And a Little Ragged Group Believed It . . .

July 4, 2009 at 1:49 pm (By Amba)

This is the Fourth of July to me the way “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” is Christmas.  I can’t listen to it without starting to cry.  I can sing along, because an inspired 8th grade English and music teacher named Rose Klowden — in the Chicago public schools, in a yellow brick building with brown linoleum floors that looked like a Dickens factory-orphanage — got the motleyest crew of 13-year-olds evah (as prophetically diverse as one of the lines in the song) to perform it, with spirit, for an assembly.

Some may be offended beyond enjoying it by Paul Robeson’s Communism.  I’ll just repeat and embellish what I said about Michael Jackson:  if you want to enjoy an artist’s work, the less you know about his or her personal life and political views, the better.  The vessel is almost without exception inferior to the contents.  Robeson’s magnificent voice embodies patriotism for me.

In fact, listening to this song might be one of the few things to do on the Fourth of July that can still bring left and right together, in love of and pride in America.  So it’s most appropriate to post on my blog this day.  I challenge anyone to listen and follow the lyrics (below) and not tear up.  (And yes, imperfections are acknowledged, and mind-blowing promise soars above them.)  I hope you will listen all the way through, with the kids.

Happy birthday, America!!!

BALLAD FOR AMERICANS

(Original Version)

(Music: Earl Robinson / Words: John LaTouche)

In seventy-six the sky was red
thunder rumbling overhead
Bad King George couldn't sleep in his bed
And on that stormy morn, Ol' Uncle Sam was born.
Some birthday! 

Ol' Sam put on a three cornered hat
And in a Richmond church he sat
And Patrick Henry told him that while America drew breath
It was "Liberty or death." 

What kind of hat is a three-cornered hat?
Did they all believe in liberty in those days? 

Nobody who was anybody believed it.
Ev'rybody who was anybody they doubted it.
Nobody had faith.
Nobody but Washington, Tom Paine, Benjamin Franklin,
Chaim Solomon, Crispus Attucks, Lafayette. Nobodies.
The nobodies ran a tea party at Boston. Betsy Ross
organized a sewing circle. Paul Revere had a horse race. 

And a little ragged group believed it.
And some gentlemen and ladies believed it.
And some wise men and some fools, and I believed it too.
And you know who I am.
No. Who are you mister? Yeah, how come all this?
Well, I'll tell you. It's like this... No let us tell you.
Mister Tom Jefferson, a mighty fine man.
He wrote it down in a mighty fine plan.
And the rest all signed it with a mighty fine hand
As they crossed thier T's and dotted their I's
A bran' new country did arise. 

And a mighty fine idea. "Adopted unanimously in Congress
July 4, 1776,
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are
created equal.
That they are endowed by their creator with certain
inalienable rights.
That among these rights are Life, Yes sir!
Liberty, That's right!
And the pursuit of happiness."
Is that what they said? The very words.
That does sound mighty fine. 

Buildiing a nation is awful tough.
The people found the going rough.
And thirteen states was not enough
So they started to expand
Into the Western lands!

Still nobody who was anybody believed it.
Everybody who anybody they stayed at home.
But Lewis and Clark and the pioneers,
Driven by hunger, haunted by fears,
The Klondike miners and the forty niners,
Some wanted freedom and some wanted riches,
Some liked to loaf while others dug ditches.
But they believed it. And I believed it too,
And you know who I am.
No, who are you anyway, Mister? 

Well, you see it's like this. I started to tell you.
I represent the whole of ... Why that's it!
Let my people go. That's the idea!
Old Abe Lincoln was thin and long,
His heart was high and his faith was strong.
But he hated oppression, he hated wrong,
And he went down to his grave to free the slave. 

A man in white skin can never be free while his
black brother is in slavery,
"And we here highly resolve that these dead shall not
have died in vain.
And this government of the people, by the people
and for the people
Shall not perish from the Earth."
Abraham Lincoln said that on November 19, 1863
at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
And he was right. I believe that too. 

