Votes for Notes Music Educators Left a Number of Worthy Selections off Their List of Essential Music for Americans, According to Some Local Musicians and Aficionados

By Kennicott, Philip | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 9, 1996 | Go to article overview

Votes for Notes Music Educators Left a Number of Worthy Selections off Their List of Essential Music for Americans, According to Some Local Musicians and Aficionados


Kennicott, Philip, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


THE LATEST from the what-we-know-is-what-you-should-know department: A list of 42 songs compiled by the Music Educators National Conference. These songs, according the 65,000 music teachers who belong to MENC, are essential cultural literacy for all Americans.

The list, which includes everything from patriotic songs such as the national anthem to Beatles hits such as "Yesterday," is offered as a core curriculum for schools across the nation. MENC hopes to encourage music education and give Americans a common musical vocabulary. The selections have been printed in songbook form, titled, "Get America Singing . . . Again" - and are available at music stores around the country for $3.95.

The educators have made an effort to be culturally inclusive. Jewish songs, such as "Havah Nagilah," are included along with music central to Christian faith, such as "Dona Nobis Pacem" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Spanish is represented by "De Colores," French by "Frere Jacques," Japanese by "Sakura." A song central to African-American identity, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," is included, along with popular and Broadway hits such as "Give My Regards to Broadway."

But like all such lists, it's a rather safe litany. Patriotic songs, including "My Country 'tis of Thee" and "God Bless America" far outnumber songs of protest and social change. As one critic pointed out, the Beatles are represented by "Yesterday," not "Revolution."

If you're planning to join a chain gang, there's plenty here to keep you humming; "I've Been Working on the Railroad" and "Amazing Grace" should make the work go easier. But if you want to cast off your chains, don't look for those inspirational words, "Arise ye prisoners of starvation, arise ye wretched of the earth"; the "Internationale," a b eloved Communist anthem once sung by millions of workers, is nowhere to be found.

Fans of rap music, or almost anything else heard on radio stations that cater to younger audiences, will find the list a little stale.

It's also a studiously uncontroversial list when it comes to racial and sexual politics. Songs important to the uglier side of American history - say, "Dixie" - are not included; though it's hard to deny that they're also a part of this country's history.

While some minorities are represented by their own unofficial anthems, one won't find "I am what I am," the unofficial gay and lesbian anthem, on the list. "Puff the Magic Dragon," thought by some to be about marijuana consumption, is one of the few potentially contentious songs; it's included, no doubt, more as an innocent children's song than a trippy countercultural icon.

And, like many efforts to find common intellectual and cultural ground, the list leaves one wondering why, if these songs are so important to American cultural identity, are so many of them unfamiliar?

Try a simple test. First, sing a few verses of "Over My Head," and "Music Alone Shall Live." Now sing "My Baloney Has a First Name," or the theme song to "Gilligan's Island." Clearly, having a song in common, is not a sufficient criterion for inclusion on the MENC list.

The list also does little to prepare students for an appreciation of classical music. Melodies that recur in classical music - such as the "Marsellaise" or the "Dies Irae" - are not represented. The Shaker melody, "Simple Gifts," which Aaron Copland used in his ballet "Appalachian Spring," is a minor exception.

So, in the interest of jazzing things up and filling out the list, the Post-Dispatch approached several local people with an interest in what America's singing and asked them to suggest five songs they think are essential, or ought to be added to the list.

St. Louis Symphony Music Director Leonard Slatkin was not enthusiastic about the assignment. Slatkin points out that the list depends on the age group and too many other cultural factors to be useful.

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