Various Artists: Song of America

Ed Petersen gathered an impressive cast of contemporary artists to re-record the music of American life from the past 500+ years. The result is a glorious hodge-podge of styles and voices that celebrates the diversity of our national life, warts and all.

Various Artists

Song of America

Label: 31 Tigers
US Release Date: 2007-09-18
UK Release Date: 2007-10-22

History teachers commonly bring audio aids to class to help teach periods in American life. The songs of Woody Guthrie evocatively bring to life the Great Depression. And the protest tunes by '60s folk rockers really set the mood for a discussion of the Vietnam War era. Those pieces can be found here on Ed Petersen’s 50-track, 3-CD anthology of American music, but Petersen’s ambitions are much bolder and more ambitious. Instead of anthologizing period pieces, Petersen utilized living artists to re-record the music of American life from the past 500+ years. The result is a glorious hodge-podge of styles and voices that celebrates the diversity of our national life, warts and all.

The depth and breadth of this project reveals the mighty effort Petersen put into making this set a reality. He was inspired by comments by former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who contributed to the set’s liner notes (Petersen is married to Reno’s niece). This is aural history rather than oral history and offers a fascinating picture of how the country grew and developed into the present nation.

Petersen organized the music chronologically and chose his selections according to five themes: United we Stand, Divided we Fall, War and Peace, Work, Families at Home and on the Move, and Faith and Ideals. The first disc covers the years 1492-1869 and begins with Earl Bullhead’s rendition of the “Lakota Dream Song”. Native American culture and music from other races and ethnic groups are spread among the three discs. Petersen also remembers our colonial past. John Wesley Harding’s raucous rendition of “God Save the King” provides one of the first record’s many highlights. Harding and his brass back-up combo sound like a Salvation Army Band who have hit the sauce but still determined to play earnestly. This seems appropriate on an album that proclaims our nation’s independence from the British sovereign.

Other songs on this disc recall the American Revolution, the Gold Rush, women’s rights, slavery, and other noteworthy political issues through individual eyes. The best songs seem to be the strangest ones that evoke the national character by their very eccentricities, such as BR549’s telling of the tall tale in “Sweet Betsy from Pike” and Malcolm Holcombe’s gruffly sung morality fable “The Old Woman Taught Wisdom”. These reveal the United States as a place of weirdly independent citizens, not to mention those who seek their freedom, as with the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ commanding version of the African American spiritual “Go Down Moses” and Milton Sparks and Pat Flynn’s treatment of the suffragist plea “Declaration of Sentiments”.

The second discs goes from the Civil War until the end of the Second World War (1861-1945) and, besides addressing these and other wars, covers immigration, industrialization, urbanization, and the Great Depression. Petersen’s inclusive of different cultures, but focuses on our English heritage and even songs from different ethnic groups, like the Yiddish lullaby “Schlof Meyn Kind”, are sung in English (as is “Sleep My Child” by Judith Edelman and Neilson Hubbard). This gives the collection a consistent tone, even though some of the standards from this period are performed quite weirdly, as one might expect by artists as experimental and diverse as alternative folkie Andrew Bird (“How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm”), jazzbo Andy Bey (“Brother Can You Spare a Dime”), and indie popsters Danielson (“Happy Days are Here Again”).

The last disc covers the shortest time period (1946-present) but reveals how much as happened during the past seven decades. Petersen begins by acknowledging that the nuclear bomb has changed everything, with Elizabeth Cook and the Grascals’ old-time rendition of “The Great Atomic Power”, then goes right into Cold War conformity with Devandra Banhart’s splendidly bizarre take on Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes”, before dwelling on the 1960s with covers of Bob Dylan, James Brown, and Neil Young tunes. As we get more contemporary, the covers tend to be more conventionally sung but no less affecting, especially Bettye LaVette’s soulful take on Bruce Springsteen’s AIDS-inspired “Streets of Philadelphia”. The Wrights remind us of the events of 9/11 with the duo’s gently sung offering of Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning”. John Mellencamp ends the collection with a reminder of what the collection’s all about by performing a solo version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”, invoking the natural beauty of the landscape and the hopeful ideals upon which America was founded.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.