- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 9, 2002

In the last year, many popular musicians have tried to produce a song accessible to all ears, yet that also resonates with the overwhelming emotions of September 11. But no such anthem has appeared. Maybe the popular idiom is simply too shallow to produce a true September 11 anthem. Indeed, many music lovers have turned to classical works, from Mozart's "Requiem" to Krzysztof Penderecki's "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima" and Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings."
The horrendous images captured on the HBO documentary "In Memoriam" are made bearable by an undercurrent of Barber, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives and other composers. "Faith and Doubt," the extraordinary documentary that aired on PBS recently, included (along with the ubiquitous Barber) two deeply affecting performances: Denyce Graves singing "The Lord's Prayer" at the National Cathedral, and Renee Fleming singing "Amazing Grace" at the original ground zero memorial service.
As suggested by the presence of "Amazing Grace" on that list, America does have a rich vernacular tradition that could deal with September 11, were it not for certain obstacles. The first is the tendency of the media to polarize every debate. This shows up most depressingly in two songs currently trying to whip up a (profitable) controversy. The first, Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," lobs the Nashville equivalent of a full beer can at the terrorists. The second, Steve Earle's "John Walker's Blues," claims to explore John Walker Lindh's reasons for joining the Taliban, but finds only a music industry cliche: the poor boy felt alienated after watching MTV.
Obviously, a September 11 anthem would have to express more than adolescent tantrums. It would have to express the grown-up heroism seen that day, the glints of hope amid the appalling wreckage. And here, indeed, is where most would-be anthem makers have focused their energies.
Yet the results have been disappointing. Three songs released before September 11, Enya's "Only Time," Enrique Iglesias's "Hero," and "The Prayer" sung by Josh Groban and Charlotte Church, have been embraced by many listeners. But while New Age vapors, mannered ersatz soul and semiclassical kitsch are all as soothing as Karo syrup, they are no more nourishing. The same should be said of Dolly Parton's "Hello God," a song far too close to the gooey end of the Nashville spectrum.
By comparison, Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" is a mainstream country song that offers at least some grits with the goo. For the future of democracy, though, let us hope that not many Americans share Mr. Jackson's complacent ignorance, proclaiming long after the attacks that "I'm not sure I can tell you/The difference in Iraq and Iran."
The best American music, the strains whose roots reach back to blues, gospel and old-time mountain music, is suffused with what Ralph Ellison called "heroic optimism." Not feel-good pablum, but affirmation hard won from adversity. Such music is tough, gritty, stoic and as deeply affecting as the weary faces of firefighters, police officers and rescue workers so obsessively photographed this past year.
Like those faces, the best American music reminds us that, to paraphrase William Faulkner, we have the capacity not just to endure but to prevail.
Surprisingly, this quality was on display at the Kennedy Center's "Concert for America," broadcast by NBC on the first anniversary of the attacks. One says "surprisingly" because also on display that evening were several taped segments accompanied by a type of bloated kitsch, part Wagner and part Welk, that in recent years has become a staple of corporate and political advertising and is now being used to wring from us every drop of love we feel for our country.
The contrast could not have been starker with the great music on the stage: Reba McIntyre performing songs by Woody Guthrie and Crosby, Stills and Nash; Al Green leading a Navy gospel choir; Chris Isaak singing Elvis; Gloria Estefan singing the Beatles; and Renee Fleming causing everyone to choke up over with Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone."
Can heroic optimism be found in any of the songs written specifically about September 11? There's a hint of it in "Let's Roll," the song about Flight 93 by veteran rocker Neil Young. Over a dark drone we hear the ringing of a cell phone, followed by a steady beat and Mr. Young's voice in a minor key chanting about the steely resolve of the passengers. But after the first few seconds, the song devolves into empty repetition.
Such repetition also mars Bruce Springsteen's new album, "The Rising." To his credit, Mr. Springsteen puts September 11 at the center of almost every track. Critics have nominated two, "Into the Fire" and "Empty Sky," as potential anthems, doubtless because they bring back the classic rock-anthem sound of Mr. Springsteen's E Street Band. But that is the sound of good times, not of tragedy.
Far better are two unpretentious songs about loss, "You're Missing" and "Nothing Man." Both are the kind of low-key, raspy ballads that are Mr. Springsteen's true strength, and both speak of heroism not high acts of self-sacrifice, but the everyday courage of those left behind to grieve.
Listening to another Springsteen track, "Worlds Apart," which tacks on a coda of voices praying in Arabic, one imagines what the missing ingredient might be: the spiritual music of Islam. Not to justify the terrorists' actions; after all, music was banned by the Taliban. Rather, an American embrace of this music would advertise our freedom to the world and tell the terrorists that although they abused the most appealing aspect of this country its welcoming, absorptive culture that aspect is not going to change.
On that ground, "The Long Road" from the soundtrack of the 1995 film "Dead Man Walking," should be nominated. It's a duet between Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder and a world-class musician, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Or better still, the whole album, "Dead Man Walking: The Score," which features a 16-minute version of the song, along with an array of other music, based on the devotional Islamic music from Pakistan called qawwali (of which Mr. Khan was a renowned player), but also incorporating African, Russian, Irish and Middle Eastern elements.
That recording, by turns angelic, demonic and otherworldly, does all that is musically possible to evoke the emotions of September 11. And it says to Muslims: "Your intensely spiritual music, which the terrorists have tried to crush, is alive and well in America. Indeed, it has been working its way into the mainstream."
If there must be war, then let it be accompanied by messages like that.
This article is excerpted, with permission, from a longer version printed in the Sept. 27 Chronicle of Higher Education.


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