We walked off to look for America

On this long holiday weekend, as we haul out our red, white and blue outfits, raise the flags and bunting, and ooh and ahh over fireworks displays, we’re clearly going to need a patriotic-musicFourth of July soundtrack.  Once again, popular music is ready and waiting with multiple choices.

Elsewhere, no doubt, you’ll be hearing many of the same songs you hear every year on the Fourth of July:   Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” Neil Diamond’s “America,” Don McLean’s “American Pie,” John Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band,” The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” The Guess Who’s “American Woman,” and, of course, Kate Smith’s “God Bless America.”

american_flag_stratBut here at Hack’s Back Pages, I want to focus instead on some of the lesser known songs out there that pay homage to all things American — our country’s natural beauty, our freedoms and blessings, and our undying hope for better things to come.  We’re far from perfect, that’s for sure, but we keep on trying.

There’s a Spotify playlist at the bottom of this column for you to listen to as you read about these 15 featured tracks, plus another dozen “honorable mentions” to fill out the program for the holiday soundtrack.

A very happy Independence Day to you all!


3ba436668a90c7520e4ac2d6a85240a0“Real American,” Rick Derringer, 1985

Ricky Zehringer was only 17 when his band, The McCoys, had a #1 hit with “Hang On Sloopy” in 1965.  He became Rick Derringer in the Seventies and went on to become a solo star (“Rock and Roll Hoochie-Koo”) as well as an in-demand guest guitarist for Steely Dan, Edgar Winter, Alice Cooper and Todd Rundgren.  He wrote and sang “Real American” in 1985 for the World Wrestling Federation, and specifically Hulk Hogan, to use as entrance music.  The music and lyrics, which capitalized on the Cold War patriotic jingoism prevalent at the time, were ideal for the bombastic showbiz of pro wrestling.  Sample lyric: ” I am a real American, fight for the rights of every man, I am a real American, fight for what’s right, fight for your life…”

600x600bf-1“American Baby,” Dave Matthews Band, 2005

When George W. Bush won re-election in 2004, Matthews felt despondent enough to write this song the following day.  Its lyrics urged us to remain hopeful and proud, despite the troubling changes in values apparent in the way the country was conducting its war in Iraq.  The track, which appears on The Dave Matthews Band’s fourth consecutive #1 album “Stand Up,” became the group’s highest charting single at #16.  Sample lyrics:  “I hold on to you, you bring me hope, I’ll see you soon, and if I don’t see you, I’m afraid we’ve lost the way, stay beautiful, baby, I hope you stay, American baby…”

james-brown-living-in-america-scotti-brothers-4“Living in America,” James Brown, 1986

The one-of-a-kind Godfather of Soul had ruled the R&B charts from the early ’60s through the mid-’70s, and had a half-dozen Top Ten pop hits as well (“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),””Cold Sweat,”), but fell out of favor during the disco and post-disco era.  He had one last commercial peak in 1986 with “Living in America,” which reached #4.  Written by singer-songwriter Dan Hartman and producer Charlie Midnight, the song was used prominently in the film “Rocky IV” in scenes when the over-the-top patriotic character Apollo Creed entered the boxing arena.  Sample lyrics:  “Living in America, eye to eye, station to station, living in America, hand to hand, across the nation, living in America, got to have a celebration…”

220px-Supertramp_-_Breakfast_in_America“Breakfast in America,” Supertramp, 1979

This intelligent British art-rock band had moved to the US in 1977 following their commercial success here that year, and their next batch of songs reflected a breezy American influence.  The “Breakfast in America” LP was an enormous hit for Supertramp — it was perched at #1 for six weeks in the summer of 1979.  The title track (which stalled at #62 compared to the other three Top Ten hits from the LP) is about a poor British boy who fantasizes about visiting the US but lacks the money to do so:  “Take a jumbo across the water, like to see America, see the girls in California, I’m hoping it’s going to come true, but there’s not a lot I can do…”

