On our Independence Day edition of The Mark Steyn Show you'll hear "America the Beautiful", "My Country, 'Tis of Thee", "You're a Grand Old Flag", and other songs that celebrate love of country. Which is just as well, because, on this strangest of Fourths, patriotic songs seem to have joined other once universal phenomena, such as freedom of speech, in the suddenly partisan category. And don't get the lefties started on being "proud to be an American"...
So I thought, in the interests of forming a more perfect union this weekend, I'd rustle up a patriotic song by a man of the left - even though it became most closely identified with a man, at least in his latter decades, of the right. Frank Sinatra sang all the familiar patriotic songs at some point or other over the years but without, it seems to me, really connecting with them: His versions of "America The Beautiful", for example, are perfectly fine, but without finding a way, as he does with his best recordings, to take the material to the next level. His attempts to bend the notes on "amber waves of grain" suggest a man trying to find a way to make the line come alive for him and not quite succeeding. Yet there is one song about America that Sinatra prized above all others: He sang it on screen, on stage, to at least three presidents, and to the Statue of Liberty. And he sang it for not quite half-a-century - for 49 years and some months, all the way to the end. In fact, it's the last track of the last studio album of Frank Sinatra's 55-year recording career. And through all those decades it begins, always, with a question:
What is America to me?
A name, a map, a flag I see
A certain word - democracy!
What is America to me?
And then the chorus proceeds to answer that question. Along the way the song answers a few other questions, too - like what's the connection between Frank Sinatra and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg? Here he is live in the Dominican Republic, conducted by our old friend Vinnie Falcone in a splendid performance, prefaced by an introduction that attempts (not altogether persuasively) to extend this hymn to America to "all the Americas":
The story begins with Frank on stage - not at the Paramount or any other theatre, but at a high-school auditorium in the Bronx. It's 1944, and George Evans, Sinatra's press agent, has been trying to promote his client as more than just a pop singer. The Hearst papers in particular have got it in for Frank, and Evans figures the way to counter that is to present Sinatra as something beyond mere showbiz. So he calls up a friend who happens to be a school principal and books Frank to give a talk to the l'il tykes on juvenile delinquency. Today, celebrity activists are a dime a dozen - Leonardo di Caprio on the environment, George Clooney on everything - but not seventy-five years ago. Sinatra thinks it's a dumb idea and that he's not qualified to give lectures to high-school students. But he goes along to the Bronx, and the story winds up on the front page of The Daily News, with a big picture of Frank talking to the pupils. So Evans puts together some more schoolhouse appearances across the country, and it gradually begins to dawn on Sinatra that there's a real rapport between him and these kids.
The message has evolved a little by now - it's about "tolerance", a theme close to the singer's heart: he had no use for bigotry and prejudice when it came to music or other aspects of his professional life, so he didn't see the point of it elsewhere in society either. "When I was going to school over in Jersey, a bunch of guys threw rocks at me and called me a little 'dago'," he'd tell the schoolkids. "I know now why they used to call the Jewish kids in the neighborhood 'kikes' and 'sheenies' and the colored kids 'niggers.' That was wrong." Any fellow who'd do such a thing would have to be "a Nazi or a dope" - and as the Third Reich was, in those early months of 1945, in the final stages of losing the war, the Nazis had pretty much wound up as dopes themselves - unlike America. As Frank saw it, "This country that's been built by many people, many creeds, nationalities and races ...should never be divided ...and can never be conquered." This was a sufficiently provocative thought three-quarters of a century ago that it's in Sinatra's FBI file.
Frank Ross thought it would be worth filming Frankie doing one of his tolerance pitches. Ross was married to the peerless Jean Arthur and had produced two of her recent films, The Devil And Miss Jones and A Lady Takes A Chance. Sinatra liked the idea and said he knew just the guy to direct - Mervyn LeRoy, whom he'd bumped into on a train a while back. LeRoy had a long list of credits from Gold Diggers of 1933 and I Am A Fugitive On A Chain Gang to Waterloo Bridge and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo; he was the guy who'd green-lighted Wizard of Oz and (uncredited) shot significant bits of it as the production lurched from one director to another. So all of a sudden Sinatra had a viable team for a short film against bigotry.
The scenario, by writer Albert Maltz, reconfigured the singer's school speech as a dramatic scene. Frank Sinatra plays Frank Sinatra, and he's taking a smoking break from a recording session in a back alley when he comes across a bunch of kids chasing down some little Jewish boy:
SINATRA: Someone in for a lickin'?
