MEMORIAL DAY, MAY 26, 2014: “THE HOUSE I LIVE IN” (1943)

Today is Memorial Day, celebrated across the country to honor those who have given their lives to protect our freedoms.

Once known as Decoration Day, Memorial day got its start at the end of the Civil War.

I posted on that subject  here  and  here.

While we are honoring the many brave women and men who put their lives on the line to protect us from enemies both foreign and domestic, we must also remember the ideals that this country should stand for, and what better way to do that in acknowledging a song that speaks to what America should strive to be.

“The House I Live In”, written by Lewis Allan and Earl Robinson.

According to the website Songfacts, here is the history of the song:

“This became a patriotic anthem in America during World War II. The lyrics describe the wonderful things about the country, with images of the era like the grocer, the butcher, and the churchyard. The “house” is a metaphor for the country.

 

The song was written in 1943 with lyrics by Abel Meeropol and music by Earl Robinson. Meeropol, who wrote it under the pen name Lewis Allan, had very liberal views and mixed feelings about America. He loved the constitutional rights and freedoms that America was based on, but hated the way people of other races, religions, and political views were often treated. His lyrics do not reflect the way he thought America was, but what it had the potential to be. With the country under attack, he wanted to express why it was worth fighting for.

 

 

Meeropol was dogged by the government for his liberal (some would say communist) views. He took a particular interest in the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were accused of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union and executed in 1953. Meeropol felt they were wrongly accused, and he and his wife adopted their 2 sons when they were put to death. The sons, Michael and Robert, took Meeropol’s last name (it was easier to be a Meeropol than a Rosenberg at the time), and have spent their adult lives trying to clear their birth parents’ names.

 

 

Meeropol wrote a lot of songs, including “Strange Fruit,” which was about the horrors of lynchings and became Billie Holiday’s signature song. Many songs he wrote were parodies of America, with commentary on racism and political oppression. He wrote several versions of this, including one for children and one that expanded the “house” to mean the whole world, not just America. He also wrote a scathing version about things he felt were bad in the US. The idyllic images were replaced with lines like “The cruelty and murder that brings our country shame.”

 

 

Earl Robinson, who wrote the music, also had very liberal views. During the McCarthy era, he was hounded for being a communist and blacklisted from Hollywood, making it hard for him to find work. Before his death in 1991, he wrote presidential campaign songs for FDR (1944), Henry Wallace (1948), and Jesse Jackson (1984).

 

 

This has been recorded by a slew of artists, including Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robeson, Sonny Rollins, and Josh White. Sinatra’s version is the most famous, as it was used in a short film he starred in with the same in 1945. When Meeropol saw the film, he became enraged when he learned they deleted the second stanza of his song, which he felt was crucial to the meaning. He had to be removed from the theater. With it’s message of racial harmony, the second stanza was deemed too controversial for the film.

 

 

Sinatra loved this song and performed it many times, even as his political views moved from left to right as he got older. As an Italian-American, Sinatra experienced bigotry growing up, but also loved the United States. He once sang this in the Nixon White House and performed it for Ronald Reagan at the rededication of the Statue Of Liberty in 1986.

 

 

This regained popularity among Americans in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. A lot of people found it comforting at a difficult time.

 

 

In 2002, comedian Bill Cosby opened some of his shows with this playing while a light shined on an empty chair. The song had meaning for Cosby not only because of September 11, but also because of his son, who was murdered in 1997 at age 27 when he pulled over to fix a flat tire.”

THE HOUSE I LIVE IN

What is America to me
A name, a map, or a flag I see
A certain word, democracy
What is America to me

The house I live in
A plot of earth, a street
The grocer and the butcher
Or the people that I meet

The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races and religions
That’s America to me

The place I work in
The worker by my side
The little town the city
Where my people lived and died

The howdy and the handshake
The air a feeling free
And the right to speak your mind out
That’s America to me

The things I see about me
The big things and the small
That little corner newsstand
Or the house a mile tall

The wedding and the churchyard
The laughter and the tears
And the dream that’s been a growing
For more than two hundred years

The town I live in
The street, the house, the room
The pavement of the city
Or the garden all in bloom

The church the school the clubhouse
The millions lights I see
But especially the people
Yes especially the people

That’s America to me

Writer/s: ALLAN, LEWIS / ROBINSON, EARL
Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.
Lyrics Licensed and Provided By LyricFind

Personally, I think the late and great Mahalia Jackson’s  version is the best, bar none.

The House I Live In, made in 1945, is a ten-minute short film written by Albert Maltz, produced by Frank Ross and Mervyn LeRoy, and starring Frank Sinatra. 

Made to oppose anti-Semitism and racial prejudice at the end of World War II, it received an Honorary Academy Award and a special Golden Globe award in 1946.

The following video involves singer Frank Sinatra stopping a group of boys who are beating up on a Jewish boy. They fight him because of his religion and the difference it holds to them. Sinatra scolds their behavior and tells them that everyone in America contributes, people the children see on a daily basis, and people they may never meet.

house i live in

The video is archaic by today’s standards, especially the politically incorrect usage of terms like “Jap” by Sinatra. Also, isn’t it funny that the word Nazi is used, but nothing is mentioned of the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, the film was made during the time of World War II, but, the KKK would have been more appropriate instead of the Nazis, since America had its own homegrown groups of domestic terrorists, haters, fascists, racists, and sexists. So easy to point the finger at Nazis, but not at the intolerance in its own backyard. So easy to forget the Detroit Race Riots which happened in the same year the song was written. This attack against the Black community was held up by the Nazis as a sign of racial turmoil in America as the German-controlled Vichy radio broadcasted that the riot revealed “the internal disorganization of a country torn by social injustice, race hatreds, regional disputes, the violence of an irritated proletariat, and the gangsterism of a capitalistic police.”

It is also worth pointing out that of the 25 Black Americans and 9 White Americans killed during the destruction, “no white individuals were killed by police,” according to the Detroit Historical Society, “whereas seventeen African American died at the hands of police violence.”

detroit race riots photo 1

Gordon Coster—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Not published in LIFE. A soldier guards a group of African American men rounded up following wartime race riots in Detroit, 1943.  SOURCE

In the video short, the boys in the group are seen ganging up on the little Jewish boy, but, nowhere are there any little Black boys in the video. No, much too much to address how this nation has denigrated its Black citizens.

And speaking of sexists, why not show the boys tormenting a little Black girl? The history of life for Black women and girls in this nation certainly has been no bed of roses.

No, play it safe and stick with Americans of European ancestry.

This song is very profound in its love of America. It speaks to what all Americans should work and strive for:  uphold the laws of the U.S. Constitution and do right by those who are their neighbors; those who have contributed so much to America; those who have fought and died for America; those who are of various races, ethnicities, religions, and creeds.

Those who are  Americans.

 

the-united-states-of-america-map

1 Comment

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One response to “MEMORIAL DAY, MAY 26, 2014: “THE HOUSE I LIVE IN” (1943)

  1. Bryan

    Beautiful song and an even more beautiful post. Enjoyed the history lesson, and I agree. The dynamics of a little Black girl would have changed the scenario considerably.

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