R-6931009-1429783951-2070.jpeg“This is Not America,” Pat Metheny Group with David Bowie, 1985

In the 1985 spy film “The Falcon and the Snowman,” Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton play young Americans who sell secrets to the Soviets.  In one scene when they are beaten and tortured while in custody, they protest, “We are Americans!”  The response: “This is not America.”  The song, a collaborative effort by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and the late great David Bowie, examines how our rights and privileges are often taken for granted until they disappear when on foreign soil:  “There was a time, a wind that blew so young, this could be the biggest sky, and I could have the faintest idea, for this is not America, this is not America…”

R-12602770-1538415650-6818.jpeg“I Love American Music,” Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, 2013

This eclectic band from Eugene, Oregon, has specialized in swing and ska music since the early ’90s.  While they have reached the mainstream pop charts only once, with their “Zoot Suit Riot” single and album in 1997, the group has been one of the hardest working touring bands in the nation for many years.  From their 2013 LP “White Teeth, Black Thoughts” comes the single “I Love American Music,” which celebrates the diversity of musical styles you can hear as you travel around this country:  “When the lights go down and my scales stop showin’, I’ll smash my fingers down on the only truth that’s still worth knowin’, play it, play it again Sam, I want American music, play it, play it again Sam, I need American music…”

mary-chapin-carpenter-6“Goodnight America,” Mary Chapin Carpenter, 2004

Although she has escaped the attentions of mainstream music listeners, Chapin-Carpenter has been a consistent presence on country charts for 25 years, with three platinum albums and numerous Top Five singles there.  Her 2004 album, “Between Here and Gone,” contains the lovely ballad “Goodnight America,” which focuses on the gypsy lifestyle of being a musician on the road — “a weary traveler, but grateful to have the freedom to be one,” as she put it.  Sample lyric:  “I’m a stranger here, no one you would know, I’m from somewhere else, well isn’t everybody though, my ship has not come in, I don’t know where I’ll be when the sun comes up, until then, sweet dreams, goodnight America…”

jackson-browne-for-america-asylum“For America,” Jackson Browne, 1986

One of the premier singer-songwriters to emerge from Southern California in the 1970s, Browne has written dozens of articulately worded ballads and anthems to love and life (“For Everyman,” “Fountain of Sorrow,” “The Pretender”).  By the mid-’80s, the left-leaning Browne had grown disheartened with the actions the Reagan administration was taking abroad, and subsequently released the overtly political album, “Lives in the Balance,” which included the modest #30 single, “For America,” another song that wishes for better days ahead:  “I have prayed for America, I was made for America, I can’t let go ’til she’s comes ’round, until the land of the free is awake and can see, and until her conscience has been found…”

maxresdefault-7“(You Can Still) Rock in America,” Night Ranger, 1983  

This San Francisco-based hard rock band had a pretty good run in the 1980s MTV era with its singles, albums and videos.  Their commercial peak came in 1984 with the #5 power ballad “Sister Christian,” but another song from that “Midnight Madness” album was the hard rock anthem “(You Can Still) Rock in America,” which missed the Top 40 but clicked with the patriotic Sammy Hagar-Ted Nugent crowd that ate up the pro-USA lyrics: “Little brother’s got it ready to roll, tires burning as they head for the show, light it up and turn the music up loud, and rock it, rock it, rock it, you can still rock in America, yeah it’s all right…” 

299796“Living in America,” Aztec Two-Step, 1986

The duo of Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman formed the nucleus of Aztec Two-Step, a lighthearted, lively folk rock band out of Boston.  From their roots in 1971, they have continued to release music and perform live ever since, although without much chart success.  In 1986, they came up with this quirky, optimistic ditty in tribute to Americans everywhere:  “Here’s to the silver screen, ah-ah, the music scene in America, here’s to the arts and crafts, people who make us laugh in America, here’s to the songs, the dance, the true romance, all those who take a chance in America, and here’s to the people too, whose dreams have all come true in America…” 