BOY #1: You bet. We're gonna smear him.
SINATRA: Yeah, but ten against one - that's not very fair.
BOY #1: Aw, c'mon....[the gang attempts to push past Sinatra to get to the Jewish kid]
SINATRA: What's it all about?
BOY #1: None of your business.
SINATRA: Scared to tell me..?
BOY #2: We don't like him. We don't want him in our neighborhood or going to our school.
JEWISH BOY: I've been livin' here long as you.
SINATRA: What's he got - smallpox or somethin'?
Nah. They don't like his religion because "he's a dirty..." Sinatra says, "You must be a bunch of those Nazi Werewolves I've been readin' about", referring to the German plan for sabotage units of an anti-Allied resistance in liberated Europe. The kids don't take kindly to that:
BOY #5: Mister, are you screwy?
SINATRA: Not me. I'm an American.
BOY #6: Well whaddaya think we are?
BOY #1: Don't call me a Nazi. My father's a sergeant in the army. He's been wounded, even.
SINATRA: Wounded, eh? Say, I bet he got some of that blood plasma.
And then he asks the Jewish kid if his family ever gave to the blood bank, and boy, that dad in the army sure wouldn't like it if he'd known he was going to have all that Jew blood coursing through his veins, and he'd probably rather have died than "take blood from a man of another religion":
SINATRA: There was a Jap battleship, the Haruna, and one of our planes spotted it. You know what it takes to bomb a battleship? It takes guts and know-how and teamwork. And our boys sure needed plenty of it because that Jap was throwin' up enough flak to get out and walk home on. But the pilot had only one thing on his mind: to get over that ship. And he did. And then the bombardier pushed a button and a 500-hundred pound tomato smacked that Jap ship right in the middle ...and every American threw his head back and felt much better. The pilot of that ship was named Colin Kelly, an American and a Presbyterian. And you know who dropped the bombs? Meyer Levin, an American and a Jew. You think maybe they shoulda called the bombing off because they had different religions? Think about that, fellas. Use your good American heads. Don't let anybody make suckers out of you.
Is there a statue of Sinatra? Because it probably ought to be pulled down for that use of the abbreviated "Jap" (for which long ago the unionized ninnies of the Chicago Sun-Times newsroom demanded I be fired for deploying it as indirect quotation in a wartime anniversary column). Having delivered his homily, Frank says he has to get back to work and one of the kids asks what does he do. He replies, "I sing." So he has to sing something:
What is America to me?
A name, a map, a flag I see
A certain word - democracy!
What is America to me?
And having posed the question he starts to answer it:
The house I live in, a plot of earth, a street
The grocer and the butcher and the people that I meet
The children in the playground, the faces that I see
All races and religions, that's America to me...
Here's the whole film, start to finish, courtesy of the Library of Congress:
He'd been singing it for a couple of months apparently. But it was, in fact, three years old, written for a Broadway revue called Let Freedom Sing! which opened at the Longacre Theatre on October 5th 1942 and was gone a week later: Let freedom flop. It fell to a classically trained singer called Mordecai Bauman to sing "The House I Live In". Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times drama critic, wrote: "Although Mordecai Bauman does not sing it particularly well, he sings it with earnest sincerity."
It's a song that demands a little more than "earnest sincerity", I think:
The place I work in, the worker by my side
The little town or city where my people lived and died
The howdy and the handshake, the air of feeling free
And the right to speak my mind out, that's America to me...
On stage through the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, Sinatra would always put a bit of a defiant spin on that last line, as if he were asserting his right to speak his mind out right then and there and, if you got a problem with that, you're gonna have to get past him. "I can lick any sonofabitch in this joint," as he wound up telling the crowd at a high school in Gary, Indiana, when things got a little out of hand.
But, even had Mordecai Bauman wanted to test the waters for "earnest sincerity", there was a musicians' strike in 1942, so he couldn't record the song, and neither could anybody else. It seeped out to the world via the black vocal quartet the Delta Rhythm Boys, who sang it in the 1944 film Follow The Boys, complete with a potted history lesson in the middle section:
The words of old Abe Lincoln, of Jefferson and Paine
Of Washington and Jackson, and the tasks that still remain
The little bridge at Concord where freedom's fight began
Our Gettysburg and Midway and the story of Bataan...
