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This Is My America

By Gerald D. Swick
1/27/2009 • American History Magazine, Arts and Culture, Interviews

An ambitious new musical project titled This is My America attempts to tell the story of America through songs and narration, from the times before European settlers arrived to the present day.

I told the writers and performers this is not about me, this is not about you. This is about a place called America.

It would have been very easy for a project like this to have been filled with nothing but variations of “America the Beautiful” and “The Star Spangled Banner,” uber-patriotic songs about the beauty and the majesty of the United States. Instead, its songs and narrations have depth. They reflect the high and low points of America’s history as its people struggle and squabble and sacrifice in their attempts to live up to the Constitution’s lofty ideals.

Listening to this three-CD set is like watching an epic motion picture. It begins will dramatic, swelling music by the Grammy-winning Nashville Symphony Orchestra and a narration about the native people: in movie terms, an establishing shot encompassing a wide view. As the stories continue, Europeans settle the land and revolt against the English king. The songs set in the Revolutionary War are up-tempo, capturing the fervor of those times.

With freedom won, Americans settle down to the business of growing their country, and the songs become more personal and introspective, close-up views of individuals at the Alamo, in the Civil War, the Westward Expansion, industrialization, the World Wars, the Depression, and continuing through “A Soldier’s Wife,” a heart-wrenching anthem to those at home today who “live and die by the evening news,” as songwriter Roxie Dean expressed it.

Suddenly, the mood changes as the “camera” pulls back for long views again, beginning with “This Is My America.” Sung by A Children’s Choir, it captures the feeling of patriotic programs staged in grade schools during the 1950s. The final two songs and narration continue in wide view, encompassing America as a shared experience rather than a collection of individuals. The project began with an epic sound and ends with a flag-waving anthem, “Wave On, Old Glory, Wave On,” performed by award-winning vocalist Billy Dean, backed up by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and the world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers.

This is My America was produced by Douglas Hutton, president of King Motion Picture Corporation, who has produced 500 television programs, including 120 on Canadian history specials and five heritage music recordings as well as This Living World, a nature series for television, and Cowboys of the Americas for the Disney Channel. He originally conceived the project 30 years ago, during America’s bicentennial. In 2008, he decided the time had come to make it a reality.

On January 21, 2009, he engaged in an exclusive interview with History Net about this undertaking. When a songwriter is mentioned, the titles of songs he or she wrote for the project appear in parentheses.  You can hear samples of the songs on This is My America Web site. To read what some of the songwriters, performers and others who were involved have to say, click here. What made a Canadian want to create a musical history of the United States?

Douglas Hutton: I think because of my experiences in America. I was married in Las Vegas 43 years ago, (1966) and I’m still with her. I went to Nashville as an aspiring songwriter. Later, I began working in film and television. I’ve produced 25 major specials with American talent like Kris Kristofferson, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon and many others. I thought I would do something that is really good, really special about the U.S. that could also reflect well on Canada.

Douglas Hutton (r) with Thomas Cain, senior director, writer-publisher relations, BMI Nashville, and songwriter for More Than a Train.
Douglas Hutton (r) with Thomas Cain, senior director, writer-publisher relations, BMI Nashville, and songwriter for More Than a Train.
There have always been times when we, as Canadians wept for America—when Kennedy was assassinated, the 9/11 attacks. That’s something Americans may not know.

I saw a change in America coming. I thought maybe America was in need of something like this to tell the world who America is.

HN: How did you find the songwriters?

DH: Bart Herbison, Executive Director of the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), got 20 or 30 songwriters together and let me pitch them. The NSAI writers are the copyright owners of the songs they wrote for the project.

HN: Most of the writers seem to have some personal connection to the historical events they wrote about. Was that serendipity or careful matching of writers to songs?

DH: Let’s take Rory Bourke for example (“Terre Haute,” “Ridin’ the Rails”). He’s a historian who’s written a long list of hit songs, Grammy Award–winning songs. He was at that first meeting and really was an inspiration to others. He wanted to write about the Depression and World War I.

Wood Newton (“Secret of the Rohna”) had an uncle on the Rohna, a ship that we now know was sunk during World War II by one of the first guided missiles ever fired in war. (The troopship Rohna was sunk off the coast of North Africa by a German radio-guided missile bomb, November 26, 1943, killing over 1,000 men. The incident remained classified for 57 years.—HN)

Horses had a major role in shaping America, so I asked Victoria Venier (“Spirit of the Horse”) to write a song about horses because she is interested in them. Thomas Cain (“More Than a Train”), an executive with BMI (music licensing agency), is African American. I told him I wanted a song that did a good job of reflecting African Americans’ contributions.

I think I set the mood when I told the writers and performers this is not about me, this is not about you. This is about a place called America.

HN: Were all of the songs written specifically for this project?

DH: Some songs had already been written. “There is a Light” was originally written by Beth Nielsen Chapman for her husband who died of cancer. She performed it at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to an audience of 3,000 who had family members killed in the 9/11 attacks. I thought having someone who had contact with those mourners was the way to approach having a song about 9/11.

