As always, anything new can bring lots with it, good and bad. So, we’ll look at two very different aspects and two projects, both by nonprofits, what they include, and the implications.
One is a global cyber-cooperative rendition of the Ben E. King classic Stand By Me, posted November 6, 2008, and available free at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Us-TVg40ExM. The music video is from the award-winning documentary, Playing For Change: Peace Through Music, as the first of many "songs around the world" being released independently.
The other is the Born Again American music video, new this year. It is, ostensibly, a song written by actor and Academy Award winning songwriter Keith Carradine. The song is the result of Carradine’s discussion – seemingly an add-water-and-stir event – with TV producer and philanthropist Norman Lear, a political progressive and patriot who purchased one of the original 1776 copies of the Declaration of Independence and sent it on a national tour to educate Americans about our freedoms and the need for us to be vigilant to safeguard them. So it had a promising start.
Except the song that’s sung as the front-page offering by the cross-country musicians for the project’s website, http://www.bornagainamerican.org/, isn’t what Carradine wrote, and therein are troubling implications.
But first, we need to look at what came first. Playing for Change, http://www.playingforchange.com, is a participatory musical movement intended, say its founders, to generate money to "help build schools, connect students, and inspire communities in need through music."
In addition to their impressive production of the Stand By Me video, another, of Bob Marley’s Don’t Worry, similarly produced, became available on Amazon and iTunes in late January. Similar participatory videos of Marley’s One Love and additional songs are due any minute as digital downloads. These may eventually transcend the film; the film’s soundtrack and DVD will hit stores April 28.
The Stand By Me video is a clever, superbly crafted, touching and inspiring compilation of musicians around the world, often in National Geographic locations, each adding their part to the song. Watching it creates a sense that the song is spreading a spirit of unity across cultures to people everywhere. It’s an effective and emotional experience. If you never thought of that song as folk music, you will now.
On to Born Again American. The song, as a music video with slick production values and locations across the U.S., is celebrated on its website with this: "It took the efforts of director Mark Johnson of ‘Playing for Change,’ producer Brent Miller, and 16 performers and two choruses to bring Keith [Carradines]’s song to life in 14 iconic locations around the USA." It is an impressive musical travelogue, the lighting is wonderful, and the integration of different performers is very well executed.
Except it’s not Keith’s song. There is no explanation whether the singers and musicians in the video, indies or "non-professionals all," were aware they were recording using altered lyrics. Instead, we know only that they "were chosen because they are living the lyrics in these troubled times, not just performing them." (Uh, does that mean they’re living Keith’s lyrics, or the altered ones they sing?)
The song, as Carradine wrote it, has a message that speaks to our time and is worthy of the artist whose brother, David Carradine, played Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory.
As Keith Carradine wrote it, Born Again American includes a moving verse about all of us fulfilling the promises of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Those and similar references are simply gone from the slick and rather "dumbed-down" version that’s celebrated as the site’s central video. Moreover, Keith’s original line, My Bible is the Bill of Rights, celebrating the secular and overriding preeminence of the U.S. Constitution in all things American, has been replaced by the line, My Bible and my Bill of Rights, changing everything to a Christian-centered anthem.
Separation of church and state vanish with the change of a single word, as the two become essential and codependent co-equals. And that, alone, undoes the strength of the Bill of Rights.
The change simply corrupts the song, and that point has been noted by others on the organization’s website. The changes are unfair to the songwriter and represent an unfortunate decision by the Born Again American organization. As Keith wrote it, the song is inspiring and inclusive, and can and should be the anthem of a reborn America that just overcame age-old divisions to give us President Barack Obama. Instead, the altered lyrics remove the promise of a shared creed, and relegate it to yet another expression of the old paradigm, the primacy of exclusivity.
This project could have been unifying, great and wonderful on a grand scale. As written, it could have been the inspiring song of celebration that happened because two well-known progressives were inspired amidst the euphoria of the 2008 election results. Instead, the alteration of key lyrics and outright omission of some of the best of them makes the song fodder for the same boneheads who embraced that Lee Greenwood Proud to Be an American song that became the Republican anthem of the Reagan 1980s.
In defense of the organization’s website, we know about the altered lyrics because the site is intellectually honest enough to include blog comments and the video of Keith’s original song. You can play it – if you manage to find the link in an obscure place. But if you click the "lyrics" link, you get the version that’s had the heart cut out of it and the meaning changed, with credit to Keith Carradine as the songwriter of that, rather than the song he wrote.
We wholeheartedly endorse Keith’s original, as-written version. It’s worth learning and performing. You can watch and listen to him perform that powerful, moving song at http://tinyurl.com/remixamerica-bornagain-keith
It’s all such a damn shame. It was obviously an expensive project. It should not have been diluted and made exclusive. It coulda been a contender. Norman Lear, are you listening?
As changed, the song seems so – Nashville. It feels cut from that "lowest common denominator" philosophy that reduced country music to anthems of dogs, pickup trucks with gun racks, hopeless drunks, dysfunctional relationships, and mandatory attendance at a nondenominational fundamentalist evangelical church. Except that most people who aren’t white trash losers have never been able to relate to a compilation of those elements as a common denominator in their lives, and it’s one reason why folkies generally don’t like today’s country music.
On to the second main topic: Interactive Capabilities
Whether or not you agree with the foregoing analysis, the revolution of participatory performance capabilities, using the Internet, is included in the same collaborative music site.
Musically, Born Again American has, as its major interactive feature, the "Remix America Editor." It offers sophisticated capabilities for you to add your own performance. Plenty of indie musicians will doubtless see that as an irresistible opportunity to get exposure for themselves or their bands, or simply to express their creative visions.
There’s a growing library of homemade interpretations of the song, and currently, that includes a contest with prominent judges from the entertainment industry. You can add your instrumental riff, or introduce an instrument not already present. You can accept the site’s invitation to "Share your story" by writing your own lyrics, or sing your rendition of the altered or original lyrics, and an instrumental soundtrack is there to help. You can shoot your own video or use the site’s library and remix images with your performance. (Perhaps musicians will collaborate to redo the entire video with Carradine’s original lyrics?) The site includes clips you can mix-from its "America Then" section to, as it suggests, "give your remix historical flavor."
Born Again American has links for you to connect as a volunteer in your community, to register to vote, to talk back to your elected officials, and to sign a pledge intended to bring-home the concept that "you matter" as "an active, involved and thoughtful citizen." It’s been signed by upwards of 90,000 people. It’s a cyber counterpart to the long-forgotten signature scroll for the citizenship pledge carried aboard the 1947-49 Freedom Train. That too, focused the response of those it inspired by offering an opportunity to sign its scroll of millions of names. It’s the old marketing principle of inking the deal while it’s hot, and knowing that if someone signs something, they’re more apt to remember it.
You can read Larry’s Acoustic Americana Music Guide with its extensive descriptions of upcoming folk-Americana and acoustic renaissance performances, and its companion, the Acoustic Americana Music News; both are updated frequently at http://acousticamericana.blogspot.com/. Contact Larry at firstname.lastname@example.org.