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America the beautiful: Meditation on social change and Obama's 2nd inauguration

Lee Goodman

James Taylor didn't sing my favorite two lines of "America the Beautiful" during the Presidential inaguration last week. The lines are in the second verse: "Confirm thy soul in self-control, / Thy liberty in law."

I grew up during the Vietnam War, and as a young kid baffled by the political pandemonium of the times, I can't say I was aware of any national soul at all, let alone one confirmed by an exercise of self-control.

So even though he skipped my favorite verse, it was a provocative moment, having James Taylor sing at the inauguration, and hearing him sing such a patriotic song.

True, Taylor was never a protest singer. He isn't Dylan or Lennon, or Country Joe McDonald. But he belongs to the protest era. So while Dylan and his ilk expressed our fear and outrage back in the days of Vietnam, James Taylor sang about our emotions, and this too was a kind of protest because he sang of things our parents didn't talk about. He sang of despair and mental illness ("Fire and Rain"), brotherhood and sisterhood in a new generation ("You've got a Friend") and sexual liberation ("Don't let me be lonely tonight").

Taylor belongs to the Vietnam era, and everything about the era was protest: Vietnam itself was protest, of course, plus there were the protests for civil rights and women's rights. And yes, even gay rights (my first awareness of gay rights as an issue was at a war moratorium in Boston in 1969: A man stood  on a barrel, rolling it across the green, carrying a sign that said, "Gay Liberation Front.")

We who were young and disillusioned in those times wanted nothing to do with patriotism. We viewed ourselves as living in a criminal nation governed by criminal leaders engaged in a criminal war. Whenever noble and honest men stood up to make a difference they were summarily murdered. It happened over and over. So protest was our patriotism: Protest and maybe even revolution.

So way back when James Taylor sang the words, "Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you have to do is call," what my friends and I heard was, "One, two three, four, we don't want your fucking war."

And when he sang, "Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you," we interpreted they not just as the staff of Suzanne's psychiatric hospital, but as the establishment, the government, LBJ, Nixon, the war, the generals. Suzanne was the drafted soldiers, and she was the slain civil rights activists and Vietnamese children. She was us; we were all at risk.

But times do change, don't they? I was 52 years old the first time I ever spoke the words "proud to be an American." I said it to my son on election night 2008.

So listening to James Taylor sing "America the Beautiful" last week, his voice still familiar from forty years ago, it brought to mind all that has changed.

The African-American president who was inaugurated for the second time last week spoke of the equality of love irrespective of sexual orientation, and of the necessity of pay equality between men and women, and of the need for sensible and compassionate policies on immigration. And this all took place on the national holiday honoring one of the murdered leaders -- the one who had dared to speak of white and black children holding hands and going to school together.

A local friend of mine, a writer and teacher in Anchorage, posted this on her facebook page today: "Thinking back to a 16-year-old me sitting on a grassy knoll on the side of a mountain in the North Cascades singing James Taylor songs to the night sky ... I have lived through a remarkable and miraculous time."

Yes, it's great that James Taylor sang, and that he sang such a patriotic song because it reminds us that we have indeed lived in a remarkable time. Of course there's still a ton to do (Climate change, economic disparity, global poverty, and war -- still, and always war) but it was nice to take a quick holiday, teased into a shameless bit of reflection by Taylor's irresistibly soothing voice.

We have indeed come very far.

I grew up believing we were in two wars: one in Vietnam and one at home. Looking back at it all now, and taking stock of all that has changed, listening to James Taylor sing America the Beautiful, without irony, at the inauguration of a black president who speaks of gender and racial and "preference" equity, of affordable health care and of green energy, it tempts me to think maybe we won that war at home and perhaps our national soul may yet be confirmed.

Lee Goodman is a writer and a commercial fisherman.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.