On a recent road trip, one of those distinctly American activities, I put an old CD in the player. It's a compilation of songs that are good driving songs, and that tell a story of sorts about the United States--past and present. I created the compilation when someone else asked me to put together some music that might facilitate conversation. It was the first in a series I titled Trippin' Through Amerika. Volume one has twenty tracks.
1. Cream, "Crossroads (Live at Winterland)," from The Cream of Clapton
Recorded at the Winterland Auditorium in San Francisco, 10 March 1968 as part of the British band Cream's second US tour. The Cream of Clapton is a 1995 compilation album that includes Eric Clapton's solo work and music from several bands.
2. Dizzy Gillespie, "Salt Peanuts," Jazz Biography
This Bebop standard emerged from Gillespie's play with the Lucky Millinder Band in 1942.
3. Cher, "Gypsies, Tramps And Thieves," The Way of Love
Cher's first number one chart song reached the Billboard Hot 100 #1 on 6 November 1971. This episode from 1971 television--the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour--has been preserved on YouTube.
4. James Taylor, "Line 'Em Up," Hourglass
This song, which calls to memory the day President Nixon resigned, bridges Cher's fiction and James Brown's critique.
5. James Brown, "Funky President (People It's Bad)," James Brown: Greatest Hits
Although this song makes me think of Nixon, James Brown stated in James Brown: The Godfather of Soul (1986) that it concerns Gerald Ford. In any case, a funky President is always worth contemplating.
6. Elvis Presley, "Big Boss Man [Alternate Take 9]," Today, Tomorrow, & Forever
When I was compiling this CD, I wanted to include Koko Taylor's version of "Big Boss Man," but had it only on an old cassette tape. In the world of digital, I had to settle for Elvis. The song was recorded in 1967.
7. Gene Autry, "Back in the Saddle Again," The Roots of Country
This classic, first released on the eve of the Second World War, is one of very few five star Country Songs. It sometimes makes me think of the Eighties.
8. Glen Campbell, "Rhinestone Cowboy," Glen Campbell: 20 Greatest Hits
A song about superficiality and compromise on the road to fame, ironically became one of the best known songs and top hits released by Glen Campbell.
9. The Byrds, "Citizen Kane," Byrdmaniax
The Byrdmaniax album was released in 1971 to a poor reception amid some controversy. Nevertheless, I think this song, based on a movie, cuts to the heart of many contradictions in American culture.
10. Grateful Dead, "Uncle John's Band," Workingman's Dead
The world's greatest jug band's signature song. It is neither their best song, not the best recording. But it is true Americana and everyone should know it well.
This video is a Halloween performance in 1980 at Radio City Music Hall.
11. Fruteland Jackson, "Goin' Down to King Biscuit," I Claim Nothing But the Blues
Fruteland Jackson is a relatively young man (b. 1953) devoted to acoustic blues from the Delta and Piedmont. This song presents American history that never appears in textbooks, but is every bit as significant as work within the beltway.
12. Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit," The Very Best of Billie Holiday
Now that we've headed into the South, it's time to remember John McCain's statement, "We never hide from history. We make history." Of course, he hadn't yet said that when I put this compilation together.
13. Cisco Houston, "This Land in Your Land," This Land is Your Land: Songs of Freedom
There are few listeners that properly appreciate Woody Guthrie's voice singing America's all time number one song, but Cisco Houston's sweet voice pleases many. It's not my favorite version--I prefer Odetta, Arlo Guthrie, Will Geer, and others on A Tribute to Woody Guthrie,--but space is an issue when packing twenty songs into one CD.
14. Joan Baez, "Joe Hill," Best of Joan Baez
John McCutcheon's Live at Wolf Trap album includes this song with a heartwarming story about Paul Robeson in Australia, but Joan Baez has such an alluring voice that it's difficult not to prefer her version.
Phil Ochs sang another piece about Joe Hill worthy of attention, although not as well known as the "I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill" song sung by Baez.
15. Miles Davis, "John McLaughlin," Bitches Brew
John McLaughlin played the guitar for Miles Davis, and earned the rare distinction of having a song named for him on one of the most important Jazz albums of all time.
16. John Lee Hooker, "This Land Is Nobody's Land," The Real Folk Blues / More Real Folk Blues
After Woody's classic, Baez singing America's number one labor protest song, and an instrumental song celebrating a musician in the band that performs it, the Blues' chords strike deep. Hooker may be well known for a drinking song covered by George Thorogood, but this song deserves more airtime.
17. Judy Collins, "Get Together," This Land is Your Land: Songs of Freedom
This anthems of the 1960s, written by Chet Powers in the early decade, and sung in many elementary schools by the end of the decade. Judy Collins recorded it in 1966 at Newport.
18. The Blind Boys of Alabama, with Tom Waits, "Go Tell It On the Mountain," Go Tell It On the Mountain
This Christmas song doesn't sound out of place in the spring and summer.
19. Louis Armstrong, "We Shall Overcome," Louis Armstrong and His Friends
This version of "We Shall Overcome" last nearly seven minutes was recorded in May 1970.
20. Leonard Cohen, "Closing Time," The Essential Leonard Cohen
YouTube has an interesting video of this compelling song.