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Songs of America

Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation

By Jon Meacham, Tim McGraw
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Songs of America by Jon Meacham, Tim McGraw

Songs of America (2019) explores the music that has shaped American History. From African American spirituals to Elvis Presley’s rock and roll, these blinks shine a light on the music that has defined the progress, defeats and protests of Americans from all walks of life, over the last three centuries. 

Key idea 1 of 8

Early American freedom fighters were inspired to write revolutionary songs.

On June 10, 1768, Boston was on the verge of war. John Harrison, a British customs official, was attempting to confiscate a local ship, claiming that its American owner had not paid sufficient taxes on its contents. In response, Boston locals threw bricks, stones and insults at their British overlords. Though the British were not defeated that day, something else would come out of the Boston uprising – a song. 

Following the riot, Pennsylvania colonist John Dickinson was inspired to write verses about the colonists’ right to self-determination. Entitled “The Liberty Song,” Dickinson implored his fellow Americans to “join hand in hand” to answer “fair Liberty’s call.” This rebellious song had an immediate impact. After it was published in the Boston Gazette, people all over the city left their homes with whatever musical instruments they had on hand and sung it in the streets. 

Why this immediate popularity? Well, this song was one of the first to connect the idea of American independence with music. It affected people emotionally in a way that dry political writing simply couldn’t. Furthermore, “The Liberty Song showed Americans the potential for unity when they took to the streets together to sing it.

Thanks in part to individuals like Dickinson and their rousing messages of freedom, America finally signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Unfortunately, though, this momentous event did not enshrine everyone’s liberty. For women and African American people in general, life carried on as it had before – in subjugation and slavery, respectively. 

Nevertheless, in revolutionary America, these marginalized groups also expressed their yearning for freedom through song. In 1795, for instance, a song appeared in the Philadelphia Minerva newspaper. Entitled “Rights of Women,” and set to the familiar melody of “God Save the King,it proclaimed that “Woman is free” and should not “yield to slavish fear.” 

20 years earlier, another American woman also called for liberation through verse. Her name was Phillis Wheatley, and she was an educated enslaved person. In a set of verses called “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Wheatley addressed the taboo subject of equality. She wrote, “Negroes, black as Cain, may be refined, and join th’ angelic train.” Incredibly, Wheatley was such a gifted writer that some of her verses reached the desk of George Washington and were published after receiving his approval.

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