America's Greatest Hits

By  |  June 10, 2009

I have always been proud of my country.
—Cindy McCain


Dear Mr. Jones:


You can stop looking; I have found you.

Word has reached me down in the nation’s nether regions that you are putting together a collection of America’s Greatest Hits. Such a simple-sounding task. You take Nathan Hale’s “One Life to Give,” and FDR’s “Fear Itself,” add Abe Lincoln’s “House Divided,” and John F. Kennedy’s “Ask Not,” and, voilà!, you have the perfect package to sell alongside the commemorative coin collections on the late-night infomercials. Or is your project intended for international distribution? Perhaps you will ship it off to Zimbabwe or Sri Lanka so they can learn to play our liberated music and dance our freedom dances.

I can tell you this: You ship such a willfully bland collection overseas, or even to the hipper pockets of America, and hardly a hip will be moved.

Yes, it is a simple-sounding task, and if you do it that way, it will be simplicity itself. For simple, you don’t need me. But is that really what you want? A collection of songs calibrated to appeal to the warm-weather patriot in all of us?

If you’re really going to anthologize America’s Greatest Hits—your title, certainly not mine—you’re going to need someone who has seen a lot more of the world than the Ivy-League American-Studies major I assume you think you’re looking for. I’ve spun records for every occasion from Manhattan champagne soirees to Maringouin, Louisiana, ice-water parties; red-hot stomps to blue-light-in-the-basement grinds; waist-line parties to sock hops; house-rent happenings to country barn raisings; bar mitzvahs to Cinco de Mayo celebrations. I’ve been paid in everything from gold bouillon to fresh yard eggs. I’ve arrived by horse-drawn carriage and also on the bare, bleeding leather of my own calloused feet.

You see where this is going, don’t you?

If there is to be any greatness in this collection, it’ll need to include more America than can easily fit in that cloistered space between the ears of the average American.

First of all, you need a new title. The United Hits of America. Something that’s big enough for all the national moods and grooves.

Can you get to that? Are you willing to include those moments in our national music that may hardly have qualified as moments in your own private America? There are great hits that may have escaped your memory, but trust me, they rest cherished in other recesses of our national consciousness. And they rest uneasy in certain repositories of our national conscience.

I know how the crowds react to the old standards. There are some tunes all Americans have been taught to love. When “Boston Tea Party” dropped, the Mount Vernon crew was doing polite minuets to it. Some of the help got so swept up in the promise of change that they were chanting, “The British Are Coming,” right alongside the folks who actually had something at stake. When Patrick Henry came out with “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” you couldn’t tune in to underground radio without hearing its strains. But don’t forget that Crispus Attucks song, “Give Me Or!” That man might have been a one-hit wonder, but he rocked everything from the big house to the slave quarters when he came out with that one. They were still playing it all the way until the 1960s. (Shame he never got to perform it live.)

I know that George Washington’s biggest hit was “Cherry Tree.” But, truth be told, that’s not the song that made his career. If it weren’t for 1779’s “Lay Waste All the Settlements Around,” his name would be virtually unknown outside Virginia. Hardly anybody remembers it now, but the Iroquois sure do. How did it go again?

“Lay waste all the settlements around/That the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.…/[Don’t] listen to any overture of peace/Before the total ruin of their settlements is effected.”

I know their music can be a bit cerebral, but is there any group in American history with more hits than the Supremes? Even with all the personnel changes? I like those early albums, when Chief Justice John Marshall was still the lead singer. Remember “Johnson v. McIntosh, 1823”? The Indiana Indians (some of whom were from Illinois) had just released “Free Enterprise” on their What Freedom Means to Me album: “It’s my land/I’ll sell if I want to.” But Big John had an answer song for them. They could live on their land, but they couldn’t own it because the white people had discovered it. Has there ever been a more subtle logic expressed in pop music than the one Big John penned? The “right of occupancy” is subordinate to the “right of discovery.”

Of course, the Supremes being old-fashioned, their music tended to be polite and understated. Andrew Jackson was straight-up raw. Some of his lyrics might have been legalistic: “To provide for an exchange of lands with the Indians/Residing in any of the states or territories/And for their removal west of the river Mississippi.” But his titles were straight-up gangsta: Not until Hitler came on the scene in the 1930s, did anybody have the balls to release anything on vinyl as bold as Jackson’s “Indian Removal Act.”

The Indians remember lots of songs like that. Ballads, mostly. Songs of lust and yearning about what could have been and maybe what ought to have been, but what ultimately wasn’t. My favorite is still “Trail of Tears.” Whenever I hear it, I grow nostalgic over my own lost loves: “Every step another tear drop/Forms frozen on my cheek.”

People forget now that Indian singers actually ruled the pop charts for centuries. Then they just disappeared. Nowadays, people don’t even remember that Indians once could sing. But I still play old Indian records when the mood is right. When I got back with my third wife for the fourth time, I got on my knees and I played a song by that last great Indian singer, Chief Joseph, “I Will Fight No More Forever.” (We played it again at the wedding reception when I married my fourth wife.)