That's quite a panorama, from the shot heard round the world 170 years earlier to a brutal death march in the Philippines the day before yesterday:
Did Sinatra see the Delta Rhythm Boys on screen? Or Mordecai Bauman on Broadway? Or was it just in a big pile of unsung songs that every songwriter and publisher sent his way? Wherever he heard it, by the spring of 1945 he'd decided to make "The House I Live In" the theme of his campaign against racial and religious bigotry. It was the song that sold Mervyn LeRoy on the picture, and gave it its title. They shot the film in a single day - May 8th 1945, the day the war ended in Europe - and they released it four months later on what, unbeknown to them, would become another landmark date: September 11th.
In concert in later decades, Sinatra would always credit the men who wrote "The House I Live In", even though, unlike Cole Porter or Rodgers & Hart, the names meant little to his audience. The composer was Earl Robinson and the lyricist was Lewis Allan. Robinson was best known for a fifteen-minute oratorio about freedom written with John Latouche called "Ballad for Americans". Latouche's most enduring hit is "Taking A Chance On Love", recorded by Frank in 1954, but, for a quarter-hour oratorio, "Ballad for Americans" was remarkably popular in the war years. Both Bing Crosby and Paul Robeson recorded it, and it was enthusiastically received at the national conventions of both the Republican Party and the American Communist Party.
Lewis Allan's best-known song was inspired by a newspaper story about the lynching of two Negroes, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. The accompanying photograph haunted him, until he had to write it out of his system:
Southern trees bear a Strange Fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black body swinging in the southern breeze
Strange Fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
And the sudden smell of burning flesh...
He gave it to a nightclub owner, who showed it to Billie Holiday, and she and Lewis Allan wound up with the first hit song about a lynching. Who was "Lewis Allan"? Well, his real name was Abel Meeropol, and if the change sounds like just a slightly more comprehensive version of the same assimilationist maneuver that translated Israel Baline into Irving Berlin and Jacob Gershowitz into George Gershwin, it was, in fact, more than that. Mr Meeropol chose the nom de plume "Lewis Allan" because they were the names of his two stillborn sons - a bleak fact that always hits me as unutterably sad whenever I'm reminded of it.
By 1945, it had been some six years since Abe Meeropol's hit with "Strange Fruit", and he was sorely in need of another. So you'd think he would have been delighted that the most popular vocalist in America had decided to resurrect a flop song of his as the title of the movie. But Meeropol didn't enjoy the film at all, and in fact grew so enraged at it that he had to be removed from the cinema. The reason was the second chorus:
The house I live in, my neighbors white and black
The people who just came here or from generations back
The town hall and the soapbox, the torch of Liberty
A home for all God's children, that's America to me...
The "neighbors white and black" was too much for RKO, so they dropped it. One could argue, from the luxury of three-quarters of a century on, that the short film surely ducks the real issue: The all-white gang hunt down a Jewish boy. Why not a black kid? Yet anti-Semitism was real in America and genocidal elsewhere in the spring of 1945. And one street gang can't hunt down representatives of every minority in five minutes. The only reference to color is in Sinatra's line "all races, all religions, that's America to me", and seventy-five years ago that was enough to persuade some southern theater owners that the film could not be shown to their customers. Whatever the make-up of the cast, there was no doubt about Sinatra's message: "A film that packs more power, punch and solid substance than most of the features ground each year out of Hollywood. The picture's message is Tolerance," wrote Cue magazine. "Mr Sinatra takes his popularity seriously. More, he attempts to do something constructive with it."
Frank, RKO, Mervyn LeRoy and the rest of the team donated their fees and the film's profits to various charities. At the Academy Awards the following spring, the film was singled out for an honorary Oscar. It turned out to be the high water mark for writer Albert Maltz's career. The following year - 1947 - he was one of the Hollywood Ten subpoenaed to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee over their relationship with the Communist Party. They refused and were jailed in 1950 for contempt of Congress.
The composer of "The House I Live In", Earl Robinson, was also blacklisted, and left Hollywood to return to New York. He has the distinction, if that's the word, of having written presidential campaign songs for Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Wallace and Jesse Jackson. Of greater benefit to his bank statements, a song he wrote with Alan Arkin's dad about Brown vs Board of Education was recorded by a myriad of performers from Sammy Davis Jr to Three Dog Night. "I stayed in the Communist Party too long," said Robinson in 1989. "The party still has something to say, but I'm not sure it has anything worth listening to." He died in 1991 in a head-on auto collision on Southwest Admiral Way in the town of his birth, Seattle. A few weeks later, the man at the wheel of the other vehicle, Siver Hage, drove out of the city onto a dirt road in the countryside, pulled over, and shot himself.
