December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
Every April we give over the whole magazine to the theme of traveling with a sense of history; but otherwise we tend to be leery of single-topic issues. After all, if the subscriber isn’t interested in the topic, all that our efforts have won us is some mild ill will. And anyway, magazines are by their nature variety shows. Certainly this particular issue seemed various enough while we were in the process of assembling it—rock ’n’ roll; the Irish Famine; Constance Rourke—but now, going through the layouts to do final chores, I see that it has a theme after all. Not a small one, either: This issue turns out to be about becoming American.
This is quite literally the case with Ian Whitcomb, who writes of his part in the great invasion of the mid-1960s, when a generation of young Britons, who had nourished themselves on American blues far from its Delta wellsprings, came boiling in to restore a chunk of our musical heritage (and drive half the nation mad in the process). Most of them went home in the end. Whitcomb stayed, and stayed, and stayed, soaking up ever more of our popular music, until now he knows as much about it as anyone alive. He has written many books on it, including a fine biography of Irving Berlin; he proselytizes about it in a radio show that emanates from the Southern California that is now his home; and he’s produced any number of recordings (most recently, for Rhino, the superb Titanic: Music as Heard on the Fateful Voyage , in which Whitcomb has scrupulously re-created the White Star Orchestra and the music it played for the first- and second-class passengers—lithe, silky, unobtrusive, and, given the vessel’s destination, deeply affecting).
The Irish who came here a century and a half ago had an unimaginably harder time of it than the British ever did, of course—harder, perhaps, than any immigrant group except the Africans. Peter Quinn tells of the momentous migration that began in agony, famine, and despair; of a nation literally dying as its one staple food turned to black filth; of whole counties crawling down the starvation roads that led from their hovels to the sea. But what is remarkable about this grimmest of stories is that it ends happily. In their new land these rural refugees built an urban political machine for the manufacture of middle-class Americans, and a little over a century later one of their children was in the White House.
But becoming American meant more than getting out of County Clare and then out of Five Points and finally into a country club. It meant both tapping into and helping create a native culture that is with us yet, and that Constance Rourke was the first to explore in her glittering, still-underrated book American Humor . It meant getting certain myths in your marrow.
This has happened from the very beginning. Stephen Vincent Benét wrote of the America the first British immigrants ventured into: “They tried to fit you with an English song / And clip your speech into the English tale. / But, even from the first, the words went wrong, / The catbird pecked away the nightingale. / The homesick men begot high-cheekboned things / Whose wit was whittled with a different sound / And Thames and all the rivers of the kings / Ran into Mississippi and were drowned.”
Rourke’s sense of that transformation, its vigor and its depth, lies strong and warm on every page of her book. Take, for instance, her remark about one of Stephen Foster’s ballads: “‘Oh, Susanna!’ became a rallying-cry for the new empire, a song of meeting and parting turned to nonsense, a fiddler’s tune with a Negro beat and a touch of smothered pathos in the melody. …” Being American is ever the result of cross-pollination, and in a season of gifts we should not be least grateful for the brilliant mongrelhood that is our common lot.