HN: Did you have your own personal connections to any of the songs?

DH: I wanted to include something about how America has affected my own life and Elvis was a very big part of that. He was one of the reasons I went into music. So I asked Jim Weatherly to write an Elvis song. He’s from Memphis and was very excited about the idea, so he did research and wrote “Hot Night in Memphis.”

I grew up on a ranch and knew all about what it was like when we didn’t get rain. So “A Good Rain” and “He’s a Cowboy” are special to me. Of course, cowboys and Indians have always been part of our culture, mostly through movies, and I wanted to do something that told about the Native Americans. “Follow the Buffalo” was a must for this project.

Samantha Robichaud, a young fiddle player from New Brunswick called me last year to tell me she had been awarded the one-year use of the Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin. My understanding is that the first Daniel Pearl violin was presented to his family by the famous violinmaker Jonathon Cooper from Maine after Daniel’s death. (Daniel Pearl was the American journalist kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002. Music was an important part of his life; the Daniel Pearl Foundation promotes cross-cultural understanding through journalism and music.—HN)

Grammy-winning Nashville Symphony Orchestra at Ocean Way Studios, Nashville, preparing arrangements for This Is My America.
Grammy-winning Nashville Symphony Orchestra at Ocean Way Studios, Nashville, preparing arrangements for This Is My America.
We were all inspired by Daniel and his work and wanted to include a song about peace in the project. Lynn Wilbanks and Tom McBride wrote a great song called “A Bridge Across.” Samantha wrote the music for the narrative intro, Dolly Parton narrated and sang the lyrics, then we went to New York and recorded Marc O’ Connor playing the Daniel Pearl violin. When we heard the track I said, “We’d better add the Nashville Symphony.” I also wanted the symphony on the opening (“Voices”) and the part about the Native Americans.

HN: So that’s how the Nashville Symphony and the Fisk Jubilee Singers became involved?

DH: They were invited. We explained the concept and they said, “Sure, let’s do it,” which was really going out on a limb. They didn’t know how the project was going to turn out, and no one wants to be associated with a bad product.

HN: Listening to these three CDs gives the feeling of watching an epic movie. How did your film experience influence this musical project?

DH: Having that background, I was able to articulate to the writers what was required. I was really able to bond with the songwriters, and I think my background helped me to communicate the visuals of these songs to them. I asked them to think of Missouri, for example, and how it must have looked as a wilderness to Lewis and Clark.

HN: This is My America is being called the most expensive recording project ever to come out of Nashville, but historically, concept albums have not sold well. Why were you willing to take such a risk?

Internationally renowned Fisk Jublilee Singers gather at Ocean Way Studios, Nashville, to record Wave On, Old Glory, Wave On.
Internationally renowned Fisk Jublilee Singers gather at Ocean Way Studios, Nashville, to record Wave On, Old Glory, Wave On.
DH: We don’t expect this to sell like a new release from an established star who already has a fan base. We’re like the pioneers in the covered wagons. We expect it to grow from word of mouth over time as people hear the songs and tell others about them.

When we finished the project, I met with the writers. Last year I’d found an eagle feather on our ranch, so I wrapped it in hide and did a typical native sort of dressing on it and took it to Nashville with me (after procuring a special export permit from Alberta Province to bring the feather across the border). After working with Native Americans in Canada, I knew about the importance of the sharing circle ceremony to them. I explained to the writers that this has special value to me, and I wanted to share something with them. Whoever is holding the eagle feather is the only one permitted to talk, because that person is speaking from the heart. As the feather passed among them, each one had a different story. Trust me, when you’re holding that eagle feather, you know you have a responsibility to speak the truth and to speak from the heart. Thomas Cain was the last to speak; he said a little prayer. Then I got the feather, and I said this feather had once lifted an eagle to great heights and I hope it will lift this project to great heights, too.

HN: Are you receiving airplay for any of the songs?

DH: “Wave On, Old Glory, Wave On” (written by Wood Newton and Jim Weatherly and sung by Billy Dean with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and the Fisk Jubilee Singers) has been sent out. Radio stations listen to MP3s of songs, and they download the ones they want to play. As of today (January 21), it is the fifth-largest download from the stations we sent it to.

(Appropriately for a project produced in Nashville, the American flag’s nickname “Old Glory” was coined by Captain William Driver, a shipmaster from Salem, Massachusetts, who retired to Nashville in 1837. When Union troops captured the city in February 1862, Driver took from hiding the large American flag that had flown on his ship, and it was hung above the Tennessee capitol.—HN)

HN: You’ve been quoted elsewhere as saying you felt at the beginning of 2008 that America needed a hug. The year ended in even greater consternation. What would you say to Americans to give them hope for the future? What does our history teach us about times like these?

DH: There are a lot of promises that are written in stone, and I think Americans can expect good events. There have to be good times and bad times. America has a brighter future than I would have predicted a year ago. What I see from a distance is America holds great promise, and I think you’re off to a good start this year.

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