its debut for a reason -- namely its comparatively thoughtful juxtaposition of patriotic songs such as Pete Seeger's take on "This Land Is Your Land" with the likes of Bruce Springsteen's "Land of Hope and Dreams" and Bill Withers's "Lean on Me," which reassure listeners without browbeating them. The decision to lead off with "God Bless America" as sung by a French Canadian, Celine Dion, remains a bit mystifying, and no amount of patriotism can make Billy Gilman's "There's a Hero" a pleasant experience. But the inclusion of Tramaine Hawkins's "Amazing Grace" alongside Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" makes perfect sense, because both encourage the sort of reflection and contemplation that's in short supply these days.

Paul Simon's "American Tune" is that kind of song as well, and since God Bless America was put out by Columbia Records, which originally issued the track, including it would have been a simple matter. But "American Tune" is shot through with the singer's insecurity, and even though this emotion ultimately adds power to the lines "We come in the age's most uncertain hours/And sing an American tune," the compilers played it safe and went instead with another Simon composition, "Bridge Over Troubled Waters."

 

In many ways, this was a logical move: When the goal is to make people feel better, why muddy those troubled waters any more than they already are? But it also demonstrates how difficult it will be for performers to make great popular art out of their reactions to the very real threat of attack. Ambiguity is the friend of the artist, but it's the enemy of the propagandist -- and in the first blush of conflict, propaganda is the order of the day.

All of which helps explain why Lee Greenwood's song is on the compilation, too. As he'd undoubtedly put it, God bless the U.S.A.


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