Say, we still don't know who you are, mister.
Well, I I've been trying to tell you...you see...
The machine age came with a great big roar,
As America grew in peace and war.
And a million wheels went around and 'round.
The cities reached into the sky,
And dug down deep into the ground.
And some got rich and some got poor.
But the people carried through,
So our country grew.

Still nobody who was anybody believed it.
Everybody who was anybody they doubted it.
And they are doubting still,
And I guess they always will,
But who cares what they say when I am on my way 

Say, will you please tell us who you are?
What's your name, Buddy? Where you goin'?
Who are you?
Well, I'm everybody who's nobody,
I'm the nobody who's everybody.
What's your racket? What do you do for a living? 

Well, I'm an
Engineer, musician, street cleaner, carpenter, teacher,
How about a farmer? Also. Office clerk? Yes ma'am!
That's right. Certainly!
Factory worker? You said it. Yes ma'am.
Absotively! Posolutely!
Truck driver? Definitely!
Miner, seamstress, ditchdigger, all of them.
I am the "etceteras" and the "and so forths" that do the work.
Now hold on here, what are you trying to give us?
Are you an American?
Am I an American?
I'm just an Irish, Negro, Jewish, Italian,
French and English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Polish,
Scotch, Hungarian, Litvak, Swedish, Finnish, Greek and
Turk and Czech and double Czech American.

And that ain't all.
I was baptized Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist,
Lutheran, Atheist, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian,
Seventh Day Adventist,
Mormon, Quaker, Christian Scientist and lots more.
You sure are something. 

Our country's strong, our country's young,
And her greatest songs are still unsung.
From her plains and mountains we have sprung,
To keep the faith with those who went before. 

We nobodies who are anybody believe it.
We anybodies who are everybody have no doubts.
Out of the cheating, out of the shouting.
Out of the murders and lynching
Out of the windbags, the patriotic spouting
Out of uncertainty and doubting
Out of the carpetbag and the brass spittoon
It will come again
Our marching song will come again!

Deep as our valleys,
High as our mountains,
Strong as the people who made it.
For I have always believed it, and I believe it now,
And you know who I am.
Who are you?

America! America! 


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7 Comments

  1. The Anchoress — A First Things Blog said,

    […] of July Break: Slightly O/T, but may I present one man depressed on this day and one woman who believes left and right can still be inspired. Go, read. 2:20 […]

  2. Ruth Anne said,

    Daughter of a Rutgers man, I heard a LOT of Robeson, also a Rutgers man. Dad would tell me how he excelled at Rutgers and I heard ‘Old Man River’ a lot. And remember my dad was one of the original Goldwater Republicans in Upstate New York [back when Rockefellers ruled NY], but a Scarlet Knight is a Scarlet Knight.

  3. Ron said,

    Huh? I listened to the whole thing…and I don’t get it. Sorry, more confused than moved.

  4. amba12 said,

    Well, I have no way of judging it objectively since I’ve been hearing it (and even sang it) since childhood. It’s in a certain Whitman, Stephen Vincent Benet (John Brown’s Body), and probably progressive-sentimental tradition; very ’30s, the American version of socialist realism and Diego Rivera murals. My attachment to it, again, is too early to be rational. I can’t imagine what it sounds like when heard for the first time. I imagine kids now would like it as much as I did. Maybe you’d have to be a kid.

  5. PatHMV said,

    He has just about the most incredible voice I’ve ever heard. I do try to avoid learning much about his politics. To the extent I do, I don’t find his politics as offensive as I would others; it’s more understandable, given the racial animus of his times.

  6. amba12 said,

    Yes, I think he was idealistic, bitter, and seduced.

  7. wj said,

    Thank you so very, very much for this!

    Growing up (in 1950s California) I had a record of “American songs.” On was a combination of bits of a lot of songs — including several parts of this one. But I never knew what it was or where it came from. Indeed, I just sort of assumed that the folk singers who were doing it made it up special. And now I know. Thank you again.

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