As for Abel Meeropol and his wife, following the stillbirths of their two sons, they decided to adopt. In 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of passing secrets to the Soviet Union and executed for treason. They left behind two boys - ten-year-old Michael and six-year-old Robert. The Meeropols adopted them, after a fierce legal battle, and the brothers took the name "Meeropol", it being easier to grow up with that than "Rosenberg". There wasn't much left of "Lewis Allan"'s songwriting career by then, but he wrote a faux folk song called "Apples, Peaches And Cherries" that Peggy Lee made a pleasant record of, but was given a much niftier French makeover and became a Number One on the Continent for the great Sacha Distel under the title "Scoubidou" (it's a song I always enjoy bellowing late in the evening with francophone chums). And so it was that the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were raised on the royalties from a trio of songs recorded by Sacha Distel, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra.
One assumes Meeropol, Robinson and Maltz ended their days with somewhat mixed feelings about "the house they lived in", at times very precariously. Yet even as they drifted further and further from the center of American life, the song, thanks to Sinatra, was embedded deeper and deeper within it. Frank wasn't exactly a Commie in the late Forties, but the Hearst columnist Lee Mortimer accused him of "veering to portside" and one notes that, a loyal FDR man, he apparently would have preferred, successor-wise, Henry Wallace to Harry Truman. Yet, as he embarked on his own political odyssey over the decades, Sinatra took "The House I Live In" with him. Here he is on TV in 1951, kinda sorta addressing the "Negro question" he never quite got around to in the original film. It's a (somewhat improbable) mulri-racial gang - but they're still gonna beat up the Jewish kid:
You can scoff about the inclusion of that "little colored boy", but that was a provocation on network TV in 1951, and at the insistence of Sinatra personally. Just under a decade later, Frank organized the Kennedy inaugural gala, and sang "The House I Live In" (with Leonard Bernstein conducting) and then he did the same a generation later for Ronald Reagan. He sang it at a Martin Luther King fundraiser at Carnegie Hall and at the Nixon White House, with the US Marine Band. And thirty-four years ago more or less to the day, he sang it on the eve of July 4th 1986 at the centennial observances for the Statue of Liberty. As Michael and Robert Meeropol wrote to the letters page of The New York Times:
To the Editor:
We were proud to hear our father's song 'The House I Live In' sung by Frank Sinatra as part of the 100th birthday celebration for the Statue of Liberty on July 3. Our father, Abel Meeropol (he wrote under the pen name Lewis Allan) adopted us shortly after our parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed.
He lives in a nursing home near us and has been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for eight years.
A committed leftist all his life, he believed in our country's ideals.
On that last point, another rarely sung quatrain is a blend of leftie egalitarianism and founding vision:
The house I live in, the goodness everywhere
A land of wealth and beauty. with enough for all to share
A house that we call Freedom, the home of Liberty
That belongs to fighting people, that's America to me!
As Michael and Robert Meeropol told New York Times readers:
We hope that 'The House I Live In' will serve to remind all Americans that patriotism is not limited to the right wing.
Whatever the truth of that then, today almost the entirety of Lewis Allan's lyric would be disdained by the left - specifically Jefferson, Washington, Jackson, Concord, Gettysburg, Midway and Bataan, but more generally the sense of goodness and community open to all. Sinatra put it this way when he introduced the song at Madison Square Garden in 1974:
It's a song about this great, big, wonderful, imperfect country. I say imperfect because if it were perfect it wouldn't be any fun trying to fix it, trying to make it work better, trying to make sure that everybody gets a fair shake and then some. My country is personal to me because my father, who wasn't born here, rest his soul, he made sure that I was born here. And he used to tell me when I was a kid that America was a land of dreams and a dream land. Well, I don't know if our country fulfilled all of his dreams while he was alive, but tonight with all of us together for this hour it sure fulfills my dreams. And to all of you in the country and all of you watching tonight, here's a song about a place we call home - probably the greatest nation ever put on this earth:
What is America to me?
A name, a map, a flag I see...