3587-Dave-Stewart-And-His-Rock-Fabulous-Orchestra-American-Prayer-USA-Download-01“American Prayer,” Dave Stewart, 2008

In 2002, Stewart, formerly with Annie Lennox and the Eurythmics, paired up with U2’s Bono to write this “paean to America based on the poetry of the Declaration of Independence and the taut truth in the Constitution.”  It was first performed during Bono’s Heart of America speaking tour that year to rally support for the fight against the AIDS crisis.  In 2008, Stewart altered some of the lyrics and recorded it “in honor of those working to make the world a better place.”  Sample lyrics:   “These are the hands, what are we gonna build with them, and this is the church you can’t see, and remember, give me your tired, your poor and huddled masses, you know they’re yearning to breathe free, this is my American prayer…”

Americandreamcsny“American Dream,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, 1988

Neil Young promised that he would reunite with Crosby, Stills and Nash if David Crosby successfully kicked his severe drug habit, which he did following a prison term in 1986.  The foursome recorded “American Dream” at Young’s ranch, and while the album reached #16 in early 1988, critics and many fans found it lacking somehow.  Young’s title track is a satire of 1980s-era sensational political scandals:  “Reporters crowd around your house, going through your garbage like a pack of hounds, speculating what they may find out, it don’t matter now, you’re all washed up, you tried to make a good thing last, how could something so good go bad so fast?, American dream, American dream…”

220px-SteppenwolfMonster“America,” Steppenwolf, 1969  

Singer John Kay and drummer Jerry Edmonton were among the key members of the ’60s Canadian-American band The Sparrows, who morphed into Steppenwolf, named for the Herman Hesse novel, and had several huge hits (“Born to Be Wild,” “Magic Carpet Ride”).  By the time of their fourth album in late 1969, Kay and Edmonton were writing more political lyrics, including a nine-minute suite entitled “Monster,” which recounted the history of the U.S. in mostly damning terms.  The suite’s final section, “America,” concluded on this uncertain note:  “America, where are you now, don’t you care about your sons and daughters, don’t you know we need you now, we can’t fight alone against the monster…”

Big-Wide-Grin-cover“America the Beautiful,” Keb’ Mo’, 2001 

There are dozens and dozens of versions of this stunning piece, which I’ve always felt would be a better National Anthem than “The Star Spangled Banner.”  It was first written as a poem by Katherine Lee Bates in 1893, then tweaked a bit with a few new lyrics in 1903 and again in 1911.  Samuel Ward wrote the music back in 1882 to an altogether different lyric, “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem.”  Ward’s hymn-like melody was first combined with Bates’s patriotic words in 1910 into the song we all know today.  In the Bi-Centennial year of 1976, two recordings received considerable airplay — Ray Charles’ stirring rendition on the R&B charts, and Charlie Rich’s commanding version on the country charts.  For something different but memorable, check out Keb’ Mo”s version from his “Big Wide Grin” album in 2001.

there-goes-rhymin-simon-55cb86e3971af“American Tune,” Paul Simon, 1973  

I’ve always felt that this song from Simon’s “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” LP is one of his best works.  The majestic melody is lifted from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” with poignant Simon lyrics that are simultaneously comforting and troubling.  Even 46 years ago, Simon was proud of his country, but concerned about its future:  “We come on the ship they call the Mayflower, we come on the ship that sailed the moon, we come in the age’s most uncertain hour, and sing an American tune, oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right, you can’t be forever blessed, still, tomorrow’s gonna be another working day, and I’m trying to get some rest…”


And here’s my Honorable Mention list of other “American” songs that may have escaped your attention:  “America Street,” Edwin McCain;  “What Now America,” Lee Michaels, 1970;  “A Brand New America,” Keb’ Mo’;  “Lost in America,” Alice Cooper;  “Miss America,” David Byrne;  “American Dream Plan B,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers;   “American Beauty,” Bruce Springsteen;  “Miss America,” Styx;  “In America,” Charlie Daniels Band;  “Lost in America,” Edwin McCain;  “Miss America,” James Blunt;  “American Girls,” Counting Crows.


