Songs of America, by Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw

In Songs of America, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer of Presidents Jon Meacham and Grammy-winning country singer Tim McGraw teamed up to trace America’s history through patriotic songs that shaped and reflected the country’s mood amid wars, social movements, and other times of conflict from before the American Revolutionary War up to the election of President Obama. Anyone who enjoys reading history or listening to music – or better, both – will find it irresistible. 

Meacham writes a celebration of the history and songs of the eras while McGraw reflects, as an artist and performer, on the songs selected in a series of sidebars. The two form an irresistible duo, connecting us to music as a force in our nation’s history. They begin their narrative early on, when tensions first arose between England and the 13 colonies. From there, they recount the next two-and-a-half century journey over our history’s rocky road.   

From the Star Spangled Banner and Yankee Doodle Dandy, to I Wish I was in DixieAmerica The Beautiful,This Land is Your Land and He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, in early years, to the more current We Shall OvercomeBlowin’ in the WindOkie From Muskogee, and Born in the USA, to name a few, they connect us with music as an unsung (no pun intended) force in our country’s development.   

McGraw’s engaging commentary fits well with Meacham’s artful delivery in writing about each song and how it fits into the era. Rarely do such diverse talents mesh in a way that produces a result of a whole greater than the sum of the parts.  

In summary, they have written a wonderful and moving account of how the sounds of America have inspired us and contribute to our understanding of our past.   Toward the end, Meacham quotes Shakespeare:

The man who has not music in his soul
Or is not touched with Concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for Treasons, Stratagems, & Spoils,
The Motions of his mind are dull as Night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such Man be trusted.  

Perhaps this is why the authors halt their story just before the 45th President….  

p.s. A personal note of a segment of my early history and music. While a ninth-grader in 1956, I joined a group of boys who were skipping school to travel to Memphis to hear Elvis Presley at the Cotton Carnival, an event much like the Mardi Gras. Elvis had recently made the scene with his hit “Heartbreak Hotel”, and we were entranced by his sideburns, swiveling hips, ducktail haircut – all of which we quickly tried to emulate. We got back home well into the wee hours of the morning, and of course my parents had been extremely worried and now mad, but glad I was safe.  I think I was grounded forever. Several years later, Elvis and I were both serving in the Army at the same time in Germany.  

Ken Johnson

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