I walked into the Vets Liquor bar about twenty miles outside of DC back in 1976. It was July the 3rd. The Bicentennial was going on in downtown DC and I was heading to the Smoke-In where a few thousand of us Yippees and hippies were going to get together and celebrate our freedom by smoking lots of that devil weed and listening to a variety of rock and roll bands. The government, meanwhile, had its own big show going on with the Beach Boys (or whatever remained of them) and Johnny Cash. And fireworks and military bands.
Anyhow, the jukebox was playing “Okie From Muskogee” and the men and women sitting at the bar were taking the lyrics quite serious as they cast glances my way. My long hair and beard made me look, well, conspicuous. Of course, the upside down US flag sewn on to the back of my jeans (hey it made a great patch) might not have been the friendliest of message to those folks, either. I bought a pack of cigarettes and left without taking my change. Time to get back to friendlier environs.
My thumb went out on Route 1 and I got a ride almost instantly. It was a couple buddies of mine heading out to another suburb which happened to be where I was heading to also. By the end of the day I was in DC smoking some weed with some suburbanites that wasn’t doing much and hoping for something better. A group of hippies from West Virginia were sitting about ten feet from me drinking some shine and doing some picking on their guitars and banjo. Nothing too recognizable at first, but they eventually got around to doing a fair version of the Grateful Dead’s “Cumberland Blues.” I moved into their circle and pulled out a couple joints of some gold-colored weed I’d stashed for a special kind of occasion. The shine made the scene special somehow. Lit one up and passed it on. Can you guys play “US Blues?” They did their best.
But this isn’t about smoking weed or even about July 4th. It’s about a couple songs from the popular music of the 1960s and afterwards that have the United States as their theme. Like the majority of the folks at the smoke-in, most of these types of tunes share a belief that the United States is essentially a good place which has lost its way. Like too many of the folks going to see the government-sponsored fireworks that year (and stay as far away from the yippees as possible), many other songs of the period are unabashedly nationalistic rallying cries to war and empire. Steppenwolf’s “Monster” is perhaps the most pointed of the former from the so-called Sixties, while Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” is certainly one of the most pointed of the latter. Some, like Springsteen’s “Born In the USA” are of the former but have often been confused by the apologists for war and empire as a part of the latter’s songbook. Then again, some are just celebrations of life in the USA. Chuck Berry’s “Livin’ In the USA” and James Brown’s “Livin’ in America.” come to mind. On the surface mere apolitical romps, the mere celebration of US life without comment becomes a commentary of its own.
“Monster” by Steppenwolf appears on their 1970 album of the same name. An essentially libertarian anthem, John Kay and his bandmates trace the history of the United States utilizing the previously mentioned template of freedom betrayed. “America,” the song asks, “where are you now?” It is about America as a political Frankenstein that has destroyed the nation’s original intent. There are no culprits named, but the implicit message is that the politicians and the corporations they serve are the ones who must be removed, since it is their wars we are forced to fight. A present-day expression of this song can arguably be found in James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make it Here Anymore”–a song that paints and impressionistic picture of a town and the lives therein destroyed by corporate callousness made possible by politicians without conscience. “Monster” differs in that it expands the scenario into the nation’s history. Although this promise is a promise for the colonists and not the natives, the destruction of those peoples and the incorporation of slavery are part of the destruction wrought to the promise.
David Lynn Jones “Living In the Promised Land” sung most famously by Willie Nelson is a song that represents another look at the myth that makes the nation. It is a tale of America from the immigrant’s view that promises room for everyone. The United States as the great melting pot. Idealized, for sure, the song does not mention the slaves who came unwillingly bound in ships in conditions worse than sheep and forced to work for the rich white men whose interactions with the native people ended up in the latter’s genocide. Yet, it presents a nation formed by immigrants and invites in more while acknowledging there are those already here who have forgotten their own history. When Willie sings “Is there no love anymore/Living in the promised land?” he is reminding the listener that they too come from other lands . Consequently, they should be more than willing to share the hope their ancestors found on America’s shores with the newest immigrants. Of course, we know this has rarely been the case.
The Dead’s tune “US Blues” is a slightly different take on the US of A. Uncle Sam is, in essence, a con-man. PT Barnum and the pot dealer join the medicine man hucksters wearing Carl Perkins blue suede shoes in a rock and roll traveling show. Unlike the hard-luck working class protagonist of “Born In the USA,” the characters of “US Blues” are independent operators whose lives have somehow remained untouched by the miseries of war and the factory. In the concert movie The Grateful Dead Movie, there is an animated sequence that opens the film and features this song. It plays while Uncle Sam is arrested and thrown into jail by a pig-face cop. A cop that looked a lot like some of those on the line that July 4th back in 1976. Cops just waiting for a pot smoking freak to light one up in his face. I recall seeing the Dead in January 1980 at a benefit for Cambodian refugees (that also featured the Beach Boys, among others) where the lyric “Shake the hand that shook the hand of P.T. Barnum and Charlie Chan” was changed to “Shake the hand that shook the hand of P.T. Barnum and the Shah of Iran.” This was obviously an ironic reference to the end of that ill-fated relationship in the wake of the Iranian revolution then going on–a revolution Washington is still trying to figure out how to deal with.
I ended up inviting the West Virginia pickers back to my house. On the way home we got pulled over by the county cops. They talked to us for about half an hour, searched the West Virginians’ truck and found nothing. While they tossed stuff out of the truck, they half-jokingly asked the guitarist to play a song. He wisely chose Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” The lead cop told us how much he liked that song. Then he told us to get the hell home before he decided to look harder. We took his advice. I’m going to be with family up in Maryland this Fourth of July. There will be chicken, burgers, conversation, beer, and music.
Two songs I know I will hear are “Born In the USA” and “God Bless the USA.” The irony of the former will be lost on some of my relatives while the complete lack of irony of the latter will be barely tolerated by the rest of us.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org