School’s out for summer, school’s out forever

“I got a letterman’s sweater with a letter in front I got for football and track, I‘m proud to wear it now, when I cruise around the other parts of the town, I got a decal in back, so be true to your school now…”  — “Be True to Your School,” The Beach Boys, 1963

“We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control, no dark sarcasm in the classroom, teacher! Leave them kids alone!…”“Another Brick in the Wall,” Pink Floyd, 1979


These two lyrics, written 16 years apart, offer polar-opposite examples of rock songs about life in high school, from rah-rah school spirit to “school sucks.”

0630aab5-a4e0-5c1d-a5ba-c50609cd71ed.imageAfter love and romance, and cars and driving, few subjects have been covered more often in rock music lyrics than the pros and cons of the high school experience.

Early on, it was the universal feelings of Chuck Berry’s “School Days” and the carefree fun of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “High School Confidential.”  That evolved into the infatuations and crushes of Lulu’s “To Sir With Love” and Elton John’s “Teacher I Need You.”  Later came the more lustful emotions of Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” and the rules-breaking of Brownsville Station’s “Smoking in the Boys Room.”  There was even the militant rebellion of The Replacements’ “F–k School.”

Some tunes that focus on other subjects still manage to make observations about school.  Take Paul Simon’s 1973 hit “Kodachrome”:  “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all…”  In 1984, Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender,” about not breaking promises and not giving up, included this line:  “We busted out of class, had to get away from those fools, we learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school…”  Reminiscing about childhood in general brought out this school memory in Stevie Wonder’s 1977 hit “I Wish”: “Smokin’ cigarettes and writing something nasty on the wall, teacher sends you to the principal’s office down the hall, you grow up and learn that kinda thing ain’t right, but while you were doing it, it sure felt outta sight…”  

They’re still writing great tunes about school in the new millennium.  Check out John Mayer’s 2001 single, “No Such Thing”:   “I wanna run through the halls of my high school, I wanna scream at the top of my lungs, I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world, just a lie you’ve got to rise above, I just can’t wait til my ten-year reunion,
I’m gonna bust down the double doors…”

It’s been great fun sifting through the many dozens of rock tracks from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that describe what it was like to deal with homework and exams, raging hormones and school rules, cute teachers and mean girls.  I’ve selected 15 tracks to highlight, plus a list of honorable mentions.  They’re all included on the Spotify playlist at the end.

Rock on, students!


220px-Chuck_Berry_1957-1“School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell),” Chuck Berry, 1957

Not surprisingly, it was rock pioneer Berry who was the first to have a hit song about high school.  (It’s interesting to note that Berry took the same music, wrote new lyrics about driving, and had another hit with “No Particular Place to Go” in 1964.)  “School Day” went on to become a featured number in the 1987 Chuck Berry biopic “Hail!  Hail!  Rock and Roll” as well:  “Up in the morning and out to school, the teacher is teaching the Golden Rule, American history and practical math, you study ’em hard and hopin’ to pass, workin’ your fingers right down to the bone, and the guy behind you won’t leave you alone…”

To_sir_with_love_SLEM2292“To Sir With Love,” Lulu, 1967

Sidney Poitier starred in the coming-of-age film about a black teacher assigned to a high school in a rough British neighborhood.  Singer/actress Lulu played the student who was infatuated with the handsome teacher, and the title song from the soundtrack reached #1 in the US in the autumn of 1967:  “Those schoolgirl days of telling tales and biting nails are gone, but in my mind, I know they will still live on and on, but how do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?…”

