Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music that Made a Nation – My Review

Throughout its history songs have always connected America in ways that transcend our individual differences, reminding us of our common struggles and triumphs as a people. In their remarkable book, Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music that Made a Nation, Pulitzer Prize author and historian Jon Meacham and Country Music artist and Grammy Award winner Tim McGraw highlight the artists, music, and lyrics that have captivated audiences and captured what it is that defines the American Spirit.

American record producer Quincy Jones writes that “Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw have convened a concert in Songs of America… a glorious celebration of our diversity – and of the strength that comes from the myriad of voices of all races that makes us who we are.” And the book jacket expands upon Quincy’s statement, adding that it’s not just a reminder of who we are or where we’ve been, but what “we, at our best, can be.”

Jon Meacham provides the historical context that I’ve previously admired (see my post dated 12/9/20, The Soul of America: the Battle for Our Better Angels – My Review.) He brings to life the various eras in American history and the defining events and moments that caused these songs to be written. His prose is so well constructed and insightful that the reader is transported through time not just learning about our past, but connecting intimately and totally in the lifeblood and spirit of the nation.

Tim McGraw reflects on the artistry of the performers and provides a unique perspective on the importance of these songs as well as the impact they had in capturing the mood and tenor of the times through music. His contribution to the book is profound. For me, it elevates it from a history lesson to a “must read.” We are all familiar with the songs, everything from our national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner,” to hymns and spirituals like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” songs of protest like “This Land Is Your Land” to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” to patriotic songs like “Born in the U.S.A” and “God Bless the U.S.A.” We have heard them sung throughout our lives, but we haven’t always considered what those songs meant not only to us, but to those whose voices forever enshrined them in the lexicon of uniquely American compositions and engrained them into our hearts and minds.

The collaboration of Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw takes the reader on an emotional journey with a focus seldom explored in literature. Songs of America is a book for the ages and one that should be read by every American.

The Soul of America: the Battle for Our Better Angels – My Review

the-soul-of-america-book-coverIn The Soul of America: the Battle for Our Better Angels Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian Jon Meacham looks at the extreme partisan divisions that currently exist in our country asserting that, while our differences appear to be irreconcilable, we have overcome similar challenges before and can do so again.

Meacham examines bygone eras to reassure Americans that despite all appearances to the contrary, today’s seemingly intractable issues are not unique and that our struggles with extremism, racism, economic hardship, pandemics, and civil unrest have been mirrored throughout our history.

2020 will certainly go down as one of the most contentious years in the life of our fragile democracy. However, parallels can be found in our Civil War and its aftermath, in the Suffrage Movement, the two World Wars, the Great Depression, McCarthyism, Segregation, and the fight for Civil Rights and Equal Justice. In all these the fate of America was at stake. “Each of these dramatic hours in our national life has been shaped by the contest to lead the country to look forward rather than back, to assert hope over fear – a struggle that continues even now.”

President Lincoln referred to this struggle as the search for ‘the better angels of our nature.’ “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Writing about the most combative periods in our history while showcasing the examples of previous Presidents, civic leaders, and influential citizens, Meacham gives us the reassurance that “we have come through such darkness before,” and that the country and our democracy can yet prevail if we come together by rebuilding faith in one another and working towards a common good – not a perfect Union, but a “more” perfect Union.

In How Democracies Die authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote “when societies divide into partisan camps with profoundly different worldviews, and when these differences are viewed as existential and irrevocable, political rivalry can devolve into partisan hatred. Parties come to view each other as enemies. Losing ceases to be an accepted part of the political process and instead becomes a catastrophe.” This is the unfortunate reality that we find ourselves in today. Intractability, our unwillingness to even listen to the other side much less reach across party lines to find a compromise or bipartisan solution, is undermining our democratic processes and institutions. Our inability to discern objective fact from fabrication is eroding the very foundation upon which our nation was built, and the demise of this experiment, “government by and for the people,” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is why Jon Meacham’s book The Soul of America: the Battle for Our Better Angels is so prescient. It is so easy to be cynical these days, but the author’s message of hope, so beautifully expressed through the prism of history, captures the resilient spirit of America that has resonated through the ages. To fulfill the promise of our Founding Fathers we need only heed the lessons of the past and “summon our own ‘better angels’ to meet the obvious challenges of today.”