Songs of America | Jon Meacham

Summary of: Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation
By: Jon Meacham

Introduction

Embark on a soul-stirring journey through America’s rich musical history, as Jon Meacham’s ‘Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation’ chronicles how the power of music has shaped the nation’s identity. From John Dickinson’s revolutionary ‘Liberty Song’ to the moving compositions capturing the struggle for freedom of African Americans and women, this book summary highlights the intimate connection between music and the socio-political landscape of the United States. Explore how iconic songs like ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’, and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ have voiced the aspirations, struggles, and triumphs of the American people throughout history.

Songs of Freedom

Music played a significant role in America’s revolutionary era in creating a sense of unity and promoting the idea of independence. In this era, songs like “The Liberty Song” and “Rights of Women” had an emotional impact on people that political writing couldn’t achieve. Despite the epoch-making signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, women, and African American people remained subjugated to slavery. Nevertheless, people like Phillis Wheatley expressed their yearning for freedom through verse, causing their messages of freedom to be heard and also reaching the desk of George Washington.

The Birth of an Anthem

The Star-Spangled Banner is a patriotic song created by Francis Scott Key in 1814 during the American colonists’ battle with the British Crown to validate their Declaration of Independence. Key was inspired to write the song as he witnessed the perseverance of his countrymen at Fort McHenry, Baltimore. He put his patriotic feelings into words, resulting in a moving song that praises the American flag, a symbol of independence and perseverance. Although the song was an instant hit, it wasn’t until 1931 that it became the national anthem of the United States. Unfortunately, not all songs written during times of conflict have seen such a victorious outcome. The Native Americans, who were forced from their ancestral lands in the 19th century, experienced hunger, destitution, and genocide, as captured in one Choctaw Nation song written during the 1830s. Despite the mournful understanding that salvation may not arrive in this life, lyrics like these expressed their longing for freedom and a good land.

Songs of Freedom

The fight against slavery in America was accompanied by music that reflected the struggle. “Farewell Song,” composed by British abolitionists Julia and T. Powis Griffith for Frederick Douglass, lamented the dissonance between the American ideal of freedom and the reality of slavery. “Battle Cry of Freedom” rallied Unionist soldiers during the Civil War with its promise of a slave-free America. And on December 31st, 1862, Harriet Tubman’s favorite song, “Go Down Moses,” united African Americans as they awaited freedom’s arrival. These songs serve as a reminder of the role music played in the fight for freedom.

The Power of Music in Advocating for Women and Blacks

In 1872, Susan B. Anthony illegally voted, leading to her prosecution, conviction, and powerful speech, which built the momentum for the women’s suffrage movement. Music, such as the protest anthem “Daughters of Freedom, the Ballot Be Yours,” played a vital role in the fight for women’s suffrage and was celebrated in the October 1915 march. In contrast, the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written by James and John Johnson in 1916, became the voice of hope and progress for black Americans fighting white supremacy, segregation laws, and the Ku Klux Klan. The lasting legacy of these poignant songs continues today, featuring in Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration and Beyoncé’s performance at the 2018 Coachella music festival.

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