crime-of-the-century-albums-photo-u1“School,” Supertramp, 1974

British art rockers Supertramp kicked off their critically praised 1974 LP “Crime of the Century” with “School,” a great rock record that features intermittent sounds of school kids on the playground:  “I can see you in the morning when you go to school, don’t forget your books, you know you’ve got to learn the golden rule, teacher tells you, ‘Stop your play and get on with your work, and be like Johnnie-too-good’…”

eltondontshoot1“Teacher I Need You,” Elton John, 1972

The #1 LP “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player” included several ’50s throwback songs such as “Crocodile Rock” and this tune with Bernie Taupin lyrics about a schoolboy’s infatuation with his pretty teacher:  “It’s a natural achievement, conquering my homework with her image pounding in my brain, she’s an inspiration for my graduation, and she helps to keep the classroom sane, oh teacher I need you like a little child, you got something in you to drive a schoolboy wild…”

6132206192_c1dbebcd1b“When I Kissed the Teacher,” ABBA, 1976

ABBA’s fourth LP “Arrival,” which included the international #1 smash “Dancing Queen,” also featured the amusing song “When I Kissed the Teacher,” about a schoolgirl’s crush on her good-looking instructor:   “All my friends at school, they had never seen the teacher blush, he looked like a fool, nearly petrified ’cause he was taken by surprise, when I kissed the teacher, couldn’t quite believe his eyes, when I kissed the teacher, my whole class went wild…”

R-8352920-1474671919-2712.jpeg“(What A) Wonderful World,” Sam Cooke, 1960

Record industry stalwarts Lou Adler and Herb Alpert worked as a songwriting team in the early ’60s and came up with this catchy tune.  Sam Cooke modified the lyrics to make it more about school subjects, and made it into a #12 hit single.  A version by Herman’s Hermits reached #4 in 1965, and a third version featuring Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon and James Taylor peaked at #17 in 1978.  Cooke’s version was featured in the soundtrack to “Animal House” that same year:  “Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology, don’t know much about a science book, don’t know much about the French I took…  Don’t know much about geography, don’t know much trigonometry, don’t know much about algebra, don’t know what a slide rule is for…”

R-1429440-1218998317.jpeg“Teacher,” Jethro Tull, 1970

One of Tull’s earliest singles in England was 1970’s “Teacher,” which was omitted from the British version of the “Benefit” album that year but included on the US version.  The lyrics are concerned with a teacher of life lessons rather than a school teacher, but the song is a huge favorite of mine and simply had to be included here:  “I have a lesson that I must impart to you, it’s an old expression but I must insist it’s true, jump up, look around, find yourself some fun, no sense in sitting there hating everyone…”

R-7048386-1449812871-1527.jpeg“School is Out,” Gary U.S. Bonds, 1963

R&B singer Bonds had a huge #1 hit in 1961 with “Quarter to Three,” and then followed it up with the similar sounding “School is Out” later that year:  “No more books and studies, and I can stay out late with my buddies, I can do the things that I want to do, ’cause all my exams are through, I can root for the Yankees from the bleachers, and don’t have to worry ’bout teachers, I’m so glad that school is out…”

7225179210_12c072a21d_b“Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” The Police, 1980

“I wanted to write a song about sexuality in the classroom,” said Sting about this tune, which covers mutual lust, guilt and consequences.  “I’d taught at secondary schools and been through the business of having 15-year-old girls fancying me – and me really fancying them!  How I ever kept my hands off them, I don’t know.”  The Police turned it into a ridiculously catchy #10 hit (#1 in England):  “Young teacher, the subject of schoolgirl fantasy… Sometimes it’s not so easy to be the teacher’s pet… Strong words in the staffroom, the accusations fly…”

jerry-lee-lewis-high-school-confidential-1958“High School Confidential,” Jerry Lee Lewis, 1958

