Today is the Fourth of July, our nation’s 235th birthday. I for one am proud to be an American. As a musician, my feelings are pretty much the same as Neil Young’s in the song “Hawks and Doves”:
Got rock and roll,
Got country music playin’
If you hate us, you just
Don’t know what you’re sayin’.
From the start America has been a nation of immigrants, some willing and some less so. In music and other areas that’s worked to our benefit. The blend of European, African, Latin and other traditions has made our musical culture among the richest in the world. In fact, it’s easy to make a case that American popular music is the music of the world.
Take the story of my instrument, the slide guitar. The tradition of sliding a hard object over strings goes back over 1,000 years in India. In the 1880s a musician named Gabriel Davion was shanghaied from India by a sailing ship. He escaped in Honolulu by hiding in a barrel of fish. Over the next few years Davion created a sensation there, sliding a knife on a single guitar string. Then a young Hawaiian named Joseph Kekuku, influenced also by a German zither player, raised the nut on a Spanish guitar and with the help of his high school shop teacher crafted a steel bar to slide over the strings. The steel guitar was born. In the 1890s Hawaiian steel guitarists came to the mainland in vaudeville. By the early 1900s African-Americans in Mississippi were making their own sounds on slide guitars, using bones, knives and bottlenecks. They in turn influenced the Southern white musicians who played what was then called hillbilly music. The resonator National and Dobro guitars associated with blues and country music were invented in Los Angeles in the 1920s by the Dopyera brothers — first generation immigrants from Slovakia. So this music, so closely identified with the American South, has roots all over the world. It comes from everywhere, and yet it sounds like nothing from anywhere else. It’s American music, but it’s also the music of humanity.
And that, I believe, is one example of what has made America great. We really are the world. Yet it seems sometimes we’ve achieved greatness in spite of ourselves.
I recently read Duke Ellington’s America, by Harvey Cohen. In one scene Ellington, in a luxury hotel in England, says to an English friend: “I love this place. I don’t think you realize that in America it’s very difficult for me to stay in a place like this.” Ellington had it easy compared to many. In his prime Louis Armstrong, one of the seminal figures of 20th century American music, could appear in film only dressed as a servant or wearing a leopard skin. Armstrong and his whole band once went to jail for insisting on riding in a bus they had rented and paid for. In many American cities neither Armstrong nor Ellington could find a restaurant to serve them. That’s a side of America that’s hard to be proud of.
In the late 1930s a movement to make “God Bless America” our national anthem was defeated in Congress mainly because the composer, Irving Berlin, was Jewish. That’s another side of America that’s hard to be proud of.
If you say that’s all in the past, you’re right. We’ve come a long way, but anyone who watches TV or listens to radio or just walks down the street with open eyes and ears has got to recognize that we’ve still got a long way to go.
It’s popular these days to say that America is “exceptional.” Yes, I believe it is, but only because millions of Americans have worked and bled to make it so. And we could lose all that in a heartbeat if we’re not careful. We get no free ride just because we were born in this country. It would be easy to wave that big foam finger all the way to the bottom.
But I’d like to think we’re better than that.
Happy 4th of July. Eat a hot dog, enjoy the ball game, watch the fireworks. And tomorrow let’s go back to work.