The Boston Pops Orchestra’s annual fireworks extravaganza offered a jolt of proper patriotism on a most divisive Independence Day
It was nearing the end of Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular on Thursday – that is, the conclusion of the 4th of July music and the onset of the deafening cannon firings and 20-plus minutes of fireworks over the Charles River.
Arlo Guthrie, Queen Latifah, the three Texas Tenors and the U.S. Navy Sea Chanters were all singing, synced to the Pops, belting out the song Arlo’s dad Woody wrote in 1940, “This Land Is Your Land.”
And, you know, all was right with the world. Not forever, mind you, but certainly for five minutes. It was festive, celebratory and unifying. It name-checked all these iconic American places and it did not skip one of Woody’s “controversial,” often omitted, verses: “As I went walking, I saw a sign there/And on the sign, it said ‘No Trespassing’/But on the other side it didn’t say nothing/That side was made for you and me.”
Earlier in the night, Queen Latifah had sung the Mamas & the Papas “California Dreaming,” and had me wondering about appropriateness – we weren’t California dreaming tonight, we were experiencing a pleasant warm summer night and Californians were enduring a 6.4 earthquake – but the Queen adapted. “Wait a minute, hold it!” she said near the end. “We ain’t in no damn California,” singing “ Boston Massachusetts dreamin’”
It was pretty sweet.
To be frank, Thursday night was the most problematic Independence Day celebration of my life and, quite possibly, yours. That’s because of, well, you-know-who and you-know-what in Washington, D.C. Even though Trump, apparently, didn’t veer far off script – save that bit about our Revolutionary War heroes taking over airports – and actually pretended American unity was something he cared about. A blip on the screen, really, some speechwriter’s idea of a better Trump, but not at all camouflaging an empty suit/wanna-be despot’s show of military power and do-as-I-say might.
Have we ever been a country less united or more pissed off? (Yes, I know, the Civil War era. Vietnam War. Civil Rights in the ‘60s. …) This attempted right-wing game of capture the flag, of stealing patriotism, has been going on for years and long gnawed at me – never more so than now, of course. Joe Conason’s potent essay clangs loudly at the front my brain.
But my wife and I went, as we often do, to the longest-running, big deal July 4th event in the country, hosted by Pops conductor Keith Lockhart for the 25th straight year, held on the city’s Esplanade at the Hatch Shell along with an estimated 500,000 other people. (It’s a mob scene, and, yes, we had press passes that allowed us to circumvent the horde and watch from close-up bleachers, stage right. I know, we’re elitists.)
This year’s theme was “diversity” – which as innocuous and non-controversial as it sounds, has to be seen as a slap in Trump’s face. The Pops played the Tommy overture and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” – 50 years since The Who concept album, 50 years since the age of Aquarius. Then, Harvard student/First African-American Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman passionately delivered her poem, “Believer’s Hymn of the Republic,” the Pops “Battle Hymn of the Republic” swelling behind her. Among the lines: “We know a house divided cannot stand.”
Later, Queen Latifah sang and rapped her 1993 hit, “U.N.I.T.Y.” a song that presaged #metoo by decades, the Queen calling out rap’s bad boys of yore (or anytime, really) with, “You put your hands on me again, I’ll put your ass in handcuffs.”
There was a very cool Boston-centric touch: A video tribute that screened between acts, featuring Boston area clubs past and present, saluting the rock and folk scenes – clubs included the Rat, the Paradise, Bunratty’s, Passim, O’Brien’s and Paul’s Mall. Commentary came from Boston rock historian A.J. Wachtel, longtime concert stage managers Tim McKenna and Billy (Bud) McCarthy, among others.
A real highlight for me was, I have to believe, the first drug-smuggling song every played by the Boston Pops, as they gracefully backed Guthrie’s “Coming Into Los Angeles,” where the singer’s protagonist is “bringing in a couple of keys” and really, really hopes the custom man doesn’t check his bags. That’s pretty American. Another kind of Americana came from Arlo’s 1971 hit, “City of New Orleans,” the Steve Goodman-penned song that brought vivid images of the American train ride.
I sure wish Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” – as sung by the three Texas Tenors – had taken a hike because that song just oozes nationalism. That may not be the intent, but that’s what I hear. Suggested substitute: The Tubes’ “Proud to be an American.”
There was, of course, the de rigeur military stuff, the bits of the theme songs for branches of the Armed Services, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. The Navy Sea Chanters sang “America, We’re Proud to Serve.” Everyone sang along to “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “God Bless America,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and the like.
When the singing stopped and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture began, we knew we were all getting in prep mode for the cannons and the fireworks, those big bangs in the sky.
I was friends with the late historian and Boston University professor Howard Zinn, who wrote “A People’s History of the United States” and said this: “If patriotism were defined, not as blind obedience to government, nor as submissive worship to flags and anthems, but rather as love of one’s country, one’s fellow citizens (all over the world), as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy, then patriotism would require us to disobey our government, when it violated those principles.”
Those thoughts are part of my internalized July 4th celebration, too.
Postscript: Last year, I asked Arlo Guthrie this: “You typically do a chunk of your dad’s stuff in concert and you like to close with “This Land is Your Land.” Do you sing the verses that many have omitted (or forgotten) over the years? What do those verses – the ones that reflect not so positively about our country – mean to you and in the context of the song?”
Arlo: “I’ve always tried to include songs that I loved from Lead Belly, and my dad and others in my performances. As far as “This Land” is concerned, unlike most people I knew that it was my dad, and not other people who edited his verses and decided which ones were to be included in the final version that became popular. He taught me three extra verses when I was very young, and I began including them in my shows.
“Of course, this was long before the Internet, so these days anyone can find them, whereas in those days you had to hear them from someone who actually knew them. Because of that, I rarely do all six verses now, and generally prefer doing my favorites (naturally with stories in between). Doing what you like, and not having to please everyone, or not trying to make it official, academic, and routine is something I think Dad would have whole heartedly approved.”