American soundtrack

With so many important issues facing the nation—an economy in trouble, a presidential election, wars overseas—you have probably turned to a variety of media to get news and hear or express opinions, whether it’s radio, television, Web sites and blogs, or online social networks. What you probably haven’t done is sing.

Past national events and crises have all inspired their own contemporary soundtracks. The Civil War? “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The Great Depression? “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”. The Civil Rights Movement? “We Shall Overcome.” Not only were these songs well-known at the time, but even today they are closely associated with the events that inspired them—clues to the mind-set and values of citizens in former times.

This phenomenon seems to be passing into the realm of history. The impulse to gather to discuss news and express solidarity—and music has always played a big part in such gatherings—is now being (literally) channeled into thousands of electronic media outlets and “virtual” communities of interest. Yesterday’s satirical song performed at a community rally is today’s satirical YouTube video that gets e-mailed around or sent to Facebook friends.

I’ve been excited to work on the museum’s new “Sounds of America” series, a collaboration with Smithsonian Global Sound that highlights some of America’s diverse music traditions. One song that was featured in a recent program on the music of American politics sounds a theme that, given current events, we can probably all agree is just as important today as when it was written in the early 1800’s (the tune is “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” you know that one so join in):

While some on rights and some on wrongs
Prefer their own reflections
The people’s rights demand our song
The right of free elections!

Now, that’s something to sing about.  Posting it to your Facebook page would be OK, too.

Matthew MacArthur is the museum’s Director of New Media.