It’s not the song I thought I’d be writing about today—Harry Chapin‘s “What Made America Famous.”
I went to YouTube in search of his “She Sings Her Song Without Words.” I thought I’d juxtapose the “song without words” with the song without music of the powerful poem Ashley Judd delivered at the Women’s March in Washington last weekend.
But as I was listening to Chapin sing his sweet, very of-the-era love song, I noticed a video in the sidebar called “What Made America Famous.” As a long-haired, guitar-playing teen I was a Chapin fan back in the day. But I couldn’t quite place the song title.
So I clicked on the video and heard something I need to share with you.
It’s a typical Chapin story-song—an eternity at seven minutes long, but the length is part of what makes it work.
The length and the rhythm lull you into complacency as he sings about the mom-and-apple-pie things that “made America famous.” He builds the intensity as he approaches contemporary life, the Vietnam-era world neatly divided between the “us” and “them.” “Us” always being white, middle-class and “them” the hippies, people of color, people stuck at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Disposable people. We don’t know anything about that world today, do we?
Chapin could have ended his song on a hopeful note, a Norman Rockwell picture of comity. But he knows that’s only part of the story. So sit tight ’til the end.
What makes America famous? Our choices
Chapin wrote the song in 1974. A lot has changed in our country since then. Or at least it has seemed that way to those of us in the “us” category. I have no doubt the country will change more before the song marks its 50th anniversary, just two presidential elections from now. But I’m not sure things will get better.
So join Harry in a primal scream:
Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Is anybody there?
And when you’re done screaming. Think about these words from another Chapin song, the words engraved on his gravestone:
- Oh if a man tried
To take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man’s life could be worth
I wonder what would happen
to this world
How we answer that question will determine what makes America famous going forward.
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