But has there been any taproot of inspiration for American music that has run deeper or been sustained longer than the American Negro? Jeremiah Guttman—Jewish-American foot soldier in World War II, shipper of arms to the Zionist cause, and hero of the ACLU—remembers a certain ditty that was all the rage in Florida when his family used to vacation there in the 1930s. “No Niggers, Dogs, Gypsies, or Jews,” the song went. The SPCA got its knickers in a twist about the discrimination in that one, but it was the niggers who felt the bulk of American hits. (Who ever heard of a Gypsy water fountain?)

“I Tremble for My Country,” Thomas Jefferson crooned at the height of his career. And if God is just, as Jefferson claimed he was, then some songs about the Negro must yet squeeze their way into this anthology. I know you’re going to include Abe Lincoln’s “If Slavery Is Not Wrong, Nothing Is Wrong.” But don’t forget, Lincoln was only a star in the North. When Andrew Johnson’s “This Is a Country for White Men” came out, it played on every station across the nation. You mention Theodore Roosevelt, and “San Juan Hill” comes immediately to mind. But don’t forget, old Teddy created his own genre of protest song with “All Coons Do Not Look Alike to Me!”

Even now, you can hear echoes of Woodrow Wilson’s “Making the World Safe for Democracy” in songs about American foreign policy. But is its message more enduring or more worthy than “Why Not Make Us Safe?,” Monroe Trotter’s forgotten hit? (I know, I know. Trotter was a protectionist. But there is a proper place for such sentiments, is there not?)

The curious thing about Negro-themed material is it induces whiplash on the dance floor. Every time the pace of progress picks up, there’s a frenzy of feet. Then a tuneful rebuttal ascends even higher on the charts than its inspiration. Harry Truman’s “Executive Order 9981” might have desegregated the armed forces, but his sister, Mary Jane, wrote the song that reassured a fearful nation. “Harry Is No More for Nigger Equality (Than Any of Us),” she sang. When Earl Warren and the Supremes released their desegregation anthem “With All Deliberate Speed,” the dance floors were awash with frenetic gyration. But the tempo reverted to its natural crawl when Ike Eisenhower put out “Make Haste Slowly.” John F. Kennedy’s fusion number, “What Can We Do to Help (But Without Getting Too Far Out Front)?,” melded the fast and slow tempos into a seamlessly tuneful hypocrisy.

But was there any performer who had more of an affinity for the ways and rhythms of the Negro than Richard Nixon? Remember, he’s the one who produced Earl Butz’s song “Tight Pussy, Comfortable Shoes, and a Warm Place to Shit.” But he was working solo when he composed that great gift to black dancers, “Make Sure There’s Something in It for the Jigs.”

I wish we could include videos. Do you remember John Lewis dancing on the “Edmund Pettus Bridge” video with Sheriff Jim Clark and the Deputies? When it really got good and hot, the sheriff looked over at the Deputies like James Brown looking over at the J.B.s. Then he hollered, “Hit him!” And the whole band, all dressed in their official uniforms, came down with their billy clubs, Whump!

Then the sheriff looked over again and hollered, “Hit him two times!”

Whump! Whump!

World War II was The Great War, and the most popular songs from its soundtrack still warm the hearts that pump American blood. But does anybody ever play Admiral William Halsey’s “Kill Japs, Kill Japs, Kill More Japs”? Sunada Toshu was virtually unknown at the time. But in this more enlightened era, I think we could safely include one of his songs in the collection. (You know, the Japanese are very in now.) Why not include “Loyalty, Disloyalty”?
“If asked, what should I answer?” he sang.

Mr. Jones, this has taken up more time—yours and mine—than either of us expected. For that, I apologize. It’s your anthology, and you should be proud of it in every particular. Mine is merely the vision of an old American, a student of this place and its less-studied particulars. I fervently believe that this vast nation—yours and mine—is big enough to contain both our selections, though perhaps not in any officially sanctioned capacity. I kid myself in thinking that my collection could ever rise to the level of popularity and acceptance to which you no doubt aspire. My discourse, taking place as it does on the lower frequencies, might better be called Greater Causes, Lesser Hits, or some such couplet that would only be in with the out-crowd.
You have indulged me this long, and for that I owe you a bit of gratitude. But I am not so thankful as to be above begging another indulgence. I have penned my own rejection letter; enclosed it in a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Please, if you would, place it in a mailbox. It will save you the trouble of writing the explanation of how “the caliber of candidates was unforeseeably high,” etc., etc. And it would save me the trouble of wondering whether you had ever even considered that other Americans have felt the beats and hits of this nation not only in their hearts but on their heads as well.


Your impertinent servant

Lolis Eric Elie is a New Orleans-bred, Los Angeles-based writer whose work includes documentary film (Faubourg Treme), television (OWN’s Greenleaf, HBO’s Treme), and essays.