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.