Lewis wrote this dance tune expressly for the 1958 film of the same name, which was actually a crime drama about a young narcotics detective who goes undercover at a high school to break up a drug ring.  Lewis’s record reached #21 on US charts (#9 on country charts), and the tune was later covered by Sha Na Na, Brian Setzer and The Blasters, and in concert by Bruce Springsteen:  “We’re just a-movin’ and a-groovin’ at the high school hop, well, everybody boppin’, everybody’s hoppin’, boppin’ at the high school hop…”

R-834317-1173404222.jpeg“Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” The Ramones, 1979

The Ramones were commissioned to write this mindless song as the title track to the film “Rock and Roll High School,” a 1979 musical comedy where several school principals have nervous breakdowns because the students prefer rock and roll to education.  The soundtrack included a few other songs discussed here, including “School’s Out” and “Smokin’ in the Boys Room”:   “Well I don’t care about history, rock, rock, rock ‘n’ roll high school, ’cause that’s not where I wanna be, rock, rock, rock ‘n’ roll high school, I hate the teachers and the principal, don’t wanna be thought to be no fool, rock, rock, rock, rock, rock ‘n’ roll high school…”

220px-KinksSchoolboysinDisgrace“Schooldays,” The Kinks, 1975

In 1975, Ray Davies put together a delightful song cycle of Kinks pop tunes called “Schoolboys in Disgrace” in 1975, including tracks like “Education,” “Headmaster” and the marvelous “Schooldays.”  Davies’ lyrics painted a picture that showed both the pros and cons of life in school:  “Schooldays were the happiest days, though at the time they filled me with dismay, we only remember what we choose to remember, when I was a schoolboy I loathed regulations and rules, I hated my textbooks and my school uniform ’cause it made me conform, and teachers were always disobeyed, but I’d go back if I could only find a way…”

R-6240159-1523125110-7916.jpeg“My Old School,” Steely Dan, 1973

In this rollicking track from “Countdown to Ecstasy,” Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were actually writing about their unpleasant experiences in college rather than high school.  But the emotions are similar, and again, this is one of my favorite tracks of all time, so it made the list:  “I was smoking with the boys upstairs when I heard about the whole affair, I said ‘Whoa no, William and Mary won’t do,’ well I did not think the girl could be so cruel, and I’m never going back to my old school…”

R-2190966-1456150467-1385.jpeg“Teacher Teacher,” Rockpile, 1980

Brit rocker Dave Edmunds had scored a Top 10 hit in 1970 with “I Hear You Knocking,” while Nick Lowe went Top 20 in the US in 1979 with “Cruel to Be Kind.”  They teamed up on the road and in the studio for a while as Rockpile, and released one LP, “Seconds of Pleasure,” in 1980, which included the minor hit “Teacher Teacher,” in which the student is hoping for some extracurricular learning:  “School’s out, bells’ll ring, now’s the time to teach me everything, teacher teacher, teach me love, I can’t learn it fast enough, teacher teacher, teach me more, I’ve got to learn to love for sure…”

schools-out-768x768“School’s Out,” Alice Cooper, 1972

When Cooper was asked, “What’s the greatest three minutes of your life?”, he replied, “The last three minutes of the last day of school, when you’re sitting there and it’s like a slow fuse burning.  I thought, ‘If we can catch that three minutes in a song, it’s going to be so big.'”  Sure enough, “School’s Out” was #7 in the US and #1 in the UK in 1972 and has enjoyed classic rock airplay at the end of every school year ever since:  “School’s out for summer, school’s out forever, school’s been blown to pieces, no more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks, out for summer, out ’til fall, we may not go back at all…”


Honorable mention:

Bitch School,” Spinal Tap, 1992;  “Adult Education,” Hall and Oates, 19??;  “School Days,” Joe Walsh, 1991;  “Teacher Teacher,” .38 Special, 1984;  “Graduation Day,” Chris Isaak, 1993; “Waitin’ in School,” Ricky Nelson, 1958;  “Catholic School Girls Rule,” Red Hot Chili Peppers; “The New Girl in School,” Jan and Dean, 1964;  “Alma Mater,” Alice Cooper, 1972.