His original recording for Columbia made the Hit Parade at the end of 1945. Eighteen years later, he went back into the studio and remade it with Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians for the patriotic album America, I Hear You Singing. His last recording of "The House I Live In" was for the final track of his Duets II CD in 1994. Phil Ramone chose to pair Sinatra with Neil Diamond, who brought to the song all the bombast of his own "America" song from his ghastly 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer. "It's a good thing it's the last track on the album," said Sinatraphile Jonathan Schwartz on WQEW, "because once you've heard it you'll never want to hear it again."
Yet, live on stage, the song was always a powerful moment for the singer. Indeed, his readings grew more passionate and powerful as the years went by. He never failed to bring it conviction, and an obvious depth of feeling, to the point where he'd sometimes tear up afterwards. The man who had first sung it to American soldiers returning from the Second World War sang it to soldiers returning from the first Gulf War in 1991:
The things I see about me, the big things and the small
The little corner newsstand, and the house a mile tall
The wedding and the churchyard, the laughter and the tears
The dream that's been a growin' for a hundred and fifty years...
That's the original lyric, as sung on the Columbia record. One of the moving aspects of the song, as Sinatra grew with it, was that he and it outlived that line - "a hundred and fifty years" became "a hundred and eighty years" and them "about two hundred years" and finally, as in that Gulf War concert, "more than two hundred years..."
That was the dramatic high point for him, a crescendo for singer and band, and after savoring it he liked to bring it back down from the sweep of history to the intimate and the personal:
The town I live in, the street, the house, the room
The pavement of the city or a garden all in bloom...
More than 49 years after he had first sung the song for American school students, he sang it on stage for the last time, May 13th 1994, at the Sands in Atlantic City. As his introduction seemed to imply, he usually reserved it for grander, more formal occasions. But he seemed to intuit that he might not have time to wait for another one of those...
This is a strange piece of music to be sung in a saloon, but it belongs anywhere... I introduced it in a movie many, many years ago. It has to do with the great nation of ours, and, if you've never heard it before, I hope you'll like it...
Nobody bought a ticket to see Sinatra in concert because they wanted to hear "The House I Live In"; it was on the set list for him and him alone - and, when audiences responded to it with applause as great as for "New York, New York" or "I've Got You Under My Skin", he always seemed touched and a little bewildered.
For that movie of many, many years ago, the first arrangement was by Axel Stordahl, of course. At Capitol in 1957, he asked Nelson Riddle for a new chart. And for a 1976 bicentennial gala at the Jefferson Memorial Don Costa remodeled "The House" for the version that would stay with Frank all the way to the Sands in Atlantic City. But, through all those various versions, one thing never changed:
The church, the school, the club house, the million lights I see
But especially the people...
At that point the orchestra would swell with a musical quotation from "America The Beautiful", and then back to Sinatra:
...yes, especially the people, that's America to me!
I think he meant that. He liked purple-mountain majesties and fruited plains as much as the next chap, but he was never in doubt as to his response to that question he posed at the beginning:
What is America to me?
Across 49 years, his answer stayed the same: Frank Sinatra believed a great nation was its people.
Today the people tear down their own history and vandalize their national inheritance to the approval and enthusiasm of the media, the political class and the corporations. "The house I live in" is falling to the ground.
~Mark tells the story of many beloved songs - from "Auld Lang Syne" to "White Christmas" via "My Funny Valentine", "Easter Parade" and "Autumn Leaves"- in his book A Song for the Season. Personally autographed copies are exclusively available from the Steyn store - and, if you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club, don't forget to enter your promotional code at checkout to receive special member pricing on A Song for the Season and over forty other products.
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If you enjoy our Sunday Song of the Week, we have a mini-audio companion, a bonus Song of the Week Extra, during the week on our audio edition of The Mark Steyn Show - and sometimes with special guests from Mark's archive, including Eurovision's Dana, Ted Nugent, Peter Noone from Herman's Hermits, Paul Simon, Lulu, Tim Rice and Randy Bachman.
Our Netflix-style tile-format archives for Tales for Our Time and Steyn's Sunday Poems have proved so popular with listeners and viewers that we've done the same for our musical features merely to provide some mellifluous diversions in this age of lockdown and looting. Just click here, and you'll find easy-to-access live performances by everyone from Liza Minnelli to Loudon Wainwright III; Mark's interviews with Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein and Bananarama (just to riffle through the Bs); and audio documentaries on P G Wodehouse's lyrics, John Barry's Bond themes, sunshine songs from the Sunshine State, and much more. We'll be adding to the archive in the months ahead, but, even as it is, we hope you'll find the new SteynOnline music home page a welcome respite from house arrest without end and revolution on the streets.
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