Democracy in Musical Action

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Democracy seems such a basic part of our culture as Americans that it comes as a shock to find that it’s actually quite hard to define. Almost every communist or socialist dictatorship used the word as part of their country’s official name: the German Democratic Republic wasn’t democratic West Germany, but communist East. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the totalitarian (and totally surreal – check my *blog*) country of North Korea, not the democratic South. On the other hand, our Democratic candidate for President is being termed a Socialist by some because he suggests that taxation represent a person’s ability to pay – taxation and representation being key elements in the nascent building of the American republic.

So when we asked you to pick a song that exemplifies “democracy” for you, we recognized that it was not necessarily an easy task. Over the years, some of the songs that have struck me as truly American, genuinely patriotic, and evocative of what our brand of democracy means, have not been the flag-waving, God-blessed-America songs, but the ones that questioned whether we’d lost our way, or acknowledged the gap between the theory and the reality of our democracy. Their very existence was proof of our democracy: these were examples of artistic expression that could only be safely raised in a genuine democracy. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is a truly democratic song – but in ways that would shock the members of the political right who thought they knew what it was about from its title and anthemic chorus. David Byrne has written a number of truly American songs (ironic for a man born in Scotland and who has lived most of his life in the States as a green-card-carrying, non-voting resident), including the Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime” and “The Big Country,” both of which question our fundamental belief in The American Dream, suggesting we’ve been sold a huge anesthetic instead of a genuine dream. You can agree or not, but it is democracy in action to pose the question.

My plan was to unveil my pick today, but Harry Shearer stole my thunder on Friday’s show when he revealed his pick – and it turned out to be the same song I had chosen. Paul Simon’s “American Tune” is melancholy but heartfelt song for a country that has been blessed, and was founded on the basis of high, almost dream-like ideals, but has had to find its way through the reality of a world of challenges. On this Election Day, when voters on both sides are facing up to the daunting tasks ahead and looking for true change, you can almost imagine this sentiment, in very different words perhaps, running through millions of minds.

Many's the time I've been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I've often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Oh, but I'm all right, I'm all right
I'm just weary to my bones
Still, you don't expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home

And I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
or driven to its knees
but it's all right, it's all right
for we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the
road we're traveling on
I wonder what's gone wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age's most uncertain hours
and sing an American tune
Oh, and it's alright, it's all right, it's all right
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all I'm trying to get some rest

[View songs picked by today's guests, Deborah Evans Price and Daphne Brooks]

Leave a comment: What's your "democracy song"?