My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Friday, July 26, 2019

July 26, 2019: American Anthems: “American Skin (41 Shots)”

[On July 22, 1893, Wellesley Professor Katharine Lee Bates first composed the words to what would become “America the Beautiful.” So this week I’ll AmericanStudy “America” and other national songs, leading up to a special weekend post on 21C nominees for new anthems!]
On two reasons why my long-time favorite song is also a perfect American anthem.
I’ve written on at least two prior occasions in this space, as well as at length in the opening of my second book, about Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” (2000; I still prefer that live version to any subsequent one, although this post-Trayvon Martin performance from 2012 comes very close for sure). But I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned in this space a very cool complement to my own love for the song: my younger son’s early and continuing affection for it as well. Of course that began with my playing it for the boys, but I’ve played plenty of songs for them, and it was “American Skin” that really grabbed my son and has endured across many years and many other shifts in musical taste. To hear him sing along to my favorite lines—“We’re baptized in these waters/And in each other’s blood”—has been one of those singularly moving moments that parenting can offer, and reflects the song’s multi-generational appeal and audience.
So that’s one way Springsteen’s song can be seen as a contemporary American anthem. But another is the reason I’m highlighting it today: earlier this month my new book, We the People: The 500-Year Battle over Who is American, was published. I’ve been thinking about the book’s two central threads, competing yet interconnected exclusionary and inclusive visions of American identity, pretty much nonstop for the last couple years, and I’m not sure I’ve encountered a cultural work that more succinctly and powerfully highlights both of them than does “American Skin.” Even the title alone features both ends of the spectrum: Amadou Diallo was killed because of the color of his skin and what it meant to certain other Americans; but by calling it his “American skin,” Springsteen reminds us that those racist and exclusionary attitudes do not and cannot deny Diallo his full participation in an American community and identity. That we still so desperately need to hear that message is just one more reason to keep listening to “American Skin (41 Shots).”
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other national songs